The premise of this “Grand Challenge” class was to interrogate the question, can we build anti-racist technologies? And if so, how? The course did not assume that the answer was “yes,” nor that any answers were readily available. Through close reading, a deep dive into critical technical practices, a review of current correctives in HCI (see Resources) and a research-through-design exercise, students worked in teams to articulate principles that ought to guide the design of anti-racist technological systems.

Our goal in building anti-racist systems was not to simply rectify the (in)famous mistakes cast aside as “glitches”: the soap dispenser or pulse oximeter that doesn’t work on black skin, or the facial recognition systems that can’t identify black faces. The goal of explicitly anti-racist systems is to actively confront and take down racism as a system of oppression. We must therefore design fully against the grain.

We are therefore not interested in correctives that can be applied to existing techniques for design and deployment of systems. We draw our inspiration instead from Critical Technical Practices that take aim at core values and assumptions in technological system development, and subvert them entirely — from values like efficiency and productivity to ideals like a single “user.” Such practices are also inspired by art projects, like the giant Atari joystick that requires a group to move it, to feral robotic dogs that high schoolers outfit with sensors to detect toxicity in their schoolyard environment, each of which subvert assumptions and challenge core values inherent in technology design.

Finally, technology can’t fix racism. Racism is a complex, entrenched, structural system that is socially reproduced. At best, our systems provide opportunities for infrastructuring, for provocation, for ongoing questioning, re-evaluating, and intervening. Our principles suggest we take “anti-racist” not as an adjective but an adverb, continual inspiration to act – and keep acting – responsibly and responsively.

Read our paper published at alt.CHI 2022 here: Abebe_et_al_Anti-Racist_Tech

And check out our design principles and our four projects on this site addressing education funding, eviction, online advertising, and belonging.