- Technology in Black Feminist World
Sometimes I imagine a world where African Americans in the United States are truly free, a place where we are not tracked into remedial academic courses or redlined within districts with inferior schools and environmental hazards. It is a place where our behavior is not criminalized, our intimate relations are not perverted, and our bodies are not targeted for imprisonment and disposal. In such a world, instead of an amplification of patriarchal norms in African American community, people of all genders work to build a world free of oppression. In this world—I call it Black Feminist World1—we are free to learn, to explore, and to innovate. Further, we develop and code our own community's technologies. Mark Dery asks, "Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures? Furthermore, isn't the unreal estate of the future already owned by the technocrats, futurologists, streamliners, and set designers—white to a man—who have engineered our collective fantasies?"2 In this essay I imagine an alternative reality, one that has not been co-opted or controlled by the dominant class, a future that embodies "the possibilities of a new focus on black humanity," as called for in Martine Syms's Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto.3
As a computer scientist, I have thought extensively about the ways in which technology would be different in Black Feminist World (BFW). In this autobiographical and futurist essay that reflects on the past to imagine a radically different future, I give examples of technologies that might be developed in BFW. I began imagining such technologies during my own study of computer science at a predominantly white university in Philadelphia. Rooting in reflections about a culturally insensitive database course and an isolating computer science educational experience, I imagine community-centric devices and spoken culture technologies rooted in the African American experience. These innovations have the potential to revolutionize human-computer interaction [End Page 243] and the digital future of the United States. The stakes are high, as more and more of our daily lives and interactions are coded by men who mostly live apart from Black and Latinx consumers.4 As Adam J. Banks wrote, "There is so much at stake in the connections between technologies and people's lived experiences, and the ways those experiences inform social, cultural, political, and economic struggle."5 Anyone who was raised in an African American community in the US (and many who have visited these communities) will recognize the folkloric traditions that root these prospective innovations in community life.6 For those who have not visited African American communities, in the following sections I share a glimpse into the potential of African American technological innovation.
last things first
When I was studying computer science in graduate school I took a database design course. During the course I attempted to initiate a discussion about why we would create only one field for the last name, when most Latin Americans carry the last names of both parents. It would have been quite easy, technically speaking, to add an optional second last name field that could be left blank for those individuals with only one last name.7 My attempt to initiate a discussion about the cultural assumptions of our database design were not seen as relevant to computer science. I was told that we should work with the specifications we received without questioning the cultural exclusivity of such specifications; that work, I was told, was beyond the scope of computer science. I am reminded of that silencing every time I have to decide which one of my middle initials to use on a form or application. Dominant cultural practice shaped my naming even before my birth. I have two "middle names" because I was raised in a country that did not make space for me to have multiple last names. In fact, my "middle names" are the last names of my mother and maternal grandmother.8
My experience mirrors that of other Black people who embrace technology but find pervasive...