Monday, December 21, 2009

The Latest Technology... Is Racist!

LOL! How about a collective "Woo-Sah!" before we get ourselves worked up here? I'm going to share with you today a video that will hopefully make you laugh at least a little bit, as well as make you think. I find that I can actually be more logical and rational when I can see the humor in things so let's hope you operate in a similar fashion.

This video depicts the latest face-recognition software from HP. It is designed so that the built-in webcam on their newest media computers will follow the user's movements. We can all imagine the cool factor in this, right? Imagine all of the people filming themselves dancing to Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" and how magnificent their homages could have truly been if only their webcams could have followed their movements... Watch the video and then we'll chat.

Okay, so by now, hopefully you've had a bit of a chuckle and you are thinking about how or why this could be considered racist. According to HP:

We are working with our partners to learn more. The technology we use is built on standard algorithms that measure the difference in intensity of contrast between the eyes and the upper cheek and nose. We believe that the camera might have difficulty "seeing" contrast in conditions where there is insufficient foreground lighting.

Alright, I can accept that it has to do with technology and algorithms and honestly, I either slept through the algorithm stuff in college or killed those brain cells at a party so I'll accept that it is a reasonable scientific explanation. For me, herein lies the problem... One must assume that the technology was tested rigorously and that those tests had to include actual test trials with people moving around to make sure that the lens followed them. Based upon this demonstration and the HP statement above, one must also assume that either HP had absolutely no black people testing these cameras (or only really, really, really light ones like myself), or they did have African American testers and one of the following scenarios took place:
  • The black webcam testers had poor results but HP figured that most black people don't use computers anyway so it wasn't a concern
  • The black testers had acceptable results because their glasses of red Kool Aid provided the necessary contrast
  • HP decided to forgo testing since they assumed it would work with black people in much the same way that the security cameras follow their African American employees throughout the building
  • The black people intimidated the cameras into not following them by wearing shirts that read, "No Snitchin'"
I'm thinking it was most likely a case of no or not enough black camera testers and that is yet another reminder that for many, black people are seen more as an afterthought than part of the customer base or even mainstream population. I can guarantee you that the directions for using the webcam are available in both English and Spanish, and probably a few other languages; but sadly—much like many people in our society—the cameras do not recognize black people as people at all. Hmm, I wonder if the webcam would follow Tiger Woods?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Gift Guide for the Racially Insensitive Everywhere

I definitely missed the memo that said that 2009 was the new 1959 racially. I can't find the words—The NY Times in 2009 publishes a gift-giving guide for people of color? So, is this like saying: "Here are some ideas for a holiday gift for your one minority friend" to white people? C'mon! I've never had to consult a special guide for giving gifts to non-black people—unless you count the Abercrombie & Fitch catalog.

This speaks to the old "us & them" theory. Why do people think that because their pigment is different then their tastes, hobbies and interests must be? Some of it is really funny to me, like the Somali-influenced designer apparel. Sure, I've rocked my share of kente cloth and animal print, but I always chuckle when I go to an African-themed show, play or event and I see more older, monied white women in African print than black women.

It's reminiscent to me of the "Ethnic Hair Products" aisle or section in most drug/beauty stores. I guess retail is still promoting segregation because it seems that products marketed toward kinky/coarse/ethnic hair (which are usually quite unhealthy for the hair type) are not permitted to sit happily on the shelf beside their marketed-for-white-people counterparts. Queen Helene and Dr. Miracle are relegated to the Negro section while Paul Mitchell and John Frieda are hitting on the Breck Girl and trying to ply her with smoothing serum and ice shine before bending her around a curling iron and then leaving her stiff and flaky after a good alcohol-based spritz!

The "Nursery Jamz" just about had me on the floor. So are we now saying that "traditional" nursery rhymes are for white children and "remixes" are for kids of color? Mmkay, yeah—makes sense to me (insert eye roll here).  Even funnier to me are the books on black and Asian make-up. I promise you, these books are more for non-black and non-Asian make-up artists than they are for women of color. We've been applying our make-up for years and we are actually familiar with our skin tones so it isn't really a great mystery to us.

I'm not trying to diss any of the products suggested, I merely want people to realize that we don't need to shop for the race of a person—we shop for the person. People of color are not one dimensional and until the government scientists perfect their implant chips and the mind control drugs in the fried chicken, we're not all going to like one thing or another because it is supposedly geared toward us.

On that note, I hope you'll open your mind and go beyond the aforementioned gift guide to find gifts suited to your friends and acquaintances based on their personal tastes, rather than their ethnic backgrounds. Think about what you have in common and what drew you together as friends and go from there. On a parting note, since I can't tell you what they will definitely like, let me at least give you a few tips on what NOT to give:

  1. Watermelon
  2. Afro/Ultra sheen
  3. KFC gift cards (Popeye's cards are the preferred gift of chicken in the black community)
  4. Vaseline/Chapstick
  5. Grape soda/Kool Aid with extra sugar
  6. Woody Allen movies or the "Friends" DVD set
  7. Anything involving Michael Steele
  8. Asher Roth CD's
  9. Doo rags/head scarves
  10. Jheri juice/relaxer/pomade

Merry Christmas and happy giving!