Tapping Technology to Address the Offline Consequences of Online Racism

    Early in the last century, George Bernard Shaw wrote, “He who can, does; he who cannot, teaches.” Shaw clearly never fathomed the likes of Dr. Brendesha Tynes, an African-American academic who ventured into the unfamiliar world of technology to do something about online racism and the impact it has on adolescents.

    Tynes, an associate professor of education and psychology at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education, is the creator of Rate My Media, a crowdsourced rating site focused on equity and inclusion in media. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Tynes, and I came away from the conversation with an understanding of what it takes to make the leap that she made: It takes humility.

    I didn’t draw that conclusion immediately. The path to it began with a question about Rate My Media. I asked Tynes if, in five years’ time, she’s able to say that the site made a difference with respect to equity and inclusion in media, how that will have been accomplished. She explained it this way:

    The first way it will have been accomplished is with all of us agreeing on a set of criteria—that’s the rating rubric that we have on the site. We all agree to rate companies on issues of equity and inclusion. Right now, we just focus on race, but I’m in the process of broadening what we mean by equity and inclusion, to include gender, sexuality, and other types of social identity. Once we all agree on this set of criteria, I’m hoping that I will have a critical mass of people that come to the site to review whatever form of media they’re interested in. Ultimately, what we want to do is be able to consistently call out bias, and eventually change people’s behaviors around certain types of media, and certain companies. So if you know that a company is consistently scoring low on issues of equity and inclusion, then you don’t support that company, you don’t see those films, you don’t buy those books. And then we hope to be able to change companies’ and journalists’ behaviors around issues of equity and inclusion. That’s really our ultimate goal — to be able to change who gets brought to the table when these forms of media are created.

    Tynes also serves as director of the Digital Learning and Development Lab at USC, which aims to design digital tools that empower underrepresented youth (not surprisingly, she created the lab’s website, as well). I asked Tynes to elaborate on these digital tools, and she cited the example of one called “Critmetic,” which is in the design and prototyping phase:

    Essentially what we’re doing with that tool is helping kids to develop a historical and critical lens around the online messages they consume. Right now we’re targeting eighth through 10th-graders, to look at race relations through a historical lens. Take mass incarceration, for example. We would give them an early perspective on how policing developed during and after slavery. And then, if you read “The New Jim Crow,” you see we have this exponential increase in people being incarcerated — mostly black and brown people, while crime is going down — under the guise of the war on drugs. So Critmetic essentially has these modules where we explain issues like that in a five-minute video, and then provide them with the resources and help they need to annotate articles that might get that history wrong. We also want them to be able to create online content that is empowering for them, and helps them develop a positive sense of themselves.

    Tynes’ reference to creating online content prompted the question that circled the conversation back to her creation of Rate My Media: How was she able to find her way in what for her was the unexplored world of technology, and to plant her stake in the form of this crowdsourced rating site? Her simple unwillingness to “sit by and watch” the offline consequences of online racism compelled her to do whatever it took:

    I had been doing research for about 15 years on online racial discrimination — essentially, the racial landscape that adolescents have to navigate online. What I’ve been finding over the course of these 15 years is that people were experiencing online racial discrimination — what you might call online racism — and they had these offline consequences for their mental health, their behavior, and their academic motivation. After we saw that those experiences had an impact over time, I just couldn’t sit by and watch, and continue to report on these things happening. I felt like I needed to do something. That’s what fueled me. It has not been easy — I’ve taken courses at [the coding boot camp] Grand Circus Detroit, and workshops with Girl Develop It. I wouldn’t say that I’m a full-fledged developer, but I know enough to work with developers. And every day I’m trying to learn more. And let me just say that seeing a woman teaching these courses had a profound impact on me — and a black woman at that. So I started to think, wow, maybe I could do this. The same with Black Women in Technology LA — the founder heard my Critmetic idea and said, “You are an entrepreneur!” I’ve gotten that sort of feedback from people I’ve talked to in Silicon Valley. So I felt like with the encouragement of all these people, inside and outside of tech, that I could actually do it.

    By this point in the conversation, the humility underlying Tynes’ quest had become clear. Even she seemed to marvel at its effect:

    It’s a little intimidating, because a lot of the women I’ve met are under 30. I took this Apps Without Code class with Tara Reed — she’s the founder of Kollecto, and a Google Scholar in Residence at Grand Circus Detroit. She’s 25 years old and has two successful companies — I’m sitting in her class, and could be her mother. So it’s been just exhilarating, and so inspiring. If you let yourself be taught by these incredible women — if you can humble yourself — then there’s no limit to where you can go.

    A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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