Community perspectives on race, power, and colonialism in technology

A recap of IntersectTO’s evening of BIPOC community talks

On Monday, November 12, we brought together over fifty people who identified as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and/or POC) to discuss race, power, and colonialism in technology at the Toronto Media Arts Centre. We felt that this was an important dialogue to hold; there are many discussions around the lack of diversity in Toronto’s technology sector, but far fewer coordinated conversations in the city around how the industry upholds white supremacy, perpetuates colonial structures, and fails communities of colour. We had the opportunity to listen to six BIPOC community members share their ideas and perspectives through a series of lightning talks.

We wanted to provide a brief recap of the night’s ideas here for those who were unable to make it.

The Imaginary of Indigenous Cyberspaces

Our first speaker was Alejandro Mayoral-Banos, an Indigenous academic and activist working with organizations in Canada and Mexico on Indigenous, community-driven ICT projects. Through his talk, he proposed ways in which Indigenous peoples could design Indigenous software protocols, technological Indigenous pedagogies, Indigenous social media and new forms of digital ownership based on community. For example, Alejandro spoke about the software design methodology for his smartphone app, Indigenous Friends, which was drawn from the Tipi Ceremony.

Alejandro also explored models for Indigenous digital knowledge sharing and ownership, including the OCAP principles — a set of principles ensuring that the collection, sharing, ownership, and use of data from First Nations communities are governed by communities themselves, and TK Labels (Traditional Knowledge Labels), which act as a guide on how, and whether, digital Indigenous cultural materials can be accessed or used.

You can browse Alejandro’s slides here.

Homeland & Decolonialism: Pilipinx Tattooing Practices as Digital Technology

Ashley Caranto Morford, a QPOC activist & scholar, challenged narrow, mainstream, Western conceptions of what constitutes as “technology” in her talk. She drew upon the work of Angela Haas in Wampum as Hypertext, an article recounting the ways in which Indigenous communities have used wampum belts as complex codes that record and pass on information long before the emergence of Western hypertext.

“[W]ampum is a small, short, tubular bead, made from the quahog clam shell. The white beads are made from the inner whorl of the shell, and the purple beads come from the dark spot or ‘eye’ on the shell…Dating back one thousand years, wampum and other material components…have been used…for ceremony and as records of important civil affairs…by stringing the wampum beads together on individual strands or weaving them into belts…” — Angela Haas (Cherokee)

Ashley then shared a short video that explored how Pilipinx tattooing practices are also digital technologies that tell stories of decolonial survivance. In her video, she states that “these [tattooing] practices rely on the fingers to code significant aspects of our cultures through the intimate hand tapping technique…this digital technology continues to this day to connect us to and with our homelands and cultures and the survival of this ancient wisdom helps to dismantle the ongoing legacies of colonialism.”

You can watch her piece online at this link.

Mapping the Visible Majority: Erasing Inclusive Responses with Privileged Questions

Elisa Watson-Smith spoke next about the ways in which conventional survey and data collection techniques around diversity and inclusion often “reinforce the status quo by mapping the data of identities with relative privilege”. Elisa is a management consultant, inclusion advocate and Engagement Manager at the Centre for Social Innovation. Elisa discussed a number of common shortcomings with current diversity surveys. For example, respondents are often lumped into broad, oversimplified categories; “POC” will not capture the differences between Black, Indigenous, and non-Black, non-Indigenous people of colour, just as the label of “Asian” does not capture the complexity and heterogeneity of racial backgrounds contained within the continent of Asia.

Elisa also raised the issue of de-anonymization in the process of sharing your identity data. For example — if you work at a workplace where you are the only person of colour, it will be clear which data point is attached to you, even if your name is not. Elisa closed her talk with some suggestions on data collection practices, including: having a diversity of perspectives involved in the survey design; allowing participants to self-describe their identities or opt out of sharing particular data; and finally — being accountable to survey results with concrete action plans. You can access a copy of Elisa’s key talking points here.

Changing the Relationship between Tech Culture and Trans/Homeless Communities

Abuzar Chaudhary is a trans woman of color organizing around queer, trans, sex work, and homeless issues. In her talk, she pointed out the problematic ways in which most tech initiatives often attempt to “help” trans and homeless communities: by treating these communities as charity, by holding ‘hackathons for good’, or by coming up with “innovations” such as tiny homes, which are usually paternalistic and ignore community perspectives. Abuzar also spoke about the tendency for oppressive power dynamics to replicate themselves within spaces labelled as progressive, harming and/or excluding those who are most marginalized. She shared some important principles for organizing; including:

  • Building a culture that goes beyond technology; one that’s centred around anti-colonial resistance
  • Creating community spaces that are truly diverse, centered around leadership and care for IBPOC, women and trans folks
  • Organizing in a non-hierarchical manner; sharing space, work, and risk across communities with less resources and power
  • Decision-making through ongoing community consensus, rather than one-off consultations

You can learn more about Abuzar’s initiative, Queer and Trans Community Action, Support, and Education (QTCASE), and ways to support, at this link and on Twitter.

Black Data Assemblages: Black folks as Technology

Next, we heard from Ladan Mohamed Siad. Ladan is a Black, queer, trans designer and creative technologist working at the intersections of art, design, and technology. Here’s a summary of their talk, in their own words (condensed for length):

“I wanted to explore how black bodies once highly scrutinized through data historically and currently by data collection programs maneuver through these systems and institutions. What are the processes that mitigate our movement through them? I consider the process of scanning: the ways in which black folks analyze and assess their environments, and act according to that analysis. Taking into consideration how we are perceived; and what sort of decorum, knowledge is required of us. Maneuver as a sort of technology — always scanning, with no ability to let our guard down. I explored the concepts of “Black Data” coined by Shaka McGlotten (2013), who talks about the “historical and contemporary ways black people are interpolated by big data, which here include both the technés of race and racism and the various efforts of states and corporations to capture, predict, and control political and consumer behaviour.”

[I think about] data through an intersectional Black, queer, feminist lens. I ground my praxis in a critical and expansive thought that allows me to explore data beyond zeros and ones, but as assemblages. To honestly get at an intersectional understanding, we need theoretical models that help us better understand the ways that technological practices are intersectionality racialized and gendered (Noble, 2016). [We need] a perception of what is happening with our data, digital media, and the internet that changes the unchallenged understanding that these mechanisms are apolitical or without consequence.”

How imagineNATIVE Creates Space for Indigenous Digital Creatives

The final speaker for the evening was Meagan Byrne, a Métis new media artist and game designer born and raised in Hamilton, Ontario. Meagan is the Digital + Interactive Coordinator at ImagineNATIVE, an organization with a mandate to “showcase, promote, and celebrate Canadian and International Indigenous screen-based media artists.” In her talk, she shared some of the work that ImagineNATIVE is doing to create space for Indigenous digital creatives in the gaming industry — a recent survey shows that Indigenous people make up only 2% of people in gaming; while white people make up almost 70%. Some focus areas for the organization include building digital production skills amongst Indigenous youth and adults, creating spaces for Indigenous creatives and technologists to connect with one another, and developing a platform for showcasing Indigenous digital works.

Meagan also took some time to highlight Indigenous game designers like Elizabeth LaPensee, Ashlee Bird, and Nathan Powless-Lynes. She spoke about wanting to see a future where Indigenous creatives have the space to make art, games, or interactive media that do not necessarily need to conform to mainstream ideas of what it means to “be Indigenous” — conceptions that have been largely shaped and curated by colonizers.

Acknowledgements

A huge thank you, of course, to Alejandro, Ashley, Elisa, Abuzar, Ladan, and Meagan. In addition to our speakers, we’d like to thank Eloisa Guerrero and Kritika Ganapathy for volunteering their time with set-up and registration! A huge thank you, also, to Jennie Faber and the Toronto Media Arts Centre for sharing their beautiful space with us for the evening. Finally, this event was made possible by the Digital Rights Community Grant. The Digital Rights Community Grants are a collaboration between the Digital Justice Lab, Tech Reset Canada, and the Centre for Digital Rights. We’re grateful to have financial support to spotlight community perspectives and make space for conversations around the intersections of racial justice and technology.

What’s next for IntersectTO, and how can I get involved?

  • Contribute to our participatory, collaborative podcast
  • Join our Facebook group and send an email to intersectto[at]gmail.com if you are interested in joining our Slack team.
  • Come to one of our monthly book club meetings (though we sometimes discuss films or articles, too)! These are small get-togethers hosted by a rotation of community members, and for privacy reasons, we usually plan these in our Facebook group.
  • Come to one of our community co-design sessions! These are an opportunity to share your ideas and input for upcoming events. We aim to hold one every season. We’ll be announcing our next one early in the new year!
  • Save the date for our mini conference on February 23rd! This is currently in the works and is being put together by an awesome crew of organizers (shout out to Jennifer, Nandita, Emily, Melissa, Aljumaine, and Hazel!). More details to come in early 2019!

Anyone who identifies as Black, Indigenous, or as a person of colour can participate and/or get involved with the IntersectTO community!