Bits and Behavior
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Bits and Behavior

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The doors are open, but only for some.

Our undergraduate program is racist

I’m not an expert on racism. But I am an expert on our undergraduate major in information technology, and for the past three years, I’ve been trying to identify and dismantle the racist structures in it. Below is my attempt to share what I’ve learned over the past three years, in the hopes that other academic program leaders are inspired to do the same learning, and then act.

After a long slumber in my online activism, I’ve been re-embracing the political moment over the past few weeks, amplifying the obvious but too often ignored message that . For example, I came to the long overdue conclusion that policing is fundamentally broken and needs to be replaced with something that centers health, wellness, and love. That led to a lot of heated debate with friends and colleagues about why that’s necessary. I also shared a talk about the racist (etc.) history of CS education. Sharing online with my community led to some wonderful things, like solidarity, learning, and community building. Of course, it also led to a lot of Twitter trolling, hate speech, demands for evidence, as if the racist history of education was not thoroughly documented.

Some of the most surprising revolt was from CS faculty about my claims of racism in CS departments. Of course, most thought I was talking about individual racism. There certainly is individual racism in CS (I’ve encountered it a bit, but #BlackInTheIvory shows how ubiquitous racism is across academia). However, I was talking about structural forms of racism. It was striking how few CS faculty who reached out to me seemed to understand what structural racism is, given how frequently the press, celebrities, and even kids on TikTok are regularly using phrases like “structural racism”, “systemic racism”, and “institutional racism.” But the educator in me should have known: many CS faculty became faculty before ideas like Gidden’s structuration theory were widespread in the social sciences, which explain how individual and structural factors interact to regulate power; and many more might have avoided the social sciences that would have taught them about racial oppression as an example of structural power.

I’m not an expert on these theories, but I know enough about them to see how they explain racism in CS departments. And this includes my own academic unit, which has an undergraduate program that I oversee called Informatics, which broadly educates students about information technology, data science, databases, and the ethics and policy of information. As an administrator, I spend most of my time identifying the racist structures in our program and trying to dismantle them. So rather than try to defend the claim that all CS departments are racist in 280 characters, here I’ll try to explain how our undergraduate program is racist, despite being run by exceptionally progressive, anti-racist faculty, in a progressive, often radical city, Seattle.

Before we continue though, let’s talk about the word racist. While some readers might think it means the same thing it did 50 years ago (e.g., prejudice against a person on the basis of their perceived race or ethnicity), its meaning has expanded. And it’s specifically expanded to include not just prejudiced beliefs or actions by individuals, but prejudiced processes, structures, policies, norms, and practices. Some readers might be uncomfortable with this expansion in scope, so bear with me in my analysis, as I demonstrate this notion of racism by example.

Before the analysis, it’s also important to to explain how I know that our program has racist processes, structures, policies, norms, and practices. There are many sources of insight I use, but these are the main ones:

  • Our Information School runs an annual diversity summit. This results in a large catalogue of exclusionary experiences in our school, reported by faculty, staff, and students.
  • I oversee our admissions process for entry to the major (the University of Washington has “capacity constrained” majors, and ours is one of them). As part of this, hundreds of prospective majors advocate to me about the barriers they face, and I also read hundreds of their application statements. I suspect they feel safe sharing their struggles with me directly because I’m transparent about our program’s inclusion failures and encourage them to write me, so I can fix them. And they write about their struggles in their applications statements because we ask them to.
  • Occasionally, our university conducts a campus-wide climate survey, resulting data about faculty, staff, and student experiences. When I receive this data, I mine it for injustices, inequities, and inequalities in our program. (For example, our 2019 survey found that 19% of respondents felt they had personally experienced exclusionary, intimidating, offensive, and/or hostile conduct based on their race. Yikes.)

I use all three of these sources (and more) to regularly synthesize and update a Trello board of our undergraduate program’s inclusion issues, which I then work on throughout the year with my program committee. This committee includes myself, a few faculty, our academic advisors, and all of student organizations’ leaders, acting as ombudspersons. Progress is slow, but steady, and a big part of my job is explaining to minoritized students what we’re working on and why it’s taking so long.

With that context, let’s talk about some of the forms of anti-Black racism that persist in our program, from application to graduation.

Four racist academic structures

Admissions to the University of Washington

Students can’t join our undergraduate program until they’re admitted by the University of Washington. Therefore, we inherit any forms of racial bias embedded in that admissions process and all the structures that come before it. That includes the ways that Washington state and the numerous public school districts around Puget Sound have failed to address anti-Black structures in teaching, grades, resources. It also includes the anti-urban and anti-immigrant sentiments that shape Washington state politics and tax policy, which disproportionately affect people of color.

To illustrate, let’s consider the south Puget Sound, where many African refugees are placed by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. Some of these refugees have been my students in high school summer classes that I teach. And in teaching them, I’ve learned that despite our city’s valiant efforts to prioritize policies, practices, and actions that help immigrant and refugee communities succeed, when many Somali refugees in our city arrive, there are many racist things they encounter. First and foremost, they are suddenly, for the first time in their lives, considered Black in America, and begin experiencing all of the individual racism that comes with that. Second, they must learn English, and quickly, and support their parents in navigating largely English-centric public and private worlds. Our city tries to remove the barriers that creates, but there are limits, and so questions such as “How does school work here?”, “What grade should my child be in?”, “How does my child get to school?” set back many students from even accessing school reliably when they first arrive. Maybe a child’s parents get good advice, and the student thrives in school, learns of the University of Washington, prepares a successful application and gets admitted. Even if they do, which is far less likely than youth at schools near Microsoft, what are the chances that they’d ever hear about The Information School and our Informatics major? Based on the Black students I’ve taught at Chief Sealth, Kent-Meridian, Franklin, and Cleveland, pretty low, since we make minimal efforts to reach out to any of those schools.

Are these inequities in access racist? To the extent that our state’s Supreme Court found schools to be chronically underfunded, especially those with relatively high proportions of students of color, yes: it’s a clear statement from taxpayers that the White and Asian kids in Redmond and Bellevue are more deserving of a high quality K-12 education than Black and African youth across the Sound. And this disparity in preparation for college translates directly into disparities in high school graduation and college admissions, despite our university’s desperate efforts to balance merit with opportunity.

Admission to Informatics

The University of Washington has a set of “capacity constrained majors,” which cap the number of students admitted into the major. Informatics is one of those. That means that once a student has found their way to the University, they must then apply to be our major. I oversee our major, and have written previously about the injustice of admissions, so here I’ll focus on the more granular aspects of our processes that are anti-Black.

For example, one aspect is our focus on extracurricular activities in evaluating applicants. We’ve long been interested in recruiting students who have some prior experience with information technology, such as an internship, an in-depth project, or participation in an after school or summer program. These are an indicator that a student might understand what we teach, has an interest in what we might teach, and has invested time in that interest. But what seems like an innocuous indicator, is actually racist. How would Black students around Washington state access any of these extracurricular activities? With the exception of a few excellent not-for-profits (e.g., Black Girls Code), nearly all after school programs that would develop Black students’ interest in computing are prohibitively expensive; so they’re mostly accessed by upper-middle White and Asian class youth, especially those whose parents work in information technology. Internships for new college students are exceptionally rare and often are only accessible through a back door such as nepotism. And we know from research that personal projects, while one of the greatest indicators of a students’ interest in computing, tend to happen when youth have had some form of informal mentorship through peers, parents, or family friends. Therefore, all of these indicators of interest require privileged access to many resources that Black students tend not to have.

All of these inequities are due to racial bias in public and private investments in K-12 CS education: most of the money and opportunities go to White and Asian youth, not Black youth, and so most of the interest developed is amongst White and Asian youth. While most teachers may not see themselves as racist, I have heard high school CS teachers say “Well Black students don’t seem to be interested” or “My Black students don’t do as well in CS.” These are racist prejudices that translate directly into unequal investments, leading to fewer Black youth applying to our program, and fewer being admitted.

Classes in Informatics

Suppose a Black student does make their way to the University of Washington, and does find their way into Informatics (as several do each year). What do they experience in classes and the broader learning community? Many of our Black students have been quite clear to me that their experience is largely defined by who is in our community: mostly White and Asian students who’ve had a lifetime of privileged access to computers, to learning opportunities related to technology, to a social network that understands and values technology; and mostly White and Asian faculty (like myself), who’ve largely had the same privileges. Our Black students report that this is isolating for numerous many reasons. They say they often have fewer shared experiences with their peers, making it harder to make a support network of friends. They often have less shared cultural knowledge with their instructors, meaning they often encounter lectures, problem sets, and exam questions that use cultural references they may not know, unfairly resulting in lower grades. Many Black students in our state do not have family members who completed college, meaning they have to navigate challenges more independently than their peers, who might have parents helping them choose a major, chart a course to graduation, and find opportunities.

But it’s not just students and faculty, but the content of classes as well. Despite abundant research from Black scholars on computing and information, most of what they will read is written by White men who say nothing of racism; most of the technologies they learn were made by White men that believe technology is neutral. While racism might be a major feature of a Black students’ experience with technology, it will likely be absent in most of our classes’ discussions about technology. Ignoring this is a kind of educational gaslighting, as if we’re saying the racism they’re experiencing doesn’t actually exist.

The only way to explain these discrepancies in students’ in and out of class experiences is that the program is designed for the White and Asian students majority—by me, and my faculty. Of course, as we discussed in the previous section, the only reason that White and Asian students are the majority is because society has constructed it that way, and we have constructed it that way, through our admissions process.

Careers

When our students approach graduation, most begin to think about their first careers. Maybe they’ve had an internship, attended a career fair, and have even lined up a few offers before they walk in Spring. Their experience, while stressful, has been supported in many ways by our school, connecting them with employers who love our graduates and with alumni who want to mentor and support.

Black students report to us a very different experience. They may have never been selected for an internship because of implicit bias in resume reviews or interviews. They hear about fewer opportunities from friends, because their social networks are often segregated. The companies they might meet at our career fairs tend to address problems that resonate with our White and Asian students because White and Asian people run those companies. And few of the mentors that we offer to students are Black, limiting the shared understanding that is often necessary to help a mentor guide a graduating student into their career. If a Black student is lucky, they get a job anyway, and have to enter a workplace with similarly racist structures, cultures, and inequities all over again, but with even fewer supports. Of course, all of this is despite the existence of Black-owned technology companies across the country, and companies that have an abundance of Black engineers. We just don’t know about those companies, or have relationships with them, which is its own form of structural racism.

Is it racist to offer support that aligns so closely with the needs of White and Asian groups and but aligns so poorly with Black students? One might dispassionately argue that this is just supply and demand: we’re focusing on the largest group, and therefore optimizing our limited resources. But once again, that “demand” is determined by structurally racist admissions processes and inequitable investments in public education, so how is responding to that biased demand not also racist?

Who’s Responsible?

The result of these racist structures is that few Black students join our undergraduate program and few graduate from it. Many of the CS faculty that reached out to me over the past week, if we get this far, often question whether they are personally responsible for all of these inequities. After all, they aren’t racist, and they’ve taught so many Black students, and they weren’t the one that originally created these structures, so why are they responsible for having to fix them?

Let’s tackle the individual racism claim first. For example, am I racist, and therefore responsible? To the extent that we all have implicit biases, yes, I am. I grew up in a White suburb—yes, White: I was one of three Asian students in my graduating class of hundreds. And it was a suburb one of the most historically racist cities and states in the country, Portland, Oregon. I probably grew up with more implicit bias than most. Recognizing and accepting my anti-Black (and anti-Asian!) bias back in college was just the first step in a long process of recognizing how my belief in color blindness made me ignorant of Black oppression. And those biases have probably led to racist actions, such as walking up to the White student at a poster fair instead of a Black student, or discounting the resume of Black student applying to work in my lab because of an implicit judgement about their prior experience. Therefore, to the extent that I am racist due to my implicit biases, I am responsible for my racist actions.

But even if I had eradicated all of my own bias, as we have seen, the academic program I am personally responsible for is rife with anti-Black racial bias. Does that make me responsible for its racist structures? One could argue that I inherited the status quo, but didn’t create it, and so no. But that ignores the fact that as the program’s chair, I’m responsible for determining its quality, reputation, size, resources, and students. How can I be responsible for those qualities, but not its racist structures and racially biased outcomes? Ignoring that racial bias in our program’s outcomes would just be another form of racism.

But it goes deeper than that. Many CS faculty have argued to me that even if those structures are racist, and even if one is in charge of those racist structures, they still don’t have the responsibility to fix it, because the world simply isn’t fair. They say: Yes, Black Americans might have to be an order of magnitude luckier, work an order of magnitude harder, and be an order of magnitude more resilient just to achieve the same things that White and Asian students do. But that’s their problem, not mine, and I can’t change our country’s racist history. They’ll just have to work harder than everyone else. This, I believe, is the heart of why academic programs continue to be anti-Black: program leaders deny a basic principle of fairness in education, do not want to have to do the work to achieve that fairness, or do not see how achieving fairness will help them personally. I view this position as a fundamentally inhumane, selfish rejection of racial justice and the equity it requires.

The hardest thing for me to admit is that I used to share this view. My parents and teachers taught me to not see color. They taught me that racism wasn’t my problem, it was other people’s. And they taught me to be silent about racism, because speaking up only causes conflict. No longer. I see that racism is at the root of all people’s oppression (including mine), I see that it’s my responsibility to dismantle, and I won’t be silent.

Dismantling Anti-Black Computing Education

If you made it this far through this post without your head exploding in conservative rage, maybe you’ve already accepted your capacity for implicit anti-Black bias. Perhaps you’ve accepted that your academic program might have anti-Black structures embedded in it. Maybe your program or university runs climate surveys that reveal to you the anti-Black aspects of your program’s structures. What can do you?

Start with the Black in Computing action items. Here are some of the things from it that we’re doing in our Information School:

  • Hire clusters of Black faculty advancing race and technology discourse. (Just getting started).
  • Promote Black faculty into academic leadership. (A bit, but not enough.)
  • Partner with anti-racist K-12 partners to build pathways for Black students to computing and information programs. (Just getting started).
  • Ensure Black representation on advisory boards, while avoiding tokenism (We’ve completely failed so far).
  • Center Black scholarship in design, data, programming, and ethics courses, including scholarship about race and technology. (Barely).
  • Ensure that our mentoring programs include Black professionals. (Barely).
  • Audit our website to explicitly celebrate our Black student success. (Occasionally).
  • Develop a code of conduct for classes that create safe space for civil discourse about race and technology. (Faculty rejected first attempt due to fears of weaponization, but we’ll try again).
  • Ensure Black faculty and students have an excess of support to thrive. (I have no idea how we’re doing, and that in itself is a problem).
  • Eliminate racially biased competitive admissions indicators like recommendations, extracurriculars, maybe even grades. Or do like some CS departments are doing: shift to a lottery. (We’ve made the most progress here, because I’ve been able to act unilaterally).

I’m also personally investing my expertise in developing pre-service CS teacher education that centers anti-racist, justice-focused perspectives on race and technology. I hope this will provide a sustainable pipeline of excellent Black K-12 CS educators who can engage Black youth in our state with computing and racial justice and inspire them to deepen their knowledge by joining our Informatics program.

Of course, none of this is enough, nor fast enough. All of it should be done yesterday, because every day that passes is another in which the rich get figuratively richer, while Black students are excluded “because that’s always how it’s been.” But #BlackLivesMatter, so let’s get to work.

Are you a Black student that encounters barriers in accessing and engaging in our Informatics program due to individual or structural forms of racism? Or perhaps a parent concerned about the glacial pace of our organizational change? Write me. I want to hear your stories and your concerns.

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This is the blog for the Code & Cognition lab, directed by professor Amy J. Ko, Ph.D. at the University of Washington. Here we reflect on our individual and collective struggle to understand computing and harness it for justice. See our work at https://faculty.washington.edu/ajko

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Amy J. Ko

Amy J. Ko

Professor of programming + learning + design + justice at the University of Washington Information School. Trans; she/her. #BlackLivesMatter.

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