The New Jim Code Naming a child is serious business. And if you are not White in the United States, there is much more to it than personal preference. When my younger son was born I wanted to give him an Arabic name to reflect part of our family heritage. But it was not long after 9/11, so of course I hesitated. I already knew he would be profiled as a Black youth and adult, so, like most Black mothers, I had already started mentally sparring those who would try to harm my child, even before he was born. Did I really want to add another round to the fight? Well, the fact is, I am also very stubborn. If you tell me I should not do something, I take that as a dare. So I gave the child an Arabic first and middle name and noted on his birth announcement: “This guarantees he will be flagged anytime he tries to fly.”
If you think I am being hyperbolic, keep in mind that names are racially coded. While they are one of the everyday tools we use to express individuality and connections, they are also markers interacting with numerous technologies, like airport screening systems and police risk assessments, as forms of data. Depending on one’s name, one is more likely to be detained by state actors in the name of “public safety.”
Just as in naming a child, there are many everyday contexts – such as applying for jobs, or shopping – that employ emerging technologies, often to the detriment of those who are racially marked. This book explores how such technologies, which often pose as objective, scientific, or progressive, too often reinforce racism and other forms of inequity. Together, we will work to decode the powerful assumptions and values embedded in the material and digital architecture of our world. And we will be stubborn in our pursuit of a more just and equitable approach to tech – ignoring the voice in our head that says, “No way!” “Impossible!” “Not realistic!” But as activist and educator Mariame Kaba contends, “hope is a discipline.”1 Reality is something we create together, except that so few people have a genuine say in the
world in which they are forced to live. Amid so much suffering and injustice, we cannot resign ourselves to this reality we have inherited. It is time to reimagine what is possible. So let’s get to work.
Everyday Coding Each year I teach an undergraduate course on race and racism and I typically begin the class with an exercise designed to help me get to know the students while introducing the themes we will wrestle with during the semester. What’s in a name? Your family story, your religion, your nationality, your gender identity, your race and ethnicity? What assumptions do you think people make about you on the basis of your name? What about your nicknames – are they chosen or imposed? From intimate patterns in dating and romance to large- scale employment trends, our names can open and shut doors. Like a welcome sign inviting people in or a scary mask repelling and pushing them away, this thing that is most ours is also out of our hands.
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