Mimi Onuoha, The Hidden Woman

The creative technology industry has a diversity problem. Put differently, both industries—creative and technology—have some real work to do when it comes to building welcoming, inclusive spaces for people of diverse racial backgrounds. Though there’s a thriving community of people of color working at the intersection of art, design, and technology, when it comes to jobs and recognition, they’re woefully underrepresented in comparison to their white counterparts.

Next week, New York University will host Afrotectopia, a new media arts festival that’s looking to change the narrative. The festival, started by Ari Melenciano and a handful of her fellow grad students at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, celebrates the work of black artists, designers, and technologists. The event will bring together dozens of speakers, from artists to curators to lawyers to interaction designers, to explore what it means to be black and in the creative technology world.

We asked Melenciano to guide a conversation between three of the festival speakers to unpack some of the questions and ideas around what it means to work in a field where you’re underrepresented.

Ari Melenciano: Founder and producer of Afrotectopia. Student and artist at NYU’s ITP.
Mimi Onuoha: Brooklyn-based artist and researcher whose work explores missing data and the ways in which people are abstracted, represented, and classified.
Rasu Jilani: Independent curator, cultural producer, and entrepreneur whose work investigates the intersections of art, culture, and civic engagement to raise critically conscious conversations between artists, their local communities, and the wider public.
Ron Morrison: Designer, artist, and urbanist. His practice works to create strategies using art and design that help people understand how urban systems work and how to act within their fissures and inconsistencies.

Ari Melenciano: I’m a student here at NYU in the grad program of ITP where this event is blossoming out of. I’m one of maybe ten or 12 black students out of about 240. That already says a lot. It speaks a lot to my experience here and as an experience of any black technologist in very predominantly white spaces. So much of this program is about the relationships you create with people, and people generally look out for people who look like you, so it’s important to have a community of people who look like what we look like and we’re able to talk to them, disseminate opportunities, and collaborate and working to dismantle these systems that are typically very racist and oppressive so we can succeed in ways that we didn’t know we could. For me, this is important to build a community amongst each other and get to really discuss what’s it’s like to be a black technologist and how we can improve our situation. Why did you guys want to be a part of this?

Rasu Jilani: I think what struck me about this platform was being a person who also creates platforms and is really interested in ecosystems—ecosystems that generate not only ideas, but also how those ideas impact the spaces we exist in. With that, I was very curious about who some other folks are in this space doing amazing things. After speaking to Ari, I went to the website and there were so many people I had never heard of. That’s rare when you’re researching the field. A big issue with black tech or design space is that we exist in silos and we’re often at a board room or at a design space being the only person of color. To bring all of that together, there’s power in that. There’s a myth that there’s not enough ideas from people of color. There might be a lack of representation, but the ideas that that manifest from people who look like us are very impactful. So how can we actually platform these ideas, talk about them, show the impact, and also dispel that myth?

Ron Morrison: A lot of the impetus for wanting to be involved with this is to not work in isolation and to not think of yourself as working in isolation. I think it takes a lot of effort to combat not only the feeling that you are alone but also the feeling that when you are in the space you are the imposter or you snuck in under the radar. Mimi and I have talked about this a lot in the past; there’s a feeling that you don’t quite belong there, and if you are there then you perform a very particular role. What I want to push up against is the structure that imposes that kind of feeling that’s kind of omnipresent when you’re talking about being in a racialized or gender body that’s not typical in spaces that are mostly dominated by white cis men. Trying to combat that imposition is very much what Afrotectopia is trying to do in a lot of ways, and then within that building networks and connections. But it’s simultaneously building and healing and getting rid of that imposition.

“It takes a lot of effort to combat not only the feeling that you are alone but also the feeling that when you are in the space you are the imposter or you snuck in under the radar.”

Mimi Onuoha: Something I often think about in addition to the burden of isolation is the burden of representation. And having to deal with both of those at the exact same time—feeling that you’re the only one but also like you represent everything. And that is a trap. You can never win from that. It feels so narrowing and it feels so limiting. Afrotectopia is pushing that and expanding that and it’s so powerful. For me, I’ve spent a lot of time in spaces talking about the effect of algorithms and algorithmic violence: what it means and what it looks like, particularly for people of color and marginalized people across all sorts of different spectrums. And I often find the people having those conversations are not the same ones as who they’re talking about. That’s a strange lack of reconciliation that I am, frankly, very tired of having to encounter. Having something like Afrotectopia to begin to disentangle those things is really powerful. Even now we’re seeing a lot of conversation around diversity and what that looks like. Something I often see is that people use race as a proxy for a lot of things, and often they’ll do this thing where they’ll get dark high-melanin people into space, but then you’ll look up at the people making decisions and it’s still mostly white, cis, straight men. Those are the people who are behind the scenes, the ones you don’t see, and yet they wield so much power. Something that’s so so important about Afrotectopia is that the organizers are aware of this, and this is coming out of this embodied, lived experiences. There’s something very refreshing about that.

Ari Melenciano

Melenciano: So what can we do in our current positions to create ways to bring more people who maybe don’t know much about technology or design, but might be interested in using it to elevate our communities? What can we really do to reach out and make sure we’re bringing people along with us?

Morrison: To begin, be truthful about what you know and speak from a place of relevancy. I think sometimes when we talk about technology we lose the application, or we don’t think about the application all the time, sometimes in the pursuit of what’s important. There should definitely be a space for that within tech, but I think if we’re trying to disentangle the sort of elitist or pejorative notions that are already associated with technology, then I really want to focus on talking about the applications of it and not just nascent ability, because nascent ability elides responsibility in really fucked up ways. If you’re speaking to someone about how this is going to improve their lives or do something miraculous, which is often how we talk about technology, you have to make it real. Otherwise you’re asking people to take a blind leap of faith, particularly often in communities where there’s a lot of distrust from outside and for a lot of good reason. I think technology has to prove its relevance in terms of what it delivers.

Onuoha: I have found so often that people tell me, oh “blank” people don’t care about this or they’re not interested in this, I’m like, that is so untrue—you’re just talking about in a way that seems to cover up all of the interesting, relevant pieces. Just the way we talk about these technologies is so, so important, and the thing I find so exciting about working in this field is that most people have some sort of literacy, to a degree, with these platforms. They might not understand how it works under the hood, but they know what it is because they’ve interacted with social media and different apps. So how do you couch things in a way that meets people where they’re at? This is important work and unfortunately in the tech community is looked at as unimportant and so easy. But in reality, it’s hard work that needs to be done and needs to be elevated in terms of how we regard it and treat it.

Jilani: For me, growing up in NYC, technology wasn’t something that was very accessible. You had to be wealthy in the ’90s to have a computer or even AOL. It just wasn’t accessible. After going to college and moving back and working in technology for 14 years, I realized I was kind of an outcast in my community living in Bed Stuy and also kind of doing this back then Bruce Wayne kind of thing where I’m working in technology and looking like them. And one of the things that really struck me and got me fed up in the technology space, and was the reason I left, was that there was no pipelining or thinking outside of the collegiate system—like going into places to provide tools for people to create their own platform or their own language or their own accessibility. Now we see that, but we see that in the form of phones where we’re the operators of technology rather than the creators of it. For me the engagement aspect is so vital. If we didn’t start stepping outside of the academic circuit, the professional circuit, and engaging the youth, then we set the tone for our own future. And we’ve seen that.

I think design and technology both are suffering tremendously from representation. The last statistic I saw was like in technology 26 percent are POC, and in design and technology less than that. With that said, I think about case studies or projects where they’ve used interactive design or immersive design in order to create pathways and imaginations for people for color. I think about Hyphen Labs which did the NeuroSpeculative Afrofeminism project, which is amazing. It’s a VR project that’s specifically looking at a state that doesn’t not have a male body. It’s all women of color in the space, and as soon as you put the headset on, you’re in a black female body. For a male’s body, it’s something that interrupts the norm. Another project is Rapport Studios that’s using hip hop specifically as a pedagogical method to give access to youth that they are aiming for to teach them how to code and how to design. Technology and design kind of bleed into each other, and I think it’s really hard to talk about one without the other.

Ron Morrison

Melenciano: Now that we’re starting to have more black people in the technology and design world, why is it important for us to even be here?

Morrison: When we look at fields like design and fields like technology, it always involves some sort of disruption if we’re talking about the vantage point of black people in particular. Again, because the logic that assumes biases and inherent rationality or epistemological structure is not one that was expansive enough to include the subjectivity of black people. So it has a very sort of narrow target in terms of the assumptions that are laden within it. You can see that in some of the examples of AI and algorithmic processing, with discrepancies within judicial sentencing or elsewhere. That kind of logic, those ways in which associations and correlations are made doesn’t allow for subjugation of the definition we’re speaking to. And that’s why we’re here. We’re here to be able to define expand and disrupt those kinds of logics in some ways, particularly in the fields of art and design.

I think artistic practice gives a very nice field to play within that. Because you’re able to distort, you’re able to exaggerate. That freedom and that voice, that form of articulation is really crucial. Art allows for the moments of refusal. Refusal of the sort of underpinning logic and the epistemological structures that are laden within those fields. There’s a lot of joy in being blatantly subversive in that way. For me it’s why I love maps because maps are so true, so axiomatic. I take a lot of pleasure in warping and playing with them to articulate totally different things. For the viewer, that space of disruption is really important, it allows for a space of opportunity. And then it also shows something as being incomplete. It’s not totally monolithic in its structure. It’s having brakes, having fissures, and having cracks. I’m always kind of looking for those things. And the way I’m coming to understand my artistic practice is really to explode those cracks and fissures—to create those spaces for a reorientation of that kind of disruption, after we defamiliarize ourselves of what we’ve come to think of as normative or natural.

“Art allows for the moments of refusal. Refusal of the sort of underpinning logic and the epistemological structures that are laden within those fields.”

Onuoha: I co-sign what Rasu and Ron have said. But I also think so much about nuance and not just the desire but the demand for nuance. One of the projects I’ve been working on is around missing data, so it’s data that’s not being collected in spaces where so much is. One of the things I love about the project is that what it allows me to do is chart these patterns of removal. So often they have to do with situationally disadvantaged people. You start to see patterns behind it. You start to see this isn’t just a surprise, it’s built into the system. And it makes total sense when you start to look at it. So the thing I really love about the project is that it has this space for nuance because we don’t always want everything collected about us. We don’t want to have loads of data about us because it hasn’t historically helped us. And so it puts us in this really funny bind. And I think those tensions are so rich and that’s the space where I often find art design and technology combining and allowing you to unpack these very difficult and confusing things.

And in many ways, blackness is so huge; it’s so varied. There’s something so specific and yet so wide and universal about it; even talking about blackness in this room. That, for us, means all sorts of different things, and we inhabit these different spaces and bodies. The push to expand this idea that for so long we’ve had these imposed limitations, and we’re pushing and showing, no, actually there’s so much here, and we can dive deep into it and not all ourselves to be restricted and limited. And also do that work for ourselves and insist that the work that we’re doing is about us and about everyone, because you can use it as a lens for viewing so many other topics. For me, that’s what I find in this space, considering myself a programmer and a technologist, but also first and foremost an artist and researcher is that the places where they brush up against each other are the points that are worth investigating.

“In many ways, blackness is so huge; it’s so varied. It’s something so specific and yet so wide and universal about it.”

Melenciano: I want to explore where the power is in us being cultural black and in these spaces that we don’t see ourselves in. Culturally, what can we bring into these space? What power do we have?

Morrison: This is something we’re still very much learning, and I think that’s part of the seeking out of community in these spaces. People who either look like or have experiences that are parallel or mirror mine, knowing that will never happen completely. But that point of recognition is really helpful. The other thing I’ve been thinking about is the impostors’ syndrome I mentioned earlier, which I think we’ve all experienced at some point. I talked about it in a negative sense earlier, but I want to also position it as something that’s really generative. I think being an imposter allows you to see where the actual breaks are in the room; where there’s a negation, where there’s a lack. So I think just by being culturally black and being in these spaces that aren’t built to house you or aren’t nurturing or comfortable spaces, that discomfort allows you to have a gaze others don’t have. So you’re able to gain access and analyze that room for what it does not have. Most people in that room don’t know what they don’t have. And so I think it’s an asset to be an outlier in that way because you can see where the contours break down. That’s a generative space for me to make work around. I’m interested in that freedom.

“I think being an imposter allows you to see where the actual breaks are in the room; where there’s a negation, where there’s a lack.”

Jilani: I’d like to retweet that. Something I’ve been thinking about is just generally as POC we come from a vantage point where in America specifically you’re forced to acknowledge and assimilate to not only to Americana but to whiteness. You already have that perspective. It doesn’t mean we have all the perspective of whiteness, but the general perspective of whiteness, so when we design, we think about it whether we do it consciously or unconsciously. I can say on the flip side, I’ve been in spaces where white designers or technologists would not think outside of themselves ever. There is a flaw to that. One is that you’re not designing for the future when you do that, because we know that statistically the world is becoming more brown. So if you don’t design thinking outside yourself when you’re white, you’re literally creating an expiration date for yourself. It’s really key for us to acknowledge the power we have in this kind of imposture situation. I like to call it literally a vantage point of being oppressed people living in a white dominated space that you kind of know the idiosyncrasies of the space you’re working in. So you have to work with that system that’s already in place while applying your own methodology and ideas.

The other thing I’d like to add is that as a black body in a space in tech and design, these are industries that have representation issues. And with that, diversity and inclusion comes up a lot. I’ve synthesized it down to diversity is literally counting heads, and inclusion is a behavior. But it’s a dance. It also asks the questions: who are we including and what are we actually including people into? Are we including people into a system and practice that don’t benefit them? Or is inclusion literally an equitable practice where both the institution and the systems are thinking about how to talk and use and behave? It’s a dialogue not a monologue, and oftentimes people are using inclusion, which is more of a monologue, to say, ‘We’re not really trying to include people. We’re just trying to count heads.’

“If you don’t design thinking outside yourself when you’re white, you’re literally creating an expiration date for yourself.”

Onuoha: I’m Nigerian American, but I was born in neither Nigeria or America. I think a lot of my experience has to do with this pervasive sense of being an outsider—being stuck in between various cultures, and systems, and groups that were just every hard for me to navigate.

“What I’m searching for when I’m in a community with other people of color is not necessarily someone who has the exact same experience as me, but rather someone who has an appreciation of plurality and misfit-ness, and blurred lines and spaces.”

As I’ve grown older, something very powerful of me has been able to see that what I often thought were weaknesses are in fact strengths. But often what I’m searching for when I’m in a community with other black people or people of color is not necessarily someone who has the exact same experience as me, but rather someone who has an appreciation of plurality and misfit-ness, and blurred lines and spaces. That’s the thing I find so powerful about spaces like Afrotectopia. The thing we’re building here is this idea of being around people who share that sense of what it means to be in places that aren’t designed for you, and to be there and realize that together we can change these spaces or at least deal with how they don’t fit.