Often it is not quite obvious how technologies
might be racist. A recent case of soap dispensers has prominently unveiled how
technologies indeed can be racist and this shows why the design of technology
In August 2017, a video appeared on Twitter
that showed how a soap dispenser worked for light-skinned people but not for
dark-skinned people. Chukweumeka Afigbo, Facebook’s head of platform
partnerships in the Middle East and Africa, posted the video and tweeted: “If
you have ever had a problem grasping the importance of diversity in tech and
its impact on society, watch this video.”
The video went viral and caused a huge
criticism on the tech industry and its lack of diversity.
The video which Afigbo posted was not the only
case of racist soap dispensers. T.J. Fitzpatrick posted a video of him and a
friend where another soap dispenser did not react to dark skin, but it did
dispense soap to lighter skin.
The way soap dispensers work is by measuring
infrared light which radiates from nearby objects. As the body-heat emits
infrared light, the dispenser sends out light from an infrared LED. The soap
dispenser is activated when light gets reflected back to the sensor. As
dark skin rather absorbs light instead of reflecting it back, the soap
dispenser doesn’t receive reflected light and therefore doesn’t work.