The racist soap dispensor

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 really matters.

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.