by Logan D. A. Williams
As STEAM professionals, we are predisposed towards action. We are designers, planners, artists, maintenance staff, makers, experimenters. If the heroes of COVID-19 are medical professionals, and the essential workers of COVID-19 are grocery store cashiers, then STEAM professionals are the essential manufacturers of all that a quarantining world desires to consume. Our crucial role becomes evident if you look at our most recent contributions: experimenting with creating vaccines; producing hand sanitizer after store shelves emptied; demonstrating how folks can use materials they have on hand at home to make face-masks; making zoom versions of our favorite entertainment shows on network television.
Yet providing needed contributions to COVID-19 adds to a general belief that the objects, processes, and infrastructures we design or manufacture can only affect good in the world. When we naively believe in the power of technology and innovation for good, then we are unwilling to recognize that sometimes, as Ruha Benjamin writes in her book Race After Technology "… rather than challenging or overcoming the cycles of inequity, technical fixes too often reinforce and even deepen the status quo."
The status quo is that STEAM professionals live in a country that thinks very poorly of Black people, and does not value African-Americans as neighbors, friends, colleagues. Police murdered unarmed educated women in their own homes, including pharmaceutical equipment saleswoman Atatiana Jefferson (October 2019 in Texas) and emergency medical technician Breonna Taylor (March 2020 in Kentucky). Vigilantes murdered unarmed young men as they traversed their neighborhoods, including Ahmaud Arbery (February 2020 in Georgia), and high school student Trayvon Martin (February 2012 in Florida). Yet, it was the video of Minnesota policemen (this past May) spending six long minutes asphyxiating security guard George Floyd and an additional 2 minutes continuing to restrain the non-responsive "gentle giant," which shocked the nation.
These deaths add to the murders of countless other Black Americans over many decades, including Black persons with disabilities, Black trans women, and Black gay men, etc. Recently we have seen nation-wide #BlackLivesMatter protests with hundreds and thousands marching simultaneously for several weeks in a row. Such large protests helped shine a light on systemic anti-Black racism that had previously been invisible to many non-black people in the US and around the world. In response, some folks are nodding their heads and saying that the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the wave of protests that followed, were a precursor to this more significant call to action. Other (predominantly white) folks did not pay much attention to the events in Ferguson in August 2014 perhaps because Facebook algorithms for news showcased the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge fundraiser. These other folks now find themselves shocked, stunned and scrambling to make sense of how they could be so ignorant of the long-term, organized, regular oppression of thirteen percent of Americans across policing, health care, housing, outdoor recreation, and education. It is this last group that is dealing with feelings of guilt, shame, and anger due to their unwitting participation in this unjust system.
We have to work through our feelings of guilt, shame, and anger to take on the difficult, but important tasks of learning about anti-black racism, as well as unlearning our own racism and privilege. And we have to do this while continuing to adjust to life with COVID-19. When I studied to become an engineer, the other students and I were trained in the same de-contextualized manner. (If you want an example of de-contextualized, then check-out the National Academy of Engineers during June 2020, which appears to have entirely ignored the recent #BlackLivesMatter protests aside for re-tweeting #ShutDownSTEM). As a black woman engineer, I had a question in the recesses of my mind about whether what I was doing would positively impact my community. Yet, I was unable to answer that question with my engineering education alone. It was only recently through graduate education in history, and training in the ways of critical thinking that are common to sociologists and anthropologists, that I could answer that question.
STEAM professionals are part of the historical inequality that continues to oppress Black Americans. For example, sociologist Erin Cech reports that Black STEAM professionals frequently report harassment from their peers. Likewise, other social science scholars are demonstrating anti-Black racism in technology design, manufacturing, and distribution:
McIlwain is speaking about developing anti-racist technology culture with journalist Mutale Nkonde on July 9th, and you can register for free through Eventbrite.
July 10th is another event on Anti-Racism in Entertainment design
I am also providing education in this area through three courses on black anti-racist technology design that I am piloting for one day only: