It seems like there’s a new instance of a well regarded company committing racial blunders each week. Most recently, Snap created a reductive Juneteenth filter that broke chains when the user smiled—if only structural racism against the Black community that has lasted hundreds of years could be solved with a smile! In the same timeframe, Amazon was publicly scolded for catering chicken and waffles for a Juneteenth celebration at one of their Chicago warehouses.
These are just two recent gaffes that are embarrassing, but luckily didn’t actively harm anyone. When we dive into the product choices that companies make, the outlook is mixed. Racial equality has been further stifled by bias in product development in the past, but there are actions companies can take to make sure the future has significantly less bias.
Bias in product development: When products enable racial profiling
Simply put: you need diverse staff to create products for a diverse world.
Otherwise we get voice recognition tools that don’t work for people with accents. And, even worse, we get widespread facial recognition technology that aids racial profiling and gets Black people incorrectly charged with crimes.
There are myriad issues with facial recognition technology. Chief among them, the technology was built by and trained on primarily young white males—making it most effective for this population. And when it is used widely by law enforcement, the bias baked into it seeps out.
With facial recognition “Asian and African American people were up to 100 times more likely to be misidentified than white men… Native Americans had the highest false-positive rate of all ethnicities” according to a study conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. And the bias didn’t stop there: this technology also misidentified older people and women at a high rate.
As you can expect, facial recognition used by police forces has had a disproportionately negative impact on people of color. In a first of its kind case, Robert Julian-Borchak Williams was arrested in Michigan in January for a crime he didn’t commit. His face was incorrectly matched to the grainy surveillance video of a robbery. He was subsequently arrested and forced to stay in jail for 30 hours.
The police force relied on the facial recognition match and did not investigate enough to determine if Williams was really the perpetrator. Williams was lucky to have his wife contact the ACLU and expose this over-reliance on faulty and discriminatory technology. And history shows us that Williams emerged from this mix up relatively unscathed due to the countless murders of Black people in police custody.
The news of the Williams arrest followed the announcement that Microsoft, IBM, and Amazon were getting out of the facial recognition business, even if only temporarily, and seemed to underscore their decisions.
Breaking the bias in product design: Moving toward an equitable future
The creators of the facial recognition technology that falsely accused Williams was neither created by or to benefit people of color. Companies that want to invest in a sustainable future will invest in diversity in at least two ways:
- First, they will hire a diverse team to bring new ideas to the table, execute, and raise concerns when products aren’t meeting standards of inclusion.
- Second, companies can benefit from tapping into a representative group of people (by age, race, gender, ability, sexuality, and beyond) for focus groups and user testing.
So even if the team produces something that accidentally ignores the needs of one or more of these communities, it will be flagged and corrected before that product ever hits the market.
Many brands are currently rethinking the names, logos, and messages attached to their products. Quaker Oats, for example, vowed to retire the Aunt Jemima imagery and brand because of its origin in a racist stereotype dating back to slavery. Unilever even announced they would pull their skin lightening products in order to halt their support of colorism around the world.
These are just two companies that are taking action to correct outdated and problematic product lines. It will be interesting to see if they can direct resources to also launching new products that put diverse populations first from day one.
Investing in diversity is a business imperative
A change is coming quickly in the United States, as the Census projects that white Americans will be the minority of the population by 2045. That gives companies a head start to create a team that looks like the future of the US. These teams will create a stronger system of checks and balances in order to develop products that speak to the needs of people of color, instead of making them an afterthought.
Investing in a diverse workforce and product offering means investing in a company strategy that is built to last. It’s time for companies address bias in product development and to reimagine the products they create, who is creating them, and the impact they have on people of color.