I thought I'd kick off Black History Month with this article: Whitewashing Tech: Why the Erasures of the Past Matter Today - POCIT. Telling the stories and thoughts of people of color in tech. Author Joy Lisi Rankin takes a deep dive into the ways that prioritization of whiteness has - and continues to have- a negative effect this has on, well - everything. It highlights how Dr. Gertrude Blanch's groundbreaking mathematical work was erased.
"After earning her doctorate in mathematics at Cornell, she led new approaches to computation and published volumes of tables and calculations in scientific journals. Despite her contributions, Blanch did not appear as the author of the papers she wrote. For the majority of her time on the project, her male supervisor Arnold Lowan instead received credit."
What are the long term implications of "whitewashing" ?
Rankin's clearly lays out how "erasures" of the contributions of POC and women impact everything. Erasures create a lack of representation, it discredits work based on identity not quality, it reinforces and prioritize a white, male approach.
This narrowing of participants even changes the types of products developed. Rankin notes that AI (and education, government, medicine, etc....) build future ideas by incorporating our past. New ideas naturally "encode all of the assumptions, inequities, and oppressions of our social and political systems, then and now. There is no escaping this. " And not just in AI, these problems exist in every corner, in every workplace.
"Responsible AI (and education, government, medicine, etc...) must be as much backwards-looking and past-reckoning as it is forward-thinking and future-planning."
Use this article to launch discussion with your children.
Preschool and Early Elementary
Share the story of Dr. Gertrude Blanch with your children in conversation. Focus on how hard she worked to learn mathematics and how much she enjoyed solving problems. Share that she often did not get credit for her work. Instead, a white man on the project put his name on her work.
At this point pause and listen to your child. What do they say? What is their initial response?
Answer their questions honestly and build on discussions you've already had about racial and gender discrimination and justice and fairness. As much as possible be open and honest about racial injustice in the US. Use simple sentences and continue to connect family values (ie treating others kindly and fairly and working to solve problems when they occur).
Questions to make connections.
How do you think Dr. Blanch felt about this?
Can you think of a time when you had the same feeling (at school? at home?)
How would you feel if there were very few ways to solve this problem? If the other people you worked with didn't believe you?
Let's talk about what you could do if you witness someone being treated this way.
Later Elementary and Middle School
Again, I believe that sharing stories and focusing on the human experience is an accessible way to begin. With older children you can introduce the story of Dr. Blanch (as above) and ask what they think. As with younger children, pause and listen to what they have to say.
By age 10 or so, children also connect these ideas not only to their personal experiences of justice and fairness but also to their broader community. See how they relate Dr. Blanch's story to their school, their town or the news.
Questions to further conversations
How might these issues impact our community? Our School?
What ideas do you have to make change? Can you think of actions our family could take? Our town? Your school?
What do your friends think about these ideas? Sometimes we hear the people we are with say things which are discriminatorily. What do you do?
Brainstorm ways to be an upstander and practice.