19 October 2021

Diversity Statements

As part of the application for the Data Ethics Fellowship, we ask that applicants write a statement reflecting on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and on supporting Black and Indigenous people of color. USF asked for it and I didn’t object because my issues with diversity statements aren’t in the statements themselves, but in the measures they displace. That’s a little vague, so I’ll try to ground it: I think when institutions like CADE ask for diversity statements, we tend to overlook our responsibility to make meaningful commitments to justice, and imply that that’s your job. I want any applicants to be able to find some public thoughts from the person they might be working for/with on the topic of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. So I’m offering some of my thoughts here.

First: I realize this isn’t equivalent for lots of reasons - for one thing, this isn’t part of a job application. But I want to be upfront about my values so that you know what they are. I also want to prompt you to bring this up with me if you feel like I’m wrong on an issue or flat-out absent on a topic that you think I should be present for.

I recognize that there is no such thing as a “neutral” position, or a “view from nowhere”. Any position - any point of view - makes a decision about how to portray the world. Attempts to be “neutral” often amount to little else but supporting the status quo - and when the status quo is oppression, violence, and injustice, that false neutrality belies a tacit endorsement of that harm.

I try to pay close attention to the power disparities and hegemonies bearing down on people. In my work on piecework and gig work; in my work on street-level algorithms and the people who deal with them; in my informal writing and discourse about how we (AI and data ethicists) talk about these issues and either invite or dissuade participation. I hope my work speaks to that attention, and to my commitment to finding and listening to the people enduring and resisting abuse, harassment, violence, and oppression.

I’m also acutely aware that the things we construct - socially, computationally, or otherwise - are themselves built on foundations of violence. That there’s no way to build a house on an uneven foundation except by addressing that unevenness. That this manifests in American society and history over centuries of slavery never redressed; centuries of classifying and reclassifying people to exclude them of rights and protections; centuries of theft, of violence, and of careful and intentional systems of exclusion.

As interim director of the Center for Applied Data Ethics, I’m doing my best to continue to work in the spirit of dismantling those oppressive foundations. I recognize that the same forces and mechanisms that structurally minoritize and marginalize people are the very ones that tend to make it difficult for someone like me - a cisgender man, light-skinned, without visible disabilities - to recognize the patterns of harm that I’ve just said I’m trying to understand better. Challenging that tendency, listening to and learning from people who take the time to explain these structures to me (or take the time to point me in the right direction), is one way that I try to work toward a more just, more equitable world.

My commitment to you is that I will do my best to show gratitude when you take the time to tell me if something I’m doing - or not doing - is causing harm. I’ll try to recognize the risk and uncertainty that you overcame in telling me - someone in a position of relative power - that I’m wrong or ignorant about something and that something I’m saying or doing is harmful. And I’ll do my best to take that harm seriously.

I’ll also keep paying attention to this meta-conversation, if I’m being ignorant or naive about how I learn and mature. I’ll work to ask less of people who are already doing everything they can to exist in a society that is in some cases outright hostile to them.

If you have any questions or concerns about this, I’d like to chat about it. Please feel free to contact me if you’d like.

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