Design against racism

By Samy Aboudrar

Let me start by telling you a personal story about how I came to be deeply interested in this issue.

My name is Samy, I am an experience designer, I was born in France, with French and Tunisian origins.
One day, I wanted to buy a new musical instrument on “leboncoin”, which is basically the French “craigslist”. I wrote to the owner of that instrument, using the website’s contact form, giving my name, email address and phone number, but he never replied. This actually happens to everyone most of the time, so as usual, I thought the guy already sold this item and wasn’t responding to inquiries anymore.

But, two days later, one of my friends contacted the same guy, for the same instrument, and got a direct reply. 
I was surprised. I tried to contact the guy again, and again got no reply. It finally dawned on me that perhaps the guy was not replying because of my Arabic-sounding name. Maybe I’m wrong, but anyway, it was a shock as I realized that day, how my name could be intrinsically a pain point.

First of all, as this subject is sensitive, let me tell you how I see things. 
I don’t think there are fundamentally “racist” human beings, only people who are not able to think rationally because of strong emotions such as fear and sadness. I am convinced humanity is good and that we should help by bringing light to those who are in darkness.

So, I tried to rationalize these behaviors, by searching for and finding empathy towards those who behave that way (even if their behaviors are wrong,) we can understand them, and perhaps help them change.
I did some research on psychological causes, and found out about the importance of inflexibility (“the tendency to act based on how one thinks or feels rather than what would be the most effective or meaningful in the moment”).

I found some deeply insightful articles about racism, which helped me gain a new perspective on the issues that kept showing up in my personal life. Issues like getting into a new apartment, or landing a job, which are harder things to achieve for myself and for people like me, because of how our names point to our countries of origin. Countless studies were confirming that something is systemically wrong.

That study shows that even on the seller side, racism is an issue, as “the research showed that black sellers got fewer responses and lower offers for their iPods, while shoppers were also less attracted to white sellers with tattoos on their wrists.”

As I told you, I am a designer, and my motto is this one:

There are no bad users, only bad designers.

So let’s consider personas that are afraid of people from Asian origins, African origins, Arabic descent, afraid of people with tattoos or with different sexual orientation…
Let’s cast them as “good users” but confronted to a bad cultural design, one that won’t let them evolve and have a pleasant experience with the product.

A lot of websites are putting a lot of effort into what I’d call “trust triggers”. AirBnB, BlaBlaCar, Uber, a lot of dating websites, basically all these products whose business model is based on the user’s ability to trust people they’ve never met. To do that, these products manufacture trustworthiness out of empathy, based on community reviews and rich profile information. The more information you give on your profile, the more validation you receive from the platform, and the more likely it is that people will trust you.

An “obvious” solution could be to have that kind of profile everywhere, or even better, to have “one profile”, one certification everywhere on internet, to be sure you’ll have for instance a level of trust on every website.

Black Mirror — “Nosedive”

But what about ethics? If the only way to trust a stranger is to have a rating, why not to have it in real life? But, as you know, this is a classic dystopia, as recently seen in that Black Mirror episode “Nosedive”.
By the way, China is actually trying these kind of thing.

“In Boston, Uber drivers were more than twice as likely to cancel on people with “black-sounding” names, according to the study.”

Maybe we could substitute the name, moving toward a sort of anonymity, but we unfortunately all know the drifts of anonymity online, abuses, shame and so on.

A solution could be to give to have an “official code” for all citizens, an “ID”, usable online, without any references to the gender, origins, etc. But do we want a world where we have to hide our names? 
(Most of my friends are actually doing it, changing their names on social media, thereby remaining anonymous until after they establish contact with someone else online.).

But this goes against the design of platforms like Google, Facebook, and the like, which rely on your willingness to use your real identity as much as possible. Things are evolving about the use of pseudonyms, but I invite you to look at the work of danah boyd about these subjects.

So, designers, non-designers, these are some ideas I‘ve been thinking about since that little episode of my life, and I would love to know your thoughts about this topic, the problems that you are facing in your day to day life, your stories and also the solutions you’ve imagined or actually put to use.

“Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love, even for enemies.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

This is my first article on medium, feel free to give me feedback and let’s talk together here and on twitter!

Huge thank you to Carlos Martínez, Antoine Valot and Remi Masson for their precious help. 🙏


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