The Kiwanis Club of Ann Arbor invites you to its ZOOM meeting on November 23 to hear a presentation by Santiago Gomez on how one person made a difference by identifying a manifestation of unconscious (or systemic, if you prefer that term) racism in society and initiating meaningful change to eradicate it.
The meeting begins at noon and will last to approximately 1:30. If you would like to attend, please contact Ken Hillenburg (Hillenburg@me.com) or Dennis Powers (Carhart2018@aol.com) to obtain the ZOOM login information.
Speaker: Santiago Gomez is a candidate for the degree of Master of Science in Computer Engineering at Boston University. Enrolled in a program targeted to students with a non-engineering background, he expects to receive his degree next May. He earned a B.A. in sociology from Boston University magna cum laude in 2014. He worked in the Admissions Office at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design from then until enrolling in graduate school. From 2014 through 2019, Santiago worked as an Admissions Officer at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. He administered its application process and the admissions database maintained on its more than 3000 applicants each year.
Words matter. That truism is a matter of common sense, but it is invested with enhanced importance in the context of the current conversation about systemic racism. “Our language choices matter,” Anne Curzan noted at the University of Michigan’s Martin Luther King Day Symposium last year. “There is no language choice that is too small to matter. Every single one of us has a role in the choices that we make. … We have to take responsibility for our words, and listen and know that these choices matter.”
Perceptions of the reality in which we live and operate are shaped by many factors. Historical context is of paramount importance. Socio-economic class also plays a large role, to be sure. So does educational attainment or non-attainment. So do familial and societal background. These overt considerations are easily identified and isolated. More insidious, though, are the ramifications stirred up by terms of everyday speech which all of us routinely employ.
Consider the word “slave” – standing alone, in and of itself, it objectively describes a human condition as old as civilization itself. Moses was a slave in Egypt in Pharaonic times. In classical Greece, the perennial wars between city states invariably resulted in the victors consigning the vanquished to slavery. A central tenet of Marxist-Leninist thought is that the working class is in effect enslaved by modern capitalism.
In the context of United States history, though, the word “slave” carries a specific connotations divorced from this generic meaning.
One does not have to endorse the approach taken by The New York Times’s 1619 Project to recognize the centrality of African-American slavery to the birth and economic prosperity of our country. Alone of all immigrant groups arriving on America’s shores, African-Americans for the most part did not come here voluntarily seeking a better life for themselves and their children. They were transported here via the infamous “Middle Passage” and forced to work the cotton, sugar, and rice plantations that undergirded the economy of the Colonial and Antebellum South. It sometimes is argued that the Civil War was not fought over slavery but about state rights. That is a literally true statement. However, as evidenced by its enshrinement in the Constitution of the Confederate States of America, the state “right” in question was the maintenance of chattel slavery.
Framed by this background, “slave” is one of the words and phrases in everyday usage that carries a freighted meaning in America. There are others. Many technology firms today have begun replacing such terms as “blacklist,’ connoting malicious websites, and “whitelist,” connoting safe emails, with other words which make no mention of color. But “slave” occupies a niche all its own.
Software coding textbooks routinely describe electric circuits known as flip-flops in terms of “master” and “slave” in order to describe how one device controls and directs the other.
Karla Monterroso, Chief Executive Officer of Code2040, still remembers the first time she encountered this terminology. She was so shocked that she had a physical reaction to it. “Black and Latinx people leave tech at three times the rate of their white male peers, and a part [of the reason why] is the environment and culture that gets created.” Alexis Moody, a software engineer at data intelligence firm Morning Consult, felt the same way. “You know,” she has said, “as a child of slaves and sharecroppers from the South, [s]eeing those terms, it’s just a little cut all the time. It just continues to get at you. And it’s one of those things that it’s hard to overlook over time.”
Using descriptive words that actually showcase or indicate what it is that a piece of software code is designed to do would be far better way to develop and write code.
Our speaker internalized that reaction when he first encountered “master” and “slave” in one of the coding textbooks, Digital Design 6th Edition, used in his Logic Design course.
They’re “just … word[s],” Gomez acknowledged. “[B]ut language, it shapes how we see the world and what we create.” Unlike many readers before him, though, he acted on that realization. He wrote the textbook publishing giant Pearson, urging it to remove the terminology from its technology and engineering books. He praised their engineering content but pointedly noted that “the terminology proved detrimental to my learning environment. It reminded me that Black people’s presence in the sciences is not fully respected.”
Pearson agreed to rectify the problem. It now is in the process of removing and replacing this terminology from more than 600 print and digital titles. “We wish we might have figured [out the need to do so] without a student complaint,” Marcia Horton, Vice-President of Product Management at Pearson, acknowledges. George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis Police Officer in May “caused a lot of reflection on the part of a lot of people.”
Our speaker will tell us how he effectuated this change.