Racist technology in action: White only soap dispensers

In 2015, when T.J. Fitzpatrick visited a conference in Atlanta, he wasn’t able to use any of the soap dispensers in the bathroom.

Whenever his white friend Larry would put his hand under the dispenser it would work though:

Fitzpatrick wasn’t the only one to film this problem. Chukwuemeka Afigbo posted a similar video on Twitter in 2017:

The physical reason for this happening is easy enough to understand: these dispensers use a near-infrared light probe that needs its lightbeam reflected for it to realise that something is underneath it. So a mirror will always work, while anything painted with Vantablack would never trigger the dispenser.

But from a socio-technical perspective, the producers of these systems should be ashamed of themselves. They have clearly and unnecessarily miscalibrated their systems, and through not testing their dispensers properly, have excluded the majority of the people of this world from using their product.

Unfortunately, it is likely that with our current Covid-induced focus on washing our hands (preferably without touching the tap), many more people will have been confronted with this particular form of racist technology.

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