Racism Revealed in Comments about Custom Browser

Mozilla, the folks that created the browser Firefox, have released a new browser called Blackbird, that offers customized search engine results thought to be of particular interest to  African Americans, or in the short hand of one blogger, it’s a browser for black people. Blackbird is operated by 40A, Inc., a company founded by three African American entrepreneurs, Arnold Brown II, Frank Washington, and H. Edward Young, Jr.     Personally, I wish someone would develop a similar upgrade for Flickr so that when I search for images I could only search for images that include people of varied ethnic backgrounds, but I digress (I use Flickr/Creative Commons to find images for this blog, for my classroom lectures and for invited talks and I work hard to include images of racial/ethnic diversity, but it’s tough going because people don’t tend to tag their photos by their racial designation, I digress even further).

Blackbird Logo

What’s interesting to note for my analysis here is the kind of white-liberal-racism that’s erupted in the comments section at TechCrunch, a popular technology blog, following the announcement of this custom browser (hat tip to: FunkDigital via Twitter).   Not surprisingly, there are a lot of white people that read TechCrunch and the introduction of a ‘browser for black people’ represents a kind of eruption of race in a medium that most whites think of “color-blind.”   And a good number of the white people commenting at TechCrunch are outraged by Blackbird, “sam,” is typical of this view, when he writes:

The President elect of the United States is Black. There is no racism against blacks, only against white heterosexual males.

Imagine that it is more difficult for a white or asian male to get into a top university.

Imagine that a black medical student, who scores much lower on his exams, will become a doctor but not a white student with slightly better results.

This is the truth – at least in the United States.

Further down, the comments by “Steve” sum up what most whites posting there say:

I’m sorry, but it’s things like this that perpetuate racism. How can the black community demand equality then turn around and build a web browser just for themselves? This is ridiculous…

“Steve” is making that mistake that a lot of white people make when first beginning to think about race, and that’s thinking that it will fit into neatly symmetrical categories where “white” is the equivalent of “black.”  What’s wrong with this sort of thinking and the fake symmetry it invokes is that it leaves out power.   (I’ve written about this here before.) The reality is that racism, and white privilege, get built into technology in a variety of ways.   Search engines are no exception.   Yet, this point can get little traction in the comments section over at TechCrunch.   The first comment in a hundreds-of-comments-long-thread is from “Daniel,” who asks:

So when is the white version coming?

Several others pile on and agree with “Daniel,” then “Jake” inserts a bit of a reality check when he writes:

You guys are missing the point.

The “white” version is the standard default version in America.

Mozilla is white. Regular TV is white. Most of government is white. Mayonnaise is really white.

There’s no need for a white version because the original version is designed for the average white person.

And thus begins the long, long thrash at TechCrunch about race.     Reading through all those comments, I came away with the sense that the white people commenting there seem to be crying “foul,” as in, “hey no fair, we thought we were in the color-blind web!”

What those white folks at TechCrunch fail to grasp is that the notion of a “color-blind web” is just as fictional as the notion of a “color-blind” society.  Indeed, as noted scholar Henry Jenkins wrote way back in 2002 (light years in Internet time), the notion of a color-blind web is little more than a fantasy to assuage liberal guilt.   White people need to stop denying race and racism, then crying “foul!” anytime race unexpectedly (for white people) comes up.   I think it’s really long overdue for white folks to get smarter about race and racism.


  1. Sorry if I misunderstand you here, but were you implying (given the title of your post and my statement within the post), that saying it is a “browser for black people” was a racist comment? If so, I did not intend it to be understood that way, I was merely following the marketing lines used by those advertising the browser.

  2. Jessie Author

    Oh, gosh no ~ Maximilian, that’s not what I meant. I thought you had an interesting post, including your mention of Lisa Nakamura’s work, and I was just trying to include that somehow in this post. Sorry if that was a failed attempt. 😉 Just to be crystal clear, the ‘racism’ in the title of this post was referring to several of the comments posted at TechCrunch that I highlighted in the blockquotes.

  3. Joe

    Yep, Jake nails it. The default version is white, that is why it is so hard for people, especially for whites, to see. “Normality” is white. Whites control the language, the politics, the economy, education, etc, so they “paint” them all white–from the inside out.

  4. Carl

    Actually man, you don’t get it. You’re falling hook line and sinker for some phony baloney marketing scam. The author of this software doesn’t give a shit about black people.

    Damn man, you’ve got black crap smeared on your glasses and it’s fuckin up your view.

  5. New medium, same conversation… Why do ‘they’ need BET, why do ‘they’ need Ebony, etc. It follows logic that the same discussion would evolve on a technology front with the same arguments made for and against. But it is interesting that it was determined that a browser is inherently tilted toward one race or against another. Because only like the traditional media, there is no ‘content’ in a browser. It would be akin to saying a SONY television is inherently white.

    And a special thanks to Carl, whose articulate contribution we could have never lived without.

  6. Jessie,

    Thanks for the mention. I too was alarmed by the comments that I read at TechCrunch. There’s a great discussion about this topic going on at BlackWeb 2.0.. So called “black folks” have varying opinions on the utility of this browser. Some, like myself have no intention of using something like this because we’ve been capable to find the media content that interests us. Other see the use for those African-Americans who may not know how to locate the content they crave.

  7. @Jessie: Excellent post & analysis. Thanks for taking the time to note the “color commentary” swirling around the release of this software.

    @Carl: …”phony baloney marketing scam. The author of this software doesn’t give a shit about black people.” Don’t know if I would consider it a “scam”, AAMOF I don’t. Can such a product, designed/developed in this manner, be used to market/sell to a particular demographic… Yes! It happens all the time and there are hundreds (more like thousands) of examples of this both on and offline. Since it seems like such a strong and adamant statement could you possibly give us some further details (and/or proof) on why you say the software authors Don’t give a shit about black people?

  8. I won’t say they “don’t give a shit,” but this browser isn’t some straight-up altruistic black nationalist thing either. It’s a product aimed at black people as though we are some monolithic market niche because we are black. Um. No.

  9. Jesus, white people make my damn head hurt. While I have issues with this browser myself, the stunning amount of ignorance rampant in that thread makes me want to defend BlackBird. There are times when I wonder why I bother with the wider Internet.

    If BlackBird had a “filter ignorant-ass comments from clueless whites” function, I would use it.

  10. the not so angry white man

    I’m not sure why you would want a black oriented browser, when a black oriented search engine that you could use with any browser would seem more useful and appropriate. Even though I’m white, I would view this sort of thing with suspicion, like BET where most of the content is ignorant and pandering and there are more commercials for McDonalds, etc.

    On an aside I think people have more in common than they tend to realize. When I was growing up, poor as dirt, in Baltimore, a very segregated city, I remember a black kid in my class asking me why I wore the same clothes every day and busted sneakers with holes in them. I told him because my mom couldn’t afford anything else. He told me “Really? I thought all you people lived like the Brady Bunch.”

    Remember that SNL skit with Eddie Murphy as “Mr. White”? When the last black person got off the bus a hostess came out with free drinks for everybody. Or he goes to the bank to get a loan and the guy just hands him money and says “don’t worry about paying it back.” White people sometimes get offended by Equal Opportunity programs because there is no club for white people, no back room wink and handshake. You have to work hard for what you get like anybody else. I’m for EO programs myself because I understand the legacy that gives a black person less of a chance to succeed, but that doesn’t mean it’s “easy” for a white person to succeed if they don’t come from a wealthy family.

    Basically what I’m saying is you can probably trust the makers of Blackbird to be as concerned about your welfare as any the maker of any other product, that is, not very much.

  11. the not so angry white man

    Let me rephrase “there is no club for most white people”. There are quite a few clubs for “rich white people”. And they do have a back room wink and a handshake. But most of us are left out of that too.

  12. Actually Not So AWM, there is a club for all white people. it’s called Club Majority and it affords all its members immediate access (access, not a guarantee) to many doors that many non-members have to fight and claw much harder just to get to. Not all whites will manage to maximize the benefits found on the other side, just the same way that not all non-whites will be left on the outside looking in.
    To me, this browser is a just another product whose primary objective is make money. It is hardly an embrace or condemnation of the racism that pervades this nation

  13. Lilly

    You know what, Mordy? You’re absolutely right. By affording black people so much assistance, so many little things to make it easier to get into school, to make it easier to get a job, and to make it easier to recieve money from the government, the white people are just keeping them down! Because lazyness is human nature, by allowing black people to survive while lazy, human nature causes them to never strive for anything better, to keep seeking handouts, to keep shifting the blame to someone who will take it. Black people DESERVE handouts because of oppression… It’s cruel of white governments to give such handouts, knowing human nature will merely beg for more.

    While white people, the majority, are given an edge in life, because white people aren’t given as many handouts, and as such, white people can’t survive by being lazy… That forces white people to work, and when people are forced to have a work ethic to survive, people end up finding out that they can make their own money.

    Black people are never given the opportunity to learn that they can be successful… They’re kept down in the slums by White Government handouts. They never learn that they can get off their ass and use the education that they got for free, because they’re constantly told that it’s Whitey’s fault that they’re poor, and they can’t do anythign about it. So, as human nature dictates, they sit back and wait for the government to help them more.

  14. mordy

    @Lilly- I have no idea what you are saying. Nor am i clear on what you are crediting me for. All i said is that in the US whites, as the majority, are afforded benefits based solely on their skin color that non-whites aren’t. I made no mention of any government handouts.

  15. adia

    Lilly, learn about the Homestead Act and its implications for the rise of the white middle class, and then come back and tell us more about how whites never get handouts or any edges in life.

  16. Lilly

    Ah yes… The homestead act. It took a vast reaches of unused government land, and divided it up, first come first served. It was unused wilderness the government had just purchased, and there was really nothing they could do on it.

    The only difference is, people starved on that land if they didn’t work for themselves, so it did nothing to promote a feeling of need, it did nothing to promote a feeling that the government will do more. It did nothing to promote laziness, it did nothing to promote underachievement.

    Ah yes, and if I am not mistaken, the Homestead act was one of the best benefits to the recently freed slaves. They could go out west, away from their former slave owners in the south, and make their own life, be their own person. They needed no money, only the will to survive. The only handout was empty land.
    The old saying goes, “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day, teach a man to fish, feed him for a life”. Well… They weren’t even taught to fish. They were just given a stream, and had to learn to fish on their own.

    My point is, when black people refuse to believe that “normal is white”, and work hard and make their own living, they succeed. Black people who “accept” that they are oppressed remain oppressed, because they can’t do anything about it? right? It’s the white man’s fault.

    And on that old fish saying… If you give a man a fish, not only do you merely feed him for to day, he’ll come back to you with his hand open tomorrow…

    I credited you, Mordy, because the concept of a “Club Majority” that only black people see is the main reason for them not being able to break into it. If black people believe that they cannot succeed in life because only white people are given chances, and even more so, if ANY person is given handouts and tons of assistance… They’ll never succeed. They’ll lack any motivation to work hard in life. They either don’t think it’s worth it because they’re not white so what’s the point, or they’ll just not care, because handouts breed laziness and apathy.

    The problem is no longer that America is too white, that America is racist. The problem is that black people BELIEVE America is too white and/or racist. How many successful black people do you know? I know plenty. I see plenty, every day in the news on the television, driving down the street in bimmers and business suits… I’ve never heard a comment from any of them about how oppressive America is to blacks. Then I see the people (who I’ve worked with) who can’t hold a job, who while at a job are some of the worst workers ever, and when fired claim racism, who are lined up in the social services line, who slack off and drop out of class at the local college.. (all this I’ve seen PERSONALLY). They are the ones who cry that racism is strong in America.

    But then again, those businessmen, those successful, respectable black people that nobody ever notices… They aren’t really black, are they?

    And that…. That is an even bigger problem.

  17. mordy

    Lilly- when you say that America is no longer racist you are simply wrong. If you wish to argue how it continues to manifest itself then there is room for conversation. I know a fair amount of successful blacks as well as a some less successful. Kind of like the rest of my friends. Some do better than others. But i don’t rely on seeing them ‘everyday in the news on television’. I live with, and talk to, them. Like i do with the rest of my friends and neighbors. And i hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the tales of racist behavior related by the ‘successful’ ones (i am using successful in the terms i am assuming you mean- financial) would make you cringe. Well, maybe not you, but most others. If you stay here awhile and read some contributions by people whom you probably don’t otherwise speak to you will know what i mean. This isn’t to say there is no opportunity, nor is it to say that things aren’t trending for the better. It does mean that most black people, successful or not, still have to deal with a lot of shit that you don’t have to. And that much of it is based solely on the color of their skin. If you wish to read specific examples here,just say the word.

  18. Dave Klingler

    I was raised by two idealistic parents who never told me that people should be divided up into groups by the color of their skin, in New Mexico, where white people (my skin is olive, which I guess makes me white) are a minority anyway. When I finally did witness racism pushed on me, I was at once revulsed and fascinated that anyone could be so stupid, and I tend to feel that way every time I see it now.

    If I started taking melanin pills would my universe operate on different rules? Would science and logic be different? Would I sit differently in a chair? Would I see the world in different colors? Would I prefer my web pages to load a different way, or need different menus? Why must the practice of dividing people on the basis of skin color be perpetuated?

    The first time racism hit me hard it was when my best friend told me he had to side with someone else against me in a fight because I was white. The second time it was when my friend from Atlanta told me about his segregated high school prom. The third was when the same friend stopped talking to me because I naively commented one day that I’d love to have his skin color (I looked at his, looked at mine, preferred his, said so). Another was when I was told I didn’t qualify for any of the scholarships my black, native american and hispanic friends were getting. I couldn’t help noticing at the time that the hispanic people in this state were proudly derisive about white, black and Native American people. Amazing.

    I had never really experienced organizations based on race before I hit college. My reaction was the same: revulsion, incredulity, disgust. If organizations of white people based on perceived white interests are unacceptable, and I believe they are not only based on history but on logic and fairness, why is it that ANY organizations based on race are acceptable? I’m tired of being told that people are different based on their melanin levels. I’d have people marching outside my house (just before they burned it down) if I were greedy enough to invent a “white” browser, and they’d be right to do it. Why should it be any different for anyone other skin color?

    The inventors of a browser that comes with “black” ads and bookmarks are building a business on greed and fear. They’re telling “black” people (and what the hell IS a “black” person?) that they are different, that they should fear not getting their news from a “black” perspective (fear non-blacks), that they should use tools that connect them with other “black” internet users (ally against non-understanding non-blacks) , that they should donate money to this “black” company (give money to people with high levels of melanin as long as they’re not Middle Eastern or Native American), that they should click on “black” ads and do business with “black” people. I’m naive but I’m not stupid; you can always make money by dividing people and these people are going to make a mint. Should these people be cheered onward for their initiative?

    If a white person came to me and told me that black people need a special piece of software because they’re black, I’d knock him down. If a white guy came up to one of my black friends and told him the same thing, he’d get knocked down. Why should a black person tolerate a black person with that message?

    If someone wants to organize a browser or a website with links based on geographical locations, say, the South, the Northeast, South and Central Africa, whatever, THAT I can see. Better yet, if someone could organize a browser based around organizing people whose children are not receiving health care or proper education, without mentioning skin color, THAT I could cheer. But THIS?

    THIS is fear for profit. These people should be reviled, not cheered.

  19. Joe

    Actually, Lilly, the Homestead Act was pretty much for whites only, the most important “affirmative action” program in US history. The gov’t gave away about 246 million acres of (stolen Indian) land to one million plus households, almost all of them white because of discriminatory laws and Klan type violence driving many of the few black homesteaders off their lands. The formely enslaved were effectively re-enslaved by Jim Crow, while whites got access to most resources like radio frequencies, timber and grazing lands, business licenses, etc, given by the government. Black folks , also, created much of the early wealth of whites under slavery and segregation.

  20. rogerthecamel

    Do you know the best thing about this “Black” web browser or “Black” related new/web portals. While the labelling of these things are “Black”, its actually open to everyone. A person of any race can download these things whether they are black, white, asian, etc. Or more importantly whether they are involved in Black culture or not. Because thats really what “Black” should be these days, just a title for the culture (or pick a different title) because I’ve seen white people who are ‘black’ at heart and black people who are ‘white’. You say the internet is not color-blind but it is, its just not culture blind, which is a good thing. Chinese people don’t go to google.com for their searching, they go to google.cn (or probably something better for them). There are people that love Japanese culture, manga, anime and other such things who aren’t Japanese. The thing that makes this issue of color-blind internet so much more prevalent in America is that there are two quite different cultures existing in the same place. And while there are many others it is these two that are unique to the one country (because white american culture is very different to british and african american is very different to mainland african). So to summarise, the internet IS color-blind, just not culture-blind, which is good. BlackBird… well its not really for me to decide is it.

  21. Here Here!

    Sam did a great job on pointing out the reality that American society by default is “white”

    i could try to elaborate with fancy words, but that statement just about sums it up.

    What I can offer are two VERY good reads:

    When Affirmative Action Was White
    -Ira Katznelson


    Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-blind Society
    (a bunch of authors, you should be able to find it by title)

    I recommend When Affirmative Action Was White, because it is so full of knowledge and detatiled examples of how throughout the past century, our social policy has been specifically designed in racist fashions- although on the surface they were colorblind:
    Take for instance, Social Security & the GI Bill.

    Honestly, please read this book if you can.

    The second book, White Washing Race, does a great job of melding theory and example to deconstruct the myth of a colorblind society.

    the value in these books aside from personal knowledge, is being able to intelligently discuss race, white privilege, and the necessity for social reform without having to resort to “gut instinct” arguments unsubstantiated by fact, and easily refuted by the naive who think our society is colorblind.

  22. I’ve got to agree with the comment made by the not so angry white man: “there is no club for most white people”. There are quite a few clubs for “rich white people”. And they do have a back room wink and a handshake. But most of us are left out of that too.
    Right on target.

  23. Reverend Smooth

    Unfortunately, NSAWM is correct (though that doesn’t invalidate the fact that ‘color-blindness’ still only appears that way because the majority is the majority; on the other hand, blacks aren’t some monolithic culture block, either, just like whites aren’t)– if you’re poor and white in America, you usually have a hard time and limited opportunities, too. (Especially if you live in a ‘right to work’ state, but that goes for /anyone/ who’s poor.)

    That’s not to say that whites have it worse overall– they don’t. But personally, I’d like to see scholarships and programs geared more toward economic disparities amongst Americans than amongst any individual race; it would better target inequity, in my opinion.

    In any case, my only issue with this browser is the embedded advertising, as well as its browser settings overriding the ones you choose; I wouldn’t use any browser that did that. The skin is pretty, though.

  24. Joe

    Yet, in the nearly-2009 US, even working class and poor whites have a great many privileges. They have white privilege over even well-off African Americans. Our research shows that almost all cases of police brutality in this country target people of color, very rarely even poor whites. Even well-off Africans Ams and others of color must contend with stuff like police profiling, routine police harassment, police brutality — that almost no whites face.

  25. This Blackbird technology thing smells of the racial controversy around the marketing of Bidil–a heart medication–as a black drug. Admittedly, the issues surrounding Bidil are a bit more complex. Steven Epstein states: <blockquote cite = “Having failed to demonstrate the drug’s efficacy in the overall population, BiDil’s manufacturers reinvented it as an “ethnic drug” and tested it only on African Americans.” the drug was initially intended for the wider market, but failed to pass random clinical trial standards among non-blacks.”
    Nonetheless, both of these instances clearly capture the capitalistic economic aspects of niche marketing and the implicit (and at explicit) acceptance of attitudes that blacks are a monolithic group–whether it be the presumption that all blacks have the same physiological makeup or that all blacks seek the same kinds of information.

  26. Sorry, still working on this html thing. Here is a cleaner version. This Blackbird technology thing smells of the racial controversy around the marketing of Bidil–a heart medication–as a black drug. Admittedly, the issues surrounding Bidil are a bit more complex. Steven Epstein states:

    Having failed to demonstrate the drug’s efficacy in the overall population, BiDil’s manufacturers reinvented it as an “ethnic drug” and tested it only on African Americans.

    Nonetheless, both of these instances clearly capture the capitalistic economic aspects of niche marketing and the implicit (and at explicit) acceptance of attitudes that blacks are a monolithic group–whether it be the presumption that all blacks have the same physiological makeup or that all blacks seek the same kinds of information.

  27. Brandon

    This web browser is self-segregation. That’s all it is. Saying that the default browser is the “white” browser is completely false. Look at the statistics. Only 13% of the American population is black. White people make up 74% of the United States population. You think that the default browser is MORE than 74% learned towards white people? No. Too many people think that white and black people should be 50-50 equal. Just by looking at the population demographics, that can’t happen. Sorry.


  2. Blackbird: Battles over a browser « OPEN ANTHROPOLOGY

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