The Fault Is Not in Our Algorithm

Let me tell you about the summer the faces on my Netflix homepage changed from white to black.

One of the perks of being a college teacher is that I can mine my students for book, television, music, and movie recommendations. The summer after my first year teaching at Lincoln University, I sat down with my lists (yes, I actually make them give me lists) and began watching the recommendations from that year.

Within a few days, my Netflix homepage changed from being populated by mostly white faces to being populated entirely by black faces. And I do mean mostly and entirely. Whatever algorithm Netflix uses to decide what stories to recommend, it obviously includes race, and it seems to be built on the assumption that if a person watches stories about black people, that person is certainly black.

This is not the algorithm’s fault. The terrible truth is that most white Americans don’t listen to black stories.

I am guilty of this. How else might the change above have occurred? And would you take a look at the reading list that I’ve built these past six months?

I mean, I did not intentionally say to myself, “Amanda, you’re going to read predominantly white authors in 2014.” But I also never said to myself, “Amanda, you’re going to make certain you keep a balanced reading list in 2014.” Or even, “Amanda, you’re going to read more black Authors in 2014.”  A reading list like the one I built is the result of me not taking conscious action.

This is shameful. This is all too common.

I believe we tell ourselves stories in order to live, but I believe with just as much conviction that we tell others our stories in order to live.

When those others don’t listen, there are many consequences. In the most devastating cases, people die. And let me be clear that I’m not talking specifically (or at least only) about Michael Brown. I am talking about hundreds of years of black Americans dying, not solely because most white Americans are deaf to the stories of black Americans, but at least partially because of this.

Black stories need to matter much, much more to white Americans.

And it doesn’t take a great deal of effort to find black voices. Black Americans tell their stories, most white Americans just aren’t listening.

And I mean really listening. Not the kind that listens when it feels like it. Not the kind that tries to correct or discredit. Not the kind that listens solely for the chance to respond.

I mean the kind of listening that comes from a place of acknowledged ignorance. The kind of listening that comes from a desire for empathy. The kind of listening that requires conscious effort.

I haven’t been listening. Not as often or as well or as actively as I should have been.

So starting now, I’m making an active decision to flip the ratio of black authors to white authors on my reading list. I’ll do this publicly via my ‘What I’m Reading’ posts. Ya’ll can keep me honest. Ya’ll can send me recommendations. Ya’ll can join, if’n you want.

I will never fully understand what it is to be black in American, but I can better understand, and one way I’m going to do this is by making the conscious effort to listen to more black voices.

Black Lives Matter



End Note:

Here I am again. Writing about race again. I assure you, it’s not because I think myself a voice of authority. Or because I think myself so goddamned enlightened and pure. The opposite is true. But I keep coming back to this quote:

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Trust me, I know that flipping a reading list is not, by any means, enough of an action for anyone to take. But it is an action that I can take within the blog sphere. And it is an action for which I can be held accountable within the blog sphere.


IMPORTANT ANOUNCEMENT: My friend Nicole Saltzman, whose blog I have linked to before, has agreed to do a (or many…???) guest blog posts on here. Now Nicole? Nicole is someone ya’ll should listen to about race.


Also, I’m working on my initial reading list for December 2014/ January 2015. I’ll post it here in a few weeks (when I am once again reading something other than student work). If ya’ll have any recommendations, please let me know.


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