“Can I say the n-word even in rap songs? I really like Wiz Khalifa”
“Is it racist to name our dog ‘homeboy’? He’s black if that matters”
"Is the film Rocky really considered racist by black people (even with Apollo winning against Balboa)?”
These are the types of questions that Wayne Sutton attempts to answer with his new app, Anonymously Ask A Black Person (#AABP). Though the title sounds like satire gone wrong, the SMS-based app is actually an earnest attempt to give people a chance to ask real questions to real black people in an open and non-judgmental manner.
“I chose the name because the name is true. Ask a black person because I’m black,” Sutton says with a laugh.
Inspired by the success of apps like Nerd (users can text a question and receive a response from a Stanford student) and Magic (people can send a text and have anything delivered), the serial entrepreneur challenged himself to create his own version where people can text a question and receive a quick response. Using the API platform Twilio to build the program, Sutton embarked on a one-man hackathon over Memorial Day weekend that ended with the launch of #AABP.
“At the end of the day, this is about empowering people, educating people, and breaking down barriers of race.”
A self-proclaimed nerd, Sutton represents an incongruous mix of archetypes that aren’t normally associated with a startup founder. He’s from the South, he’s not a graduate of a Harvard/Stanford/MIT-type school and he’s black.
Sutton knows he stands out from the usual tech crowd. “I’m one of that one percent and I’ve been in tech almost my whole life,” he says, referring to a 2011 article that reported only one percent of startup founders are black (versus the 87% that are white). This realization spurred Sutton to move to Silicon Valley and co-found NewME Accelerator, one of the few tech incubators catering to underrepresented minorities. He eventually moved on to other startups, including BuildUp, an organization that helps minority entrepreneurs get their start.
Even in the bubble of Silicon Valley, where the myth of meritocracy reigns supreme, the release of diversity numbers by some of the largest tech companies show that there is still much that needs to be done. Women make up less than 30% of the tech workforce, while Blacks and Latinos make up around 9% of employees combined—on a good day.
For Sutton, tackling the issue of diversity in tech is critical for companies not just because it’s the “right” thing to do but for the “future of the product.” His goal is to foster an environment that supports minorities that want to use technology to change the world. “How can we create more successful tech entrepreneurs that look like [me]?”
#AABP is just one of many projects Sutton has worked on, making him a kind of veteran that is used to the unpredictability of the fickle startup world. Yet, after creating #AABP and sharing it on the popular site Product Hunt, he was surprised by the reaction.
There’s been criticism for the app’s use of anonymity on the part of users and responders, questioning who’s really behind the app (Sutton asserts his entire 10-person team is black). Critics have also said that a black person “in tech is not an accurate voice” to answer questions about black people and culture.
Sutton is quick to point out that he never claims to be the voice of black people, just a voice. Though he acknowledges his upbringing and profession color his opinion, his stance is “Who [can] disqualify me from answering that question because I’m black and I’m in tech?”
At one point, so many commenters assumed the app was a bad joke that Product Hunt removed the #AABP post from the front page with this note:
“[W]e avoid censoring product submissions unless they're a direct attack or extremely offensive to any one person or group of people...[We interpret] this product as a joke, without malicious intent; however, we're seeing enough reports that this has been removed from the front page…”
Initially, Sutton had stayed anonymous and briefly considered closing #AABP down due to the negative backlash. However, encouraged by positive feedback from friends and followers, he came forward as the creator of the app and used his blog to explain what he was trying to do.
“I felt like [African-Americans were] not always portrayed in a positive, intellectual way [in the media],” Sutton says in response to what motivated him to make this app. He is fearful of how negative representations affect society's idea of black people, how stereotypes left unchecked become a warped version of the truth.
Look no further than CNN to see how implicit racial biases become explicit when covering hot button issues like police shootings. In July, the news channel juxtaposed a smiling image of the white cop indicted for murder with a police mugshot of the black victim. This is the kind of thing that Sutton says “hinders trust," making it harder for people that wouldn't normally interact on a deep level to come together and have "positive or intellectual conversations around race that [are] educational and informative.”
Over the past year, news cycles have been dominated with stories of racially charged crimes, particularly those of unarmed black men killed at the hands of police and everyday citizens. While this narrative is sadly nothing new, the response of frustrated citizens has challenged the nation to reconsider how we think and talk about race.
Even coffee behemoth Starbucks tried its hand at starting a dialogue with #RaceForward, but their heavy-handed approach left a bitter taste, leaving many unsure of how to start a productive conversation around something so important.
And this is where Sutton steps in, hoping his app will be the tool people can use to start talking and listening. Currently, people can read submitted questions on the website through the startup’s Twitter feed or Facebook page. As of now, only the questions are viewable to the public, though Sutton plans on adding a feature that displays answers as well.
Sutton is quick to admit his app may not change the world, but believes it's an opportunity to show the world the potential of "brilliant black minds."
Sutton's simple approach to a complicated issue does seem rather novel. Rather than shy away from hard topics or leave people without a safe space to get valuable information, Sutton wants us to try something different. He wants us to actually ask the uncomfortable questions and listen to what comes next.