Can a soap dispenser really be racist?
It might sound absurd, but a viral Twitter video (below), which has more than 112,000 retweets and more than 143,000 likes as of the afternoon of Aug. 17, shows a sensor-based automatic dispenser only giving soap to white hands.
The Daily Mail reports that it was posted by Chukwuemeka Afigbo, Facebook's head of platform partnerships in the Middle East and Africa.
"If you have ever had a problem grasping the importance of diversity in tech and its impact on society, watch this video," Afigbo captioned the footage, which shows a pale hand immediately getting soap on their first try.
But when a dark-skinned hand goes up next, nothing happens. He waves his hand the same way as the light-skinned person and tries over and over, but nothing happens. He then grabs a white paper towel and folds it on top of his hand. When he waves it under the dispenser, it responds quickly and gives him soap.
It was a real life iteration of "Racial Sensitivity," a 2009 episode of corporate dark comedy "Better Off Ted" in which mega-corporation Veridian Dynamics installs power sensors without knowing that they do not detect darker skin tones, resulting in a host of problems like black employees getting trapped in elevators, locked into and out of rooms and even unable to use the company water fountains, that AV Club.
"A simple problem in a sensor of machine can't be a society problem, the people are crazy?!" one person Tweeted below Afigbo's video, later adding that they thought "people are just looking for a reason to fight on both sides."
Others connected the issue to certain kinds of facial recognition software, which have had problems detecting black faces in the past.
"Maybe if the company that designed this employed a single dark skinned person they'd have found this problem earlier," said one Twitter user.
People of color have had problems with soap dispensers before. A similar incident occurred in 2015 at a Marriott hotel in Atlanta, in which none of the soap dispensers worked for black patron T. J. Fitzpatrick, reports Mic.
"I wasn't offended, but it was so intriguing, like, 'Why is it not recognizing me?'" Fitzpatrick told Mic. "I tried all the soap dispensers in that restroom, there were maybe 10, and none of them worked. Any time I went into that restroom, I had to have my friend get the soap for me."
Product VP Richard Whitney of Particle said that these dispensers send out a beam of light and give soap when the light bounces back. However, since the technology industry mostly consists of white people, it's possible that these companies did not adequately test their product on darker skin, which naturally reflects less light than white skin.
"In order to compensate for variations in skin color, the gain, [or] sensor equivalent to ISO and exposure in cameras, would have to be increased," Whitney told Mic.