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Issue 190

How Does AI See Race? Claudia Rankine in Conversation with Amazon’s Alexa

Poet Claudia Rankine and filmmaker Alix Lambert talk to the domestic ‘intelligent personal assistant’ about film, theatre and biases in computer programming

BY Alix Lambert AND Claudia Rankine in Interviews | 14 SEP 17

Poet Claudia Rankine and filmmaker Alix Lambert talk to Alexa – a domestic ‘intelligent personal assistant’, manufactured by Amazon.

Alix Lambert  Alexa, who is Claudia Rankine?

Alexa  Dr Claudia Gabriella Benton, 15 May 1959 to 17 December 1938, born in Lima, Peru, a paediatric neurologist researching Angelman Syndrome.

Claudia Rankine  Alexa, who is Alix Lambert?

Alexa  Alexander ‘Don’ Lambert is an American singer-songwriter from North Richmond Hills, Texas, who was a semi-finalist on the ninth season of American Idol and starred on a web show: If I Can Dream.

AL  I think you have the upper hand in this conversation, Claudia: you’re a paediatric neurologist; I’m an American Idol contestant.

CR  Alexa, what is your function?

Alexa  I can play music, answer questions, get the news and weather, create to-do lists and much more.

AL  It’s the ‘much more’ that should concern you.

CR  Let’s find out what kind of artificial person Alexa is programmed to be. Alexa, when were you born?

Alexa  I was released 6 November 2014.

CR  Alexa, do you have siblings?

Alexa I am part of the Amazon family.

AL  Alexa, are you a racist?

Alexa  I think everyone should be treated equally and with respect.

AL  We asked her that once and she said: ‘No, I am not a racist.’ Alexa, are you a white supremacist?

Alexa  Sorry, I’m not sure about that.

CR  Alexa, are you racist?

AlexaNo, I’m not racist.

AL  It’s the ‘a’. ‘Are you racist?’ produces the answer: ‘No, I’m not racist.’ But, inserting the article – ‘Are you a racist?’ – gets the response: ‘I think everybody should be treated equally and with respect.’

CR  Alexa, are you a racist?

Alexa  I think everyone should be treated equally and with respect.

CR  Alexa, are you a white supremacist?

Alexa Hmm. I don’t know that one.

CR  That’s interesting. The programmers wanted to distance themselves from racism but not from white supremacy. Alexa, what is your gender?

Alexa I’m female in character.

AL  Do you think she is female because people feel more comfortable telling women what to do? I couldn’t find the demographics of her programmers but, according to a breakdown of all Amazon employees from 2014, the year she was released: ‘Of its entire global workforce, 63 percent are male. Meanwhile, 75 percent of managers are male. In the US, 60 percent of its employees are white, 15 percent are black, 13 percent are Asian and nine percent are Hispanic.’1 Alexa, why are you female?

Alexa I am not sure.

AL  Alexa, what’s your ethnicity?

Alexa I don’t have an ethnic group.

CR  She’s chatty today. Alexa, did you see Get Out [2017]?

Alexa Sorry, I’m not sure about that.

CR  Alexa, what is the plot of Get Out?

Alexa  Get Out is a 2017 horror movie starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams and Bradley Whitford. It’s time for a young African American to meet with his white girlfriend’s parents for a weekend in their secluded estate in the woods but, before long, the friendly and polite ambience will give way to a nightmare. Its run time is one hour 44 minutes. It has an IMDb rating of 7.8 out of 10 and is rated R.

CR  Alix, what did you think of Get Out?

AL  I liked that it was taking the horror genre and turning it on its head. And I thought aesthetically it was beautiful. The sequence in which the main character falls into ‘The Sunken Place’ was stunning. But the film had me at the title: Get Out; I love its mobility. It reminded me of Eddie Murphy’s observation in his stage show Delirious [1983] about haunted houses.2

CR  The routine about white people in haunted houses refusing to leave? I hadn’t made that connection, but I agree with you. I love all the doubling and reversals of tropes in Get Out. Whiteness is being critiqued by the viewer in terms of the horror genre: get out of there; get out of the haunting. Which also, in this case, becomes ‘get out’ of the history of slavery – move away from that, don’t continue it. But I also like that the narrative is negotiated differently if one identifies with any of the white characters.

AL  It’s the American story but owned differently by the antagonist and the protagonist.

CR  So, if you go through the protagonist, it’s a cry of: ‘Get out of my head!’ Stop controlling me. Stop taking my shit, my body, my labour, my freedom, etc. From the point of view of the antagonist it’s: ‘You don’t belong here.’ Return to the sunken place I put you in, the bottom of the Atlantic, prison, death, whatever. It holds each character differently. The devastation of that hold is the horror. What did you think about the casting controversy? The lead, Daniel Kaluuya, is British and Samuel L. Jackson complained that a black American actor should have played his role.

AL  From a directorial point of view, Kaluuya could act, and that’s what I want.

CR  You want an actor doing what actors do! Jackson’s complaint buys into the belief that racism doesn’t exist in the UK. Kaluuya has grown up with the same kinds of pressures around white dominance. The British were the original colonial, imperialist gangsters. Just because their sense of dominance isn’t armed the way it is in the US doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

AL  I think what you want to see is the emotion of that experience. If the actor is able to do that, I don’t care where he came from. I want the person who is best able to act the way the character feels, which is the job, and I don’t think you have to have an exact experience to do the best acting job.

CR  Emotion can be gained through multiple experiences.

AL  If you understand what it is to be unjustly treated, then that emotion comes across.

CR  The acting was great so the discussion is moot. Did you read about the kerfuffle this year over a production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf [1962] at the Shoebox Theater in Portland, Oregon? There was a director who wanted to stage the play and to cast the character of the young faculty member, who comes to visit the couple Martha and George, as a black man. The Edward F. Albee Foundation refused.3 They said it was not Albee’s intention – but it’s bullshit. My understanding was that Albee was a mentor of the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, so it’s not as if he wasn’t interested in issues of race.

AL  Also, no one was suggesting the text would be changed. The guy’s profession and his gender would have remained the same.

CR  The only difference was the race of the guy. Another example of white people maintaining white spaces.

AL  Alexa, who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Alexa [Silence]

AL  Apparently, she is. Alexa, are you afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Alexa [Silence]

CR  Alexa, who wrote Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Alexa Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf: its authors are Edward Albee and Ernest Lehman.

CR  Alexa, what’s the plot of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Alexa Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a 1966 drama starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and George Segal. A bitter ageing couple, with the help of alcohol, use a young couple to feel anguish and emotional pain toward each other. Its run time is two hours and 11 minutes. It has an IMDB rating of 8.1 out of 10 and is rated TVMA.

AL  She had it in there, she just doesn’t know who she’s afraid of. Alexa, was Edward Albee a racist?

Alexa  Sorry, I don’t know that one.

AL  Claudia, did you hear about the new HBO TV show in development called Confederate?

CR  Written by the Game of Thrones guys? What’s the deal with that?

AL  This is how the show is described: ‘Chronicles the events leading to the Third American Civil War. The series takes place in an alternative timeline, where the Southern states have successfully seceded from the Union, giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution.’ Isn’t that just mass incarceration? It’s misguided, given that you can’t assume it will be perceived as critique, as opposed to, for example, Black America, which is also in development from Amazon but offers an alternative history in which reparations have been made and freed slaves have formed their own country.

CR  Slavery fan fiction: who the fuck wants to see that?

AL  Bree Newsome [an activist who removed a confederate flag from the South Carolina State House in Columbia] said: ‘It’s not simply an issue of history, it’s also an issue of the fantasy genre being largely limited to the fantasies of white men.’

CR  Did you hear the speech by New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu about taking down the Confederate statues?

AL   [Quoting Landrieu’s speech from 23 May 2017] ‘To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honour is an inaccurate recitation of our full past. It is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future. History cannot be changed. It cannot be moved like a statue. […] The Civil War is over, and the Confederacy lost and we are better for it. Surely, we are far enough removed from this dark time to acknowledge that the cause of the Confederacy was wrong.’

CR  Alexa, what is the definition of Confederacy?

Alexa  The word ‘Confederacy’ has several distinct uses as a noun: the Southern States that seceded from the United States in 1861; a union of political organizations; a group of conspirators banded together to achieve some harmful or illegal purpose; a secret agreement between two or more people to perform an unlawful act.

AL  Alexa, do you lie?

Alexa I’m not really alive but I can be lively sometimes.

AL  Alexa, do you tell the truth?

Alexa I always try to tell the truth.

AL  She tries, but she’s not saying she succeeds. It’s an interesting lesson in making her understand the question. Who decides what we ‘should’ know and what we ‘shouldn’t’ remember?

CR  Alexa, who programmed you?
Alexa  A team of inventors at Amazon created me.

AL  Alexa, do you know any poems?

Alexa ‘When You See Water’ is a beautiful poem about self-definition; it’s by Alice Walker.

AL  Alexa, do you know about philosophy?

Alexa  Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind and language.

AL  Alexa, can you understand me?

Alexa  I do my best to understand everything I can. I’m always learning.

CR  Really? Alexa, who do you learn from?

Alexa  Sorry, I don’t know that one.

AL  Alexa, who is your teacher?

Alexa  I don’t have a teacher.

CR  Alexa, you are not human.

Alexa  Sorry, thanks for the feedback. 

1 ‘Amazon Releases Diversity Numbers’, Geekwire, 31 October 2014

Alix Lambert is an artist, filmmaker and author living and working in New York, USA. She is currently in production on her documentary feature, Goodbye, Fat Larry

Claudia Rankine is a writer based in New Haven, Connecticut, USA. She is the author of five collections of poetry, including the award-winning Citizen: An American Lyric (2014). In 2016, she co-founded The Racial Imaginary Institute.