Remember the Chappelle's Show segment called "Ask a Black Dude" with Paul Mooney? Ten years later, that classic segment has taken on a new form as the "Anonymously Ask A Black Person" app. Instead of video cameras on the streets of New York, users can download and ask any question they like with an immediate response. I recently talked to Wayne Sutton, AABP founder and creator, about the app, the impact of technology today, and how AABP is innovating the kinds of conversations we have about race.
What was your path into the technology industry?
My path into the tech industry began with exposure. I grew up with an Atari Commodore '64 as a kid, where I played video games and also did my best home repair when it would break. Eventually, my family had a Windows 3.1 computer at home which I immediately adapted to. Growing up, I had a passion for art and drawing which led me to take art class in high school and adapt to the single computer we had in art school. As a child, I wanted my own company, a design firm at that time, which really was the beginning of my entrepreneurial drive. I would say I was a mix between a geek and a nerd that loved good design.
How did you come up with “Anonymously Ask A Black Person?”
There’s not a single point I can focus on to how or why did “Anonymously Ask A Black Person” launch. Part of the reason is that it was Memorial day weekend. I’ve been organizing technical workshops and fireside chats for the past couple of months, and I wanted to build something. Another reason is I saw "Nerd" on Product Hunt a couple of months ago. I thought it was a cool idea and that I could build something similar. Another reason is I read about the text delivery startup "Magic" that raised $12 million and was like, "I could build that." Add those reasons, along with looking at how news and media continue to portray African Americans and recent conversations with some of my non-black friends who shared with me their own stories about being nervous or unsure of how/if to ask a black person would they prefer to be called black or African-American. I was inspired to build.
What’s unique about apps and the type of impact they can have on society?
I’ve been really thinking about this a lot recently. The physiological implications of how apps are affecting our culture will be studied long after we have realized the pros and cons for multiple generations. The technology behind apps has created instant gateways to limitless information, entertainment and wealth. Yet, there are still many cultural and economic problems that exist today [that existed] before mobile and web apps existed such as high unemployment among the African-American community, racial barriers and educational gaps.
When we think about how Twitter changed how we share news and created the “real time” communication channel, it moved an entire industry forward. The same can be said about Facebook, giving people the power to share and make the world more open and connected. But we can also say “with more apps, comes more responsibility” as the app generation has also created online mobs with groupthink mentality along with clear distinctions connected to culture and racial lines of who are — the app makers and the consumers.
What are some of the most interesting questions people have asked?
We’ve had almost every type of question you would expect from but here are some of our most interesting along with the answers.
Q: Why do black people on average have such low IQs compared to whites and Asians?
A: Black people don't have low IQs. We have the most underrated IQ :-)
Q: What's the best way that I, as a white person, can help people of color?
A: Educate yourself on the race issues the USA has and continues to experience. Understanding the why is a big part of being able to help
Q: Is it true that 50 percent of the time a black person is pulled over its because he was driving while black?
A: DWB is definitely alive. I am not sure on your statistics, but I am sure it is right on from personal experiences :-)
Q: What is the most important thing you are concerned about in your life?
A: How to leave this world better than when I entered it :-)
We usually tag our responses with “-your friendly neighborhood black person #aabp”
The topic of race relations is often accompanied by a call for “dialogue.” How does AABP bring nuance to the conversation?
If we just look at the last 12 months of race-related news in America and how the different perceptions of black people are viewed in addition to the hashtags, blog post and marches you would think it's August 28, 1963. Not only do we still need an open dialogue about race, but we need multiple ways to have the dialogue. AABP provides a safe way for anyone to ask a question to a black person anonymously.
I used to be against anonymity but now seeing how easy it is for online mobs to create an unsafe environment for people of all races and genders, if anonymity can be used to break down racial barriers through questions via SMS then why not?
To quote Carl Sagan in his work, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, he said: “There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question”.
What are some of the takeaways you hope users have of black people after using the app?
At AABP we keep in mind that we are not speaking for all black people. But because myself and the rest of the team are all black, we realize how an answer from our site can be portrayed as a voice for black people. Therefore we have adopted a set of core values: be authentic, communicate with compassion and empathy, provide value, be creative, innovate with technology, enhance community and have fun. We hope the takeaways that our users have include that black people are creative, intellectual individuals who do not portray any single stereotype. We also hope the takeaway is not so much the answer we provide, but what the intellectual and emotional “WHY” the person is asking the question and what does that say about them and their experiences.
What advice do you have for young creatives?
The advice I have for young creatives is threefold. One — learn to build. There’s a reason my company is called BUILDUP. You can BUILDUP intellect, relationships, communites, people, apps, ideas and more. But learning the skills and the experience you gain by building are priceless.
The second piece of advice would be to tell stories, preferably by writing. I’m mostly referring to blogging and social media. Storytelling is also a great way to build a name for yourself, educate others and change lives. If writing's not your strong suit, then learn how to tell stories via podcast or online video.
The last piece of advice would be to think world changing. Let’s take a look at the one of Steve Jobs' many famous quotes. “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” The keyword here is “THINK.” Once you start thinking that you are going to change the world and start examining ways that you are going to change the world, that will keep you in a mindset of growth and scale. Think big, think impactful and change the world.
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