A Black woman, based in Houston and applying online for a job with an Australian tech company, came across a so-called “paper bag test” about her skin tone. Her tweet about it went viral, leading a number of people to express outrage that a company attempted to solicit such a response in 2021.
Charné Graham exposed the “paper bag test” on May 9, asking the Twitterverse, “Has anyone ever seen this on a job application?” and posting the drop-down menu for “complexion” she encountered on an online job interview. The screengrab also shows that she identified as “Black or African American” under the ethnicity category.
She went on to note the company name, Appen Limited, adding that “a recruiter reached out to me on LinkedIn to apply for a role” and that she “did not continue with the app after seeing the paper bag test.”
The Daily Dot, who reached out to Graham, clarified that the digital marketing and social media marketing specialist lost her job 14 months ago due to the pandemic. “She has been looking for work since,” it reported, “and was recently contacted by a recruiter via LinkedIn and asked to apply for a part-time ‘social media evaluators’ position at Appen, a machine intelligence company in Australia.”
“Graham said she understands that as an AI firm, there’s a requirement for having data on different skin tones, given the AI’s history of mixing up Black people that has resulted in many racial profiling cases,” the Daily Dot explained. Yet, she found the question’s placement right under ethnicity a concerning one.
It raised some eyebrows on Twitter. One respondent, using the handle @youdamnskippy, noted, “This is why I lie & say I’m white on every single form that I fill out because I don’t have time to play with ppl like this. Marriage license? White. Driver’s License? White. Job Applications? White.”
Another person joked, “I’m gonna put white and show up like this.”
Appen did remove the question after Graham’s tweet went viral, with the company’s Senior Vice President of Human Resources and Crowdsourcing explaining how it came about.
“We collect data from our crowd of contractors in an effort to take the bias out of AI,” she said. “We acknowledge that without an explanation up front as to why it is so important to ask some of these questions, and the way the question was presented, it missed the mark and that’s on us to fix.”
“To be clear, there is no intended racism in our hiring processes, practices or policies, she went on to say. “We continually work to reflect the cultural and ethnic diversity both in our workforce, and with crowd workers in 170+ countries who speak 235+ languages.”
Graham told the Sydney Morning Herald, who also reached out on the story, that the question was “a lazy way to try to diversify the artificial intelligence industry.”
“This particular portion of the on-boarding process was a failed attempt of implementing diversity in any industry,” she observed. “Diversity, equity and inclusion are vital in every company but since the tech industry has been historically known to exclude women and Black people this question was not the best way to test out ‘machine learning’.”