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The case for describing race in alternative text attributes

by Tolu AdegbiteTolu Adegbite

Why it’s important in 3 examples

Designers and developers have huge power in shaping societal norms (when was the last time you met a couple in their 20s who didn’t meet on a dating app?). We also have a huge impact in creating a story and crafting a sort of reality for people that consume the content we put out into the world. Alt text forms part of that storytelling of a designed reality.

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If you are white, you may not think about or talk about race often.

If you are a person of color, and especially if you are Black (like myself), you probably think and talk about race all the time.

Our assumptions about race impact our world view so much that it can be easy to overlook unless we are confronted by it .I have to think about race often because it affects me often, and I have to grapple with the fact that the way I am perceived, my career success, my safety, and many of the interactions I have with other people, are impacted by my race.

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Describing race in alt-text

An alternative text attribute is usually brief and highly context specific. Here are some examples of what an alt text attribute might look like:

Elizabeth Eckford, a Black woman, and one of the Little Rock Nine, walking ahead of a white crowd, with a white woman screaming behind her.

Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine. (Credit: U.S. Embassy The Hague. CC BY-ND 2.0.)

Alt text without reference to race: “Woman walking ahead of crowd, with woman screaming behind her”

Alt text with reference to race: “Elizabeth Eckford, a Black woman, and one of the Little Rock Nine, walking ahead of a white crowd, with a white woman screaming behind her.”

Elizabeth Eckford was one of 9 Black students (commonly referred to as the Little Rock Nine) who enrolled at an all-white school in Little Rock, Arkansas, after segregation in American public schools was declared unconstitutional. The iconic image of her walking stoically towards her school while a crowd of white students and adults heckle and jeer at her loses a lot of its context and nuance when we leave out the race of the people in the picture.

Leaving out the race of the subjects in this instance would create an inaccurate narrative that leaves out the most important piece of context from this civil rights era struggle.

Ruby Bridges (a young Black girl) walking down steps of school flanked by three white US Marshals.

Ruby Bridges, first Black child to attend an all-white elementary school. (Credit: U.S. Embassy The Hague CC BY-ND 2.0.)

Alt text without reference to race: “Ruby Bridges walking down school steps flanked by three men in suits.”

Alt text with reference to race: “Ruby Bridges (a young Black girl) walking down steps of school flanked by three white US Marshals.”

Ruby Bridges, was the first Black child to attend an all-white elementary school in New Orleans, Louisiana. Leaving out her race and that of the US Marshalls assigned to protect her from angry protestors, creates a misleading narrative surrounding the image. Including the race of the people in the image gives non-sighted readers access to a more nuanced understanding of the image, and its historical context, the same context sighted readers readily have access to.

Black man drinking from a water fountain labeled ‘Coloured’ in between signs for “White women, colored women’ and “White men, colored men’

Black man drinking at a “colored” water fountain. (Credit: Russell Lee via Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-DIG-fsa-8a26761, used under public domain.)

Alt text without reference to race: “Man drinking from a water fountain.”

Alt text with reference to race: “Black man drinking from a water fountain labeled ‘Coloured’ in between signs for “White women, colored women’ and “White men, colored men’”

Describing the race of the man in this image, as well as the labels on the water fountain gives an entirely different meaning to the image, and a more historically accurate one.

Not including the details of the race of the person in the image detaches it from the important details of its historical context.

In these examples, leaving out details about race is not specific enough at best, but at worst, is inaccurate, misleading and tells non-sighted users a story that’s different from the story told to sighted users.

Alt text is part of user experience

If you are a designer (content design, UX design, visual design), you should let the developer team know what kind of alternative text attribute to use for the images you select (are the images decorative or not?). You should also provide alt text based on the specific context the image is being used in and its purpose. Designers need to have an active part in writing alternative text because it’s part of the user’s experience and shapes their understanding of the content.

Designers need to have an active part in writing alternative text because it’s part of the user’s experience and shapes their understanding of the content.

Describing race in alternative text attributes is an important example of how technology impacts users and can shape their worldview. Giving users as much relevant information as possible gives them the context to fully understand the story around images.

It’s important to be intentional about the impact we have on our society as designers, and to minimize the harm we cause. Being more intentional about the way we use alternative text attributes is a great place to start. Giving users as much relevant information as possible gives them the context to fully understand the story around images.

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https://ux.shopify.com/the-case-for-describing-race-in-alternative-text-attributes-a093380634f2

Striving to remove barriers that prevent us from building a Diverse, Vibrant, Inclusive, Accessible Community!

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