plug.dj doesn’t understand white privilege

Music is pretty much a must for most devs I know to get any work done. For me, “music” usually means “Coding Soundtrack”, a communal dubstep-heavy electronica room. Last month, Kevin and I made the switch from listening on turntable.fm to plug.dj.

plug.dj grabs music from YouTube and SoundCloud, so there aren’t any hosting issues and grabbing tracks is way faster. It has way better playlist management, chat, and the UI is easier on the eyes.

It’s also pretty racist.

Initial available avatars on plug.dj

Obviously, the first thing I do on any site where you can change your appearance is change my appearance. Kevin was standing next to me at the office, and when we went to change our avatars, we both made “Ugh really?” grimaces at our screens. Single-feather headdress rabbit? Really?

As you accrue points by listening and DJing, you unlock more tiers of available avatars. You can see 0-99 above (the starter tier), and I’ve presented more tiers below in their entirety.

It gets better (not really).


By the time you hit 700 points, you’re given two more racist choices. If being an American-Indian-Appropriating rabbit isn’t your thing (or you just want to show off your point clout without having to give up tokenizing the Trail of Tears), you can be a person dressed up as a racist rabbit. Also in this tier? Ninja Panda.

Don’t worry. It gets better again (not really).


The second thing I do, after hunting for an acceptable avatar (I was one of the chilled out yetis when I still used plug.dj), is ogle the avatars I’ll obviously never have enough points to unlock. Luckily, I’m not interested in unlocking the asian caricature quartet. Conical asian hat, slanty eyes ninja is just the greatest, really.

I’m used to seeing stuff like this, turning to anyone I hang out with, and saying “are they serious?” No explanation needed. Turns out, most white people actually don’t understand that this is super uncool. And by “uncool” I mean “racist”.

Now, I don’t know how many people work at plug.dj, what the culture is like there, what the demographics of their office are like, whatever. Racist design choices regardless, right? So I shoot @plugdj a tweet:

@plugdj these native american and asian avatars are straight up racist. don’t let bullshit like this keep you from being a great service.1

Somewhat surprisingly, their CEO, Steven Sacks replies:

@edbury The girl who made them is half Korean and half Native American. I’m sure she appreciates your outrage on behalf of her peoples.

A few things happen here. First, Sacks immediately gets on the defensive because his baby got called out as being, at least partly, racist. It sucks, but this is how people react most often. Second, he publicly tokenizes the designer in a classic “my black friend said it’s okay” style. It’s worth pointing out at this point that Sacks goes ahead and wraps Chinese pandas and Japanese ninja right in there with Korea. But hey, same continent, right?

If you aren’t at least a little disappointed with Sacks and plug.dj, two things are probably true. First, you’re being racist. Second, your reasoning is something along the lines of “it’s just not that big of a deal”.

I don’t want to take up a bunch of space unpacking white privilege, so if you don’t understand why this shit is uncool or, really, why you, white individual, don’t think it’s “that big of a deal”, I suggest you read Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. It’s a non-hostile, non-alienating primer on white privilege. Trust me, it’s ten minutes toward being a better human.

And just in case you still think it’s not upsetting to anyone (after all, they were designed by a half-Korean, half-Native American woman, right?) maybe you should educate yourself because people are pissed.

You know what, though? You’re at least partly right. It really isn’t a huge deal. How hard would it have been for Sacks to take four seconds to realize, “Shit. These might actually make a lot of people kind of uncomfortable”? In fact, with all the cutesy avatar combinations possible in the world, how hard would it have been to simply not approve something tokenizing and appropriative from the beginning?

Not hard at all, apparently, because they had already put some together:

Not being racist: actually pretty simple

Fellow white people, humans, and especially technologists: put in the effort, be aware of privilege and racism. Our industry especially already presents an image and history of white brogrammers. It’s not hard to turn that around. And if someone calls you out, don’t get defensive or snide. People mess up, especially when you’re brought up in a framework that inevitably gives you blindspots. Just step back, check yourself, and be grateful someone someone cared enough to reach out at all.


10 thoughts on “plug.dj doesn’t understand white privilege

  1. Plug DJ is the collaborative effort of people from various ethnic backgrounds. Our designers and animators are collectively Asian, Native American, African American, and Middle Eastern. None of them are white. Not one. Our PR/marketing person is Latino. I am not a creative director. They design what they want and what they think our users will want.

    The people who I have the pleasure of working with are a talented team who also happen to be multicultural and of diverse races. I didn’t choose to work with them or seek them out because of their race, I chose to work with them because of their talent and skill and creativity and fun personalities. Their race has never been a factor until now when you brought it up and accused us of being racist.

    We have nothing to be defensive about. While I’m sure your heart is in the right place, you’ve been working yourself up without knowing the full story. My snarky late-night tweet aside, the team here doesn’t agree with your viewpoints about what is racist, and neither do our users because this is the first time we’ve heard anything like this, and our users are from all around the world, not just the United States.

    We are an international company at our core because we embrace our racial and cultural differences as opportunities to learn and discover and grow, not to divide or shun or hate. We seek to unite the world by breaking down language barriers and cultural barriers and using YouTube and SoundCloud so that people from all around the world can share their music and videos from their regions with people whom they likely would not reach otherwise.

    On plug.dj, you can discover an amazing electronic music producer from Thailand, followed by a kid in France who made a video of himself making a mashup with Ableton Live, and then somebody from Japan plays a song by Capsule, a dance music duo that is huge there but relatively unknown elsewhere.

    We celebrate our differences while sharing our commonalities. We use music as a uniting force, a bridge between worlds.

    We are the opposite of racist.

    • All of the things you say sound great, Steven, but it doesn’t change the fact that there are little stereotype icons for your product. I know you aren’t a creative director, but where does the buck stop, exactly? Who takes responsibility for your product, then?

      Race issues aren’t zero sum. In fact, I really think that has been one of the great victories of racism; these days people are used to thinking of racism as a “yes or no” question. Either you are a KKK Hitler…or you’re not a racist. The fact is that behaviors are racist. This isn’t a personal condemnation of you or the company, but rather a condemnation of the appropriating of Native American culture & the “cute gee whiz aw shucks” stereotypes of the Asian set.

      Is everyone going to find them offensive? Sure, no, plenty of people don’t. It seems a little weird to be like “our users never said anything!” though, since this is a conversation started by one of your users. Your users are saying something. It is happening right now.

      • @mordicai:disqus makes a great point that is overlooked when people need an out for being confronted with racist behaviors. Racism isn’t about “not liking” someone because of their race.

        Every person I saw dressed up as a sexy “Indian Princess” or a tough “Indian Brave” on Halloween wasn’t doing so to stick it to American Indians, and I don’t think anyone who met them on the street thought that. They were, however, playing into a caricature and ignoring the lived reality of those American Indians who deal with a racist system every day.

        Regardless of lack of intent to mar, spite, or present dislike for any race, costumes like that are, without a doubt, racist.

        Those costumes being designed in good faith by a handful of POCs wouldn’t magically make them not racist or prevent the people wearing them from engaging in racist behavior.

        • Maybe ya’ll should look up the definition of racism. “a person with a prejudiced belief that one race is superior to others” That is racism. Now tell me again how all this is racist? There is a difference between stereotyping and racism. While racism is wrong, stereotyping is actually not a bad thing. It is how we recognize things, if we as a society see something a certain way, and it’s not BAD, then why deviate? We all recognize what it is and that’s the point. No where is Steven saying one race is superior to the other.

          If you are saying it is “wrong” to represent a race/religion/nationality a way that they are KNOWN to be represented, then YOU are the racist one. The Indians of old wore their headress as a spiritual symbol. It was believed to be of great magical importance, and apparently since it’s racist to wear it, I guess millions and millions of people are wrong and you are correct.

          A ninja was a covert agent in feudal japan that directly operated in ways against a samurai. They were basically yin and yang of each other. The point however is that they were from JAPAN. But according to you, knowing that and honoring that is racist. Also guess where pandas live. That’s right. Asia. And since I know that and am going to associate pandas with Asia whenever I think about them, I must be a racist.

          Since America is known for having hamburgers, any American who eats a hamburger must be racist. Anyone who drinks beer in Germany is racist. Hell if someone wears a coat in Antartica they must be racist.

          I really hope you understand the lack of logic in your statement. It’s completely idiotic, and first of all definitively false since that’s not even the definition of racist.

          • Since anyone who understands the systemic nature of racism / how horribly uneducated this view of stereotyping is / how appropriation works doesn’t need me to really speak to those points, I won’t.

            It’s not actually my job to educate someone who doesn’t understand / isn’t interested in understanding white privilege. I pointed out Peggy McIntosh’s article above; you should read it and digest it.

            Come back if you still don’t think something like, I dunno, white europeans coming to an entirely new continent, exacting genocide over the course of a few hundred years, and then parading around in headdresses isn’t racist.

          • Yeah stereotyping a wonderful thing genius. I’m Italian and i just love being wrapped in with “white people” who owned slaves 150 years ago. Even though my great grandaddy didn’t come here until 50 years after slavery had been abolished and my other side fought for the union, Michael Wilbon makes no distinction between whites who owned slaves and ones who didn’t when he’s on one of his racist ESPN rants. So again i say yeah genius, stereotyping is wonderful. clown!

  2. Just because you are “not a creative director” doesn’t mean you aren’t responsible for the message your company puts out with these avatars. It explains maybe why you didn’t catch this initially, which is alright, but not why you are defending Ninja Panda now. I think its too bad that none of your designers thought these avatars were problematic. And by problematic, I mean racist.

  3. You gotta be fucking kidding me…

    So when you go to a jean store and all of their mannequins are black, do you call that racist? How about how Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter characters – you call that racist? If I show you a picture of an Italian person, it’s not racist. It’s just a picture of an Italian person.

    Stop trying so hard to “not be racist”. It’s not racist, it’s just races.

    • What joke ? Do you see any white avatars ? Maybe the man who wrote this up could have been a little less defensive and just made his point, but the bottom line is, there is no white avatars. Despite the fact that the owner says nobody has ever taken issue with the avatars before, the fact remains that it’s in black and white for you to see for yourself when you use the website. you don’t need the owner to think for you and tell you how you should feel , you can see it for yourself. just go login. Also the fact that they don’t employ any white folks should tell you all you need to know about the people who run this website.

      I ran across some racists in my time there and I spoke out about it on plugs fb page, and i got scolded for daring to speak out. it doesn’t make everyone that uses the website racist, but it was a popular room and it was so called “administrators” making the comments. No worries cause i ain’t got 4 hours to sit there waiting to play one song anyway, just to have some power trippin asshole tell you it’s played out or whatever. or put his buddies in the queue ahead of you after you just waited 3 hours to play a song.

      Plugdj , they can keep it. People try to compare it to TT, but there is no comparison.

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