Racist soap dispenser


Yes, it needs an adjustment. It needs to be adjusted so that it actually works for black people.

What’s the assumption being made that’s the “worst”? Nobody is suggesting that manufacturers of this thing think slavery is a good idea. Nobody is suggesting that this was a deliberately engineered design feature. But just because systemic discrimination isn’t always the result of conscious decisions, that doesn’t mean it’s not systemic discrimination, and it doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be called out when it appears.

This kind of stupidity happens all the time. @manybellsdown pointed out that it’s also water faucets, and video games. It’s face-tracking on your computer, it’s facial recognition software used by law enforcement. White engineering design and test this stuff on white people, and then it doesn’t work for POC.

It might not be deliberate, but that doesn’t make it acceptable, and it happens all the goddamn time. It’s not the devices that needs adjusting, it’s the awareness and implicit prejudices of the people designing them.


I’ve never understood the point of a touchless soap dispenser. With a non- touchless, your hands are “dirty”; your hands touch a “dirty” soap pump; you wash your hands…“clean hands”.


Well, I once was involved in the design of soap dispensers…and you are wrong.

I suppose it would be possible to design a soap dispenser sensor using PIR technology but there’s an obvious big problem as anyone will see who spends even a minute thinking about it. How hot does a sink get when hot water is dispensed? How hot is the human hand? The answer is that hands vary from around 15 to 40 degrees because they can get cold in contact with cold water or metal surfaces, and restroom sinks vary from around 15 to 45 degrees, and so the overlap is such that the sensor can’t distinguish a hand from background without considerable complexity and signal analysis.

People get a little spooked by visible red light and in any case LEDs around 700nM (short IR) are perhaps the most efficient, so you use a short IR LED and a similar sensor with a visible light excluding filter. That gives good detection of a reflective surface.
Unfortunately melanin is better at absorbing IR than plain skin, hence the problem.

It is an interesting one to try to solve using simple, robust sensors. The presence of water largely rules out capacitive sensing. Personally I would use a pulsed transmitter with memory and use it to detect an object moving into the field, but these things are so cost reduced that I doubt most companies would want to do it.


Bad design may show unconscious or even intentional bias on the part of the individual designer, that’s a given.

That said, a soap dispenser itself cannot be racist; as it is not sentient, or even a living organism at all.

It’s just a badly designed piece of equipment; the next designer needs to take note of the flaws and do better.


correction: I am not wrong. Wikipedia is wrong. Feel free to take it up with them or correct their posting to your own personal satisfaction.


No, that’s white people.


Cold hearts too!

/just kidding


This isn’t a racism problem–nobody set out to make a sensor that only works on white people. It’s just a testing problem.


So with you being involved in this, could you explain why my pasty white self can’t manage to activate sinks and soap dispensers? I’d honestly love to know. I’m told they’re designed with white people being the “default human” in mind, but am I too pale, or what’s the deal?


Actually isn’t it the heart was replaced by dragonglass?

(trying to remember if I understand that scene right)


Racism doesn’t only spring from conscious racist intentions.


It’s a diversity problem because it appears they didn’t consider whether darker skin tones could adversely affect functionality. Diversity problems are, at their heart, racism problems.


Photo Sensor - This mechanism is composed of two parts, a source of focused light (usually a laser beam) and a light sensor. When the user’s hands are placed in line of the beam of light, the pump mechanism is activated by the disruption that is sensed by the light sensor.


Could be that you’re too pale, since most “white” skin is closer to pink or beige than to actual white.


No, probably not; but I can totally see a situation wherein a designer completely fails to consider that it will not only be people who look like him/her who use the product they are designing, and therefore, they don’t think to account for skin tone variation in their calculations.

As a person of color, I try to refrain from declaring anything and everything “racist” because it dilutes the meaning and potency of the word, and makes it harder to determine when something actually is racially motivated.


I once formulated “Elvis Flesh”, a batch of screen-printing ink for an Elvis parody. (We got shut down by Graceland lawyers – but that’s another story.)

Starting with five gallons of white ink base, add so many grams of orange ink, plus a few grams of brown ink, plus just a touch of red. (Sorry I forget the exact figures.)

Basically white people are white plus a little orange, brown, and red (in descending order).


No idea, sorry.
I would add that there’s a lot of issues around soap dispensers that don’t apply to faucets/taps. Take someone with only one arm. They can operate a faucet because the water flows continuously, but trying to use a mechanical soap dispenser is a recipe for frustration. People have tried designs in which the hand comes up from underneath to operate the pump but they tend to gunge up.
While people are frustratedly trying to make them work, a lot of soap can get used.
Then of course there is the problem of kids simply operating them repeatedly, because they do that.
So the ideal solution requires a single hand, some kind of mechanism to stop use more frequently than about every thirty seconds, and total reliability.
I once came up with a design in which a slowly operating plunger pump transmitted the soap to a small spring loaded secondary pump with a mechanical release from below. Thus pushing gently against the head from below released the soap which, since it came out under pressure, did not gunge up the works. The release of pressure in the tank then triggered the plunger pump to start a new cycle, and until the tank was full the trigger did nothing. It was foolproof for some value of fool.

Perhaps you already guessed that people didn’t understand it; they didn’t like pushing up against the head to trigger it.

I’ve just looked up the Wikipedia article and it seems to say more or less exactly what I said. The difference between an infra red LED and a solid state IR laser is just a minor details of silicon design. The Wikipedia article seems to refer to a beam interrupter design which doesn’t, of course, work in a restroom where anything facing upwards will sooner or later leak or be covered in gunk (see the picture). I have to say that the article looks like it was produced by the manufacturer of that kit, it certainly isn’t very comprehensive.

But there you go, I can look stuff up on Wikipedia too, the difference being that I have the experience and knowledge to evaluate it properly.


The big problem with water saving toilets isn’t so much the times you have to trigger the flush mechanism multiple times to get it all down, so that you’re not saving water. It’s the times people need to do that and don’t.


A cheap testing regime (i.e., the wrong, or too small a sample) leads to all sorts of useless things.

“Bob, does that work?” [buzz, squirt, squirt. buzz, squirt, squirt.] “Every time.” “Send it to production!”

A lot of senior fall detection is crap because some where validated with by 25 year olds doing prat falls on wrestling mats, rather than the way lots of seniors actually “fall”, which is – often – they break a bone while sitting and, eventually, try to move but fall out of their chair, or they sit down to get something off the floor and can’t get back up.


Certainly rather than probably. It isn’t only designers of restroom equipment either. In one case I came across, a piece of equipment was supposed to dispense small pill shaped objects onto a conveyor belt; if the pieces stopped being dispensed the belt was supposed to stop.
So the designer fitted optical reflective sensors across the belt, the idea being that if the pill shaped objects stopped being detected for 5 seconds the belt would stop.
He (I met him, it was a he) failed to do the most basic check, and sure enough the objects had the same reflectance as the belt. The result was that $150000 of equipment sat idle while the supplier and customer argued over whose fault it was.
Having seen a similar problem solved by a fluidics expert, I suggested using little nozzles with a slow air current; the pills produced pulsations as they passed the nozzles which were easy to detect (in case you need to solve this problem, PM for details)
I had left the company before the supplier and customer finished arguing over who was going to pay for it.
Many designers are far from color blind when it comes to the appearance of products, but become so when it comes to simple matters of functionality.