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Uber has created and maintained a systemic corporate culture that tolerates and maintains discrimination toward women and people of color.

By Katie Mitchell

In the latest of a litany of diversity related issues, a Florida Uber driver allegedly called Safety Pin Box co-founder Marissa Johnson “a fat black bitch” before leaving her stranded in a neighborhood that, according to locals, is the “most dangerous part of town and a well-known crack spot.”

Johnson was leaving the BlogHer Conference, after receiving an award on behalf of Safety Pin Box, a monthly subscription box for white people striving to be allies in the fight for Black Liberation.

As stated by tweets from Safety Pin Box co-founder, Leslie Mac, the Uber driver was lecturing Johnson about the positive virtues of his slave-owning great-grandfather when the racist and sexist insults began.


In an interview with Wear Your Voice, Johnson expounded upon the incident, noting that the conversation was “mundane at first.”  Johnson does not like to talk to Uber drivers. However, her driver, known only as James, insisted that she talk to him about race. The conversation went from police body cameras to slavery.

“I felt unsafe after that,” Johnson recalls. James shared that his slave-owning great-grandfather was a good person because he taught slaves how to read and write and emancipated them if they could prove their literacy.


Johnson described the escalation of the already tense conversation, “There’s no such thing as a kind slave owner. I told him his great-grandfather was not kind or benevolent. That set him off.”

Johnson called Mac to let her know what was unfolding. When it became clear that Johnson would not affirm James’s great grandfather’s goodness, James began driving away from Johnson’s destination.

With her flight time quickly approaching, Johnson asked her driver if they were near the airport. According to Johnson, James then said “I’m not taking you to the airport” before telling Johnson to “get the fuck out of [his] car.” Johnson reported the incident after she was no longer in immediate danger.

Uber’s community guidelines clearly state that it is “common courtesy” not to “shout” or “swear” and places the responsibility on a safe trip on the driver. Johnson’s account clearly demonstrate that James blatantly disregarded these guidelines. Uber also claims to value “honest feedback” as it “helps ensure that everyone is accountable for their behavior.”  


But Uber’s response to Johnson’s feedback did not focus on accountability. Johnson received the same initial canned response as anyone who gives their driver a 1 star rating. Uber later called and told Johnson that they would be investigating the incident but would not be able to share the results due to their privacy policy. Uber did refund her fare and assured her that she would never be matched with James again. Uber’s response to Johnson’s complaints of the harrowing ride highlights their indifference in issues regarding discrimination and customer safety.  

The lackluster response, while infuriating, is unsurprising. The entire event underscores how Uber, like many other tech companies, has created and maintained a systemic corporate culture that tolerates and maintains discrimination toward women and people of color.

This year the ride-hailing giant company endured a barrage of public criticism after the airing of multiple accounts of sexual harassment and reports that exposed a stark underrepresentation of black and brown employees.

Just this month Uber pushed out its former CEO due in part due to his inability to handle concerns about inclusion. However, critics are skeptical if staff changes will be enough.

“Uber has demonstrated that its problem is not only about a single figure — a reputational cancer that could have been cut away — but that the cancer has infected the rest of the body,” Audra Diers-Lawson, a professor of public relations strategy at Leeds Beckett University said in an interview with the Atlantic.


However, Johnson believes Uber can begin to improve by having a more transparent investigation process when complaints are filed. During her ride, Johnson was unaware that her driver turned away from the airport. She suggests that Uber implement a safety protocol that alerts customers or contacts drivers when a driver drives away from the destination. Johnson also cited Uber’s lenient background checks a problem to be addressed by the company.

Last weekend’s events demonstrate the resurgence of the type of open bigotry that has been previously more covert.  The descendent of a slave owner having to chauffeur a Black woman who makes her living by telling white people how to be less racist chose to reinforce his power and put Johnson back her place.

The notion that a user-centric, technology company such as Uber would respond so mildly to accusations of racial slurs and awful service is illogical. Uber’s practices directly contradict the professed goals of making money and achieving market share. But as the nation learned last fall, for many Americans, white supremacy and patriarchy are goals worth pursuing, even at the cost of one’s own well-being.



Featured Image: AP

Katie is a UX writer and content creator working in the tech industry. She helps academics, professionals, and creatives share their expertise by coaching them through the writing and publishing process. When's she not writing, reading, or devouring chocolate chip cookies, she's loudly pretending to be from Atlanta. Follow her on Twitter and the 'gram @blkkatie.

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