Somewhere in San Francisco there’s a small network of open-minded, non-judgmental black men and women who will answer any question you have about black people. Their service, Anonymously Ask A Black Person (1-877-605-2741), was designed to give anyone quick, easy access to black opinions for those times when you're too embarrassed to ask or, you know, when you just don’t know any black people. Unlike the popular ¡Ask A Mexican! column, which is satirical, all of Anonymously Ask A Black Person answers are written in earnest.
The concept is simple: you text your question to Anonymously Ask A Black Person’s phone number and wait for an answer. The time it takes to get an answer varies — the team’s only recently expanded to 10 people — but every answer is thorough and straightforward no matter the question.
There are certain questions about blackness that rarely come up in casual, polite conversation because they brush up against deeper, more complex ideas about black identity that can be difficult to discuss frankly. Anonymously Ask A Black Person wants people to ask those questions knowing that they’re going to get answers directly from black people.
The questions don’t specifically have to be about black people, but every answer that you get comes directly from a black person, something founder Wayne Sutton thinks is the project’s core feature. Sutton came up with the idea after seeing the success of social experiment startups like Magic and Stanford Nerd that operate entirely over SMS. Initially, he approached the project as an opportunity to flex his coding muscles and build something fun.
Ask anything you want, and you'll get an answer.
“It started off as a weekend hack and now it’s a product and platform that’s becoming entertaining and immersed in the conversation about black culture,” Sutton told Fusion. “Look at how Twitter started—it was just an SMS platform with a web interface.”
Over a long Memorial Day weekend, Sutton hunkered down with a number of coding tutorials and dove into the deep end of a one-man hackathon. By Sunday morning, Anonymously Ask A Black Person was live. Sutton shared the project through his own social media accounts without telling people that he’d built it. Predictably, the early response was mixed. Some insisted that the service wasn’t real and that the answers were all generated by robots.
By Monday the site made it to the front page of Product Hunt, a Y-Combinator backed startup that surfaces new tech products and ranks them on a leaderboard. Though some people were initially taken with the idea, many commenters quickly turned when they thought that the project was actually a bad attempt at making racially charged humor. Product Hunt soon took the post down, citing the number of users that had reacted negatively to the project.
“No one knew Wayne, a black man, built the project and some may have assumed the responses from the 'anonymous black person' would be filled with stereotypical, lowbrow humor,” Product Hunt founder Ryan Hoover told Fusion. “If they had known who built it and tried the product, I believe many people's perception would have changed.”
Sutton chalks up the the negative response on Product Hunt to the fact that originally the entire AABP team was operating anonymously. Without a public spokesperson vouching for their mission statement, there was no way to “prove” that the team was actually a group of black people.
“I believe the Product Hunt team did the right thing being I wasn't there to defend the product and their community was upset,” Sutton explained. “But then what does that say about the community? Are they not OK with a product [based on asking black people question] or putting black people in thought leadership position?”
Even after the Product Hunt backlash, the questions steadily trickled in. Some were crass, but others were serious inquiries that people trusted the service to answer honestly. Since its official launch last Friday, Anonymously Ask A Black Person has answered more than 250 different questions and seen sharp spikes in its web traffic. User engagement is on the rise and the questions that people are asking are beginning to require more nuanced answers.
“One of the most powerful questions we ever received was ‘Why do black people on average have such low IQs compared to whites and Asians,’” Sutton said. “It was an opportunity to explain that black people’s IQs aren’t lower, they’re just underrated by society. It’s almost like we’re defending ourselves as a culture against stereotypes and perception.”
Though anonymity is built into Anonymously Ask A Black Person, part of what makes the platform compelling is its transparency. Every time a person sends in a question, the text is automatically published to its public-facing Twitter account and hashtagged #AABP.
There’s no way of knowing exactly who’s asking the questions unless people choose to describe themselves in their messages. Reading through the #AABP hashtag, though, it’s clear Anonymously Ask A Black Person isn’t just being used by curious white people.
There are questions about music, fashion, and food that speak to the potential for the project to become something much larger than a straight-up texting service. The goal isn’t just to answer questions individually, but to create an open conversation where people are encouraged to speak across racial difference.
The platform is still small, but Sutton thinks that Anonymously Ask A Black Person has the potential to become a part of what gets people to stop talking past one another when it comes to race. Right now the AABP team isn't focused on monetizing the platform, they've got a strong vision of the value that they plan to bring to the public.
“We see AABP tearing down the intellectual and emotional barriers that continue to divide us down racial lines,” he said. “Our goal is to be the leading voice providing a clarity to anyone who has a question about race and culture from Black people. Ask us the why, and we will tell you.”