How to be an anti-racist designer? | Guest article by Helen Gimber
Maybe you were looking for something like this, maybe you just stumbled across it, either way, I am not promising that you will be able to tick “don’t be racist” off your to-do list after reading this. What I do hope is that you will understand why “don’t be racist” is not something that can be ticked off a to-do list. Without the question mark, the title of this post would be a very bold claim – the question mark hints towards a questioning, a searching – a process – one that I hope this post will inspire you to start the journey towards or to commit to more fully.
Design and creativity can be and have a history of being incredibly powerful tools in evidencing injustices, speaking truth to power or promoting a cause – I highlighted 10 examples of the latter for jovoto back in 2017. While researching for this post I came across Visualizing Racism, a powerful photo essay in which nine photographers take on the challenge of depicting bigotry. If you’ve never heard the name Emory Douglas, watch and/or read a bit about him and the iconic imagery he created for the Black Panthers. Also, check out artist Bisa Butler’s work – colorful quilts with lessons in Black history stitched in, for example, this portrait of Frederick Douglass:
But that is not the focus of this post. I set out to collect together some thoughts, and related links and resources on racism and anti-racism and how they intersect with the design and creative industries of which we are a part. “Towards being Anti-Racist in Design” might be a more honest title.
This is an invitation, or better yet, a call to action to everyone in the jovoto community and the wider design and creative industries to take a look at themselves, their mindsets, their work, and their communities and to consider how racism manifests itself in those contexts and what they can do to counteract it.
Starting at the start
Firstly, let’s see where you are at…
Part of working to be an anti-racist designer is striving to be an anti-racist person. There have been many lists of resources doing the rounds, but I want to touch on a few common stumbling blocks to starting down the anti-racist path…
If you are thinking: “I don’t see color” – watch “Color blind or color brave?”, a talk by finance executive, Mellody Hobson.
If you feel uncomfortable saying “Black Lives Matter” – comedian Michael Che has some questions for you.
If you’re thinking: “but reverse racism is a thing” – listen to what comedian Aamer Rahman has to say about that.
The idea that race is a biological category to which certain characteristics can be assigned and that therefore the supposed “white race” is “superior” to others was championed by “scientists” and “intellectuals” and held up as “fact” for centuries. The idea of white supremacy was invented to justify white Europeans invading, colonizing, and oppressing the rest of the world. (Yes, invented – see journalist and political activist Ash Sarkar’s video “When Were White People Invented?”)
When people think about racism they often think of the interpersonal level – interactions between two people and when people think about “racists” they often think about the stereotypical “skinhead” shouting abuse at people in the street. This is one layer, yes – but it massively distracts from the more insidious layers and is, in fact, only the tip of the iceberg. The theory of race as a biological trait has been debunked – assigning characteristics to skin color has been proved to be as arbitrary as assigning them to eye color – but its legacy lives on in our institutions and pretty much all aspects of our lives. Race as a social construct remains, race isn’t real, but racism is and it is institutionalized and structural. Therefore, if you want to “not be racist”, it’s not enough to merely try and “do no harm”, but rather one needs to actively think about and work against racists beliefs, structures, and institutions. The famous quote by political activist and author, Angela Davis sums this up: “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist”
And secondly, a few things about me…
I am a white woman from the UK who has lived in Germany since 2010. There wasn’t really a defining moment – like this last month has been for many people – when I started trying to be anti-racist, it was a process which “intensified” around 8 years ago, when I started actively learning more about and from Black Feminism, Critical Whiteness, and Anti-Racism. I am writing this post on the back of what I have learned since then, content that I have come across, debates that I have followed. I’m not trying to preach, but rather offer some stepping stones for your own journey. I am still learning. Being anti-racist is an ongoing process. As writer Ijeoma Oluo so perfectly puts it…
How did we get here?
Unless you have been actively avoiding the news for the past month, you will understand why we are talking about racism now, but I will attempt the impossible task of a succinct recap: George Floyd was killed by police in Minnesota on May 25, 2020. This came in close succession to increased media coverage and public awareness of Breonna Taylor being killed by police in March in Kentucky and Ahmaud Arbery being killed by a retired police officer in February in Georgia. These are three of the recent and higher profile cases in a long history of senseless killings of African-Americans and racial injustices in the US – there are many other names that get less mainstream attention, Tony McDade for example.
Vigils for George Floyd quickly morphed into widespread protests under the #BlackLivesMatter banner. It is impossible to completely understand the outrage that people feel and their motivations to protest and, yes, riot and loot without going further into history. The Root compiled a succinct Timeline of Events That Led to the 2020 ‘Fed Up’-rising which starts in 1619 with the first ship of enslaved Africans docking in what is now the United States. Ava DuVernay’s documentary film, 13TH, provides detailed insights into the country’s history of racial inequality and the criminalization of Blackness. Author and activist, Kimberly Latrice Jones went viral using Monopoly as a metaphor to highlight economic injustices faced by the African-American community.
All of that focuses on the US context, but, as we’ve seen, the protests quickly spread around the world. Anti-racist organizers have been adapting the rallying calls to their local contexts – highlighting topics that they have been talking about and campaigning on for years. The protests went global because — while there are nuances, shades, variations, specificities – different landscapes, different histories, etc — racism is global. It is a mistake to look at the US without also looking in the mirror. You should do your own research about racism, colonialism, and discrimination encoded into laws in your own contexts: your language(s), your country, your city, your street. My street, for example, is named after a German colonizer and there is now an official process to rename it after a long campaign finally resulted in a vote in the local government last year. Unwilling to wait for bureaucracy, someone recently took matters into their own hands and painted over the street sign. Maybe anti-Black racism will not be the only relevant topic in your contexts, maybe it’s colorism, or anti-Indigenous-, anti-Roma- or anti-Asian racism or maybe Islamophobia or antisemitism.
What stories are we telling?
Maybe you are thinking, “ok racism is a thing, but what does racism or anti-racism have anything to do with me as a designer”. If so, I encourage you to think for a moment about the role design and the creative industries play in telling, shaping, branding, and packaging the stories and narratives that define our lives and our interactions with each other and the world. Then I encourage you to watch “The danger of a single story” by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and think about the power of design to either perpetuate or challenge stereotypes.
“So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become… Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Time and time again, the commercial viability of films, tv shows, or advertising campaigns fronted by Black people and people of color is questioned. “They wouldn’t appeal to a broad audience,” they say. A white face is seen as “the norm” to which everyone can relate – regardless of the racial makeup of a country. This article discusses this phenomenon in Mexico, but there are many countries that could be used as an example.
The advertising industry has a lot to answer for when it comes to pushing eurocentric beauty ideals – or just making outright racist “faux pas”. In 2015, H&M was called out for using mainly white models when opening a store in South Africa and ended up apologizing for implying Black models wouldn’t “portray their clothes in a positive light”. A few years later the company was apologizing again – this time for choosing a Black boy to model their “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” sweater – which was too close to the bone of an age-old racist stereotype. In 2016, a Chinese laundry detergent ad went viral for depicting a Black man being “washed clean” and thereby transforming into a Chinese man. In 2017, Dove apologized for missing “the mark in representing women of color thoughtfully” in an ad that looped a Black woman removing her t-shirt to reveal a white woman. In 2018, Heineken recalled ‘Lighter Is Better’ after a swift backlash – a commercial that saw a bartender slide a beer bottle along a bar past three Black people to end up in the hands of a fairer-skinned woman.
The Heineken ad prompted Chance to the Rapper to conjecture that “companies are purposely putting out noticeably racist ads so they can get more views.” It does beg thinking about. With the very recent example from VW, it is hard to believe a racist ad wasn’t the intention – a large white hand pushes a small Black-figure around and into a building which translates to “little colonizer” in English and for a fleeting moment the n* word is spelled out on screen. VW is looking to the design agency for answers.
These are only the examples that caught someone’s attention and went viral and then prompted an apology, there are many more examples that are not so overtly problematic that manage to stay under the radar of public outrage, and remain in the public realm and influence public opinion. Packaging is a whole other story – our supermarket shelves are littered with imagery that harks back to a bygone era. Racism Untaught facilitates workshops for academics and organizations to identify forms of Racialized Design – design that perpetuates elements of racism. Last year they tasked Graphic Design students with looking at the long history of Black archetypes and racist stereotypes in the food industry and their proposed solutions included transition packaging that highlighted the racism in the original packaging. One of the brands that they were looking at – Aunt Jemima – have recently announced a rebrand but are many other examples.
As designers, we make many decisions about how to depict situations, scenarios, moods, etc – and they are often “aspirational” – intended to suggest possible realities – like in advertising or on packaging. When it comes to something like infographics though, we make decisions about how to visualize concrete facts, figures, or relative sizes of things.
The ultimate infographic
The world map is maybe the ultimate infographic, but have you ever thought of it that way? The Mercator projection is by far the most commonly used version and has come to define how we view the world. It was presented by European geographer and cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569 and it offers a skewed view of the world. The further away a country is from the equator, the more its size is inflated on the map. Some examples (from Wikipedia):
Greenland appears the same size as Africa, when in reality Africa’s area is 14 times greater.
Africa also appears to be roughly the same size as South America, when in reality Africa is more than 1.5 times as large.
Madagascar and the United Kingdom look about the same size, but Madagascar is twice as big as the UK.
In almost any other context, such disparities would be seen as a big #fail – say a child learning about graphs in school or a designer being commissioned by a newspaper to visualize some statistics – they would be sent back to the drawing board to come up with a visualization that was more accurate and less misleading. At the core of racism is the idea that people with darker skin are inferior to people with lighter skin. Inferiority is often linked to size or lack thereof. How would the world have been different, if the most common depiction of it showed the true size of Africa? How would this have affected society’s view of Africa and its global diaspora?
Gall-Peters projection, south-up (which half of the globe is defined as the north was also an arbitrary decision) – Daniel R. Strebe, CC BY-SA
What stories do you want to tell?
Think about what stories you are telling or supporting with your work. Think about cliches and stereotypes and think about how you can use design to challenge them rather than reproduce them. Think about flipping the script on the mainstream narrative.
Writer, comedian, and commentator Baratunde Thurston leads the way when it comes to headlines in his talk: “How to deconstruct racism, one headline at a time”. Think about how a similar idea could be applied to your design discipline.
Racist by design
What happens when (un)conscious bias gets hard-coded into our tech? When photo processing became standardized and more widely available it was optimized to show white skin in, quite literally, a good light – to the detriment of other skin tones. The measure of whether a photo was exposed correctly was a picture of a white woman – a so-called “Shirley Card”. Kodak’s first multiracial Shirley Card was launched in 1995 but the racial bias built into photography was also transferred to digital imaging technology and our beloved filters. It was also transferred to AI facial recognition. In 2015, Google’s new photo-categorization software labeled Black people as gorillas and they were quick to apologize and promised a fix. It turns out that it was a quick rather than a holistic fix. Over two and a half years later WIRED investigated and concluded that “Gorillas”, “Monkey” and “Chimpanzee” were simply removed as possible search results – so that even if the software was fed a picture of a Gorilla it wouldn’t class it as such.
In 2016, Microsoft’s Twitter chatbot Tay only was removed after only 16 hours online, after the internet, well 4chaners, taught it to be racist. But that was done with intent, what about something like our google searches? Many think of google as offering “an equal playing field for all forms of ideas, identities, and activities.” – but professor Safiya Umoja Noble challenges this notion in her book: Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism – “Run a Google search for “black girls”—what will you find? “Big Booty” and other sexually explicit terms are likely to come up as top search terms. But, if you type in “white girls,” the results are radically different. The suggested porn sites and un-moderated discussions about “why black women are so sassy” or “why black women are so angry” presents a disturbing portrait of black womanhood in modern society.” – a portrait tainted by racist stereotypes.
“You’re wrong, Google.” by Racism. It Stops With Me – an anti-racist campaign from the Australian Human Rights Commission
“Unchecked, unregulated, and, at times, unwanted, AI can compound the very social inequalities its champions hope to overcome.” – states computer scientist and digital activist Joy Buolamwini in a talk on bias in AI. As a student at MIT, Joy discovered that her face – as a dark-skinned Black woman – was not recognized as a face by computer vision software that was meant to detect faces and she had to result to wearing a white mask in order to be able to interact with the tool. She termed this “The Coded Gaze” and set about unmasking algorithmic bias. She has since founded the Algorithmic Justice League which is currently promoting their new documentary Coded Bias. Facial recognition is also being used to judge the likelihood that people facing a charge in court will be repeat offenders or not – I guess with the view to influence the sentencing decision – but it’s incredibly flawed – a white man with prior arrests rates less likely to re-offend than a Black man on his first offense. The machine-learned society’s biases and is spitting them back at us.
A face not being recognized is an example of a “blind spot” in the design process, this same “blind spot” all too often manifests itself in product ranges that have something to do with skin tone. Products are sometimes marketed around the world yet they have a history of not catering for the full range of skin tones. The success of and hype around Rhianna’s FENTY BEAUTY make-up and SAVAGE x FENTY lingerie ranges show that there was a huge demand for products that cater to a wider range of skin tones. Crayola launched a “Colours of the World Skin Tone” set of 24 crayons in May this year. Band-Aid has recently announced that they will add non-white skin tone bandages to their range. They claimed a previous attempt in 2005 failed due to a “lack of interest” – and yet a number of other companies have had success tapping into this market in the meantime. Artist and photographer Angélica Dass’ project Humanae highlights just how broad the category “skin color is” – starting with family and friends and then expanding to anyone that volunteers, she has photographed a diverse range of people and then selects “their” PANTONE based on the color of their nose.
Humanae by Angélica Dass – screen shot from Angélica’s website
Being seen and seeing oneself reflected in one’s environment matters, representation matters. But it also matters who is doing the representation and who it is benefitting from it. The whole topic of drawing a line between “being inspired by” and “copying” is already controversial and much debated in the design world – if you throw structures of power and oppression into the mix, things get more complicated… or maybe exactly the opposite. Cultural appropriation is the adoption of an element or elements of one culture by members of another culture. This is especially problematic when members of a dominant culture appropriate from disadvantaged cultures and make a profit in the process. The Native American Navajo Nation fought a long battle with Urban Outfitters over the use of their traditional patterns and name and eventually settled for an undisclosed amount. South African designer Laduma Ngxokolo of MaXhosa Africa, who has made a name for himself with premium knitwear products that celebrate traditional Xhosa aesthetics, went up against the retail giant Zara and their sock design that closely resembled MaXhosa’s signature diamond pattern design. Zara “cooperated and were submissive” and quickly removed the socks from sale. Both cases saw an outcry from supporters in the side of the claimants but relied on copyright law and copyrights being in place for the owners to stake their ownership claims.
An original MaXhosa design on the left, and the Zara copy on the right. Images from maxhosa.africa
Modern technology is still grappling with how not to enforce bias, but hard-coded racial bias was happening long before the internet – just it was “hard-coded” into our cities and therefore our daily lives. This past month activists have been highlighting examples of this, pulling down statues and renaming streets that memorialize people that committed horrendous atrocities against Black-, Indigenous- and people of color – here’s an overview in Germany.
But what about buildings themselves? Near my university in London – which was in a traditionally low-income area – there was a controversy over a swanky new block of flats planned – and not just of the standard anti-gentrification kind. There was a requirement that the block includes a certain percentage of social (government-assisted) housing and someone in the planning office or the architecture firm decided there was a need to keep these people away from the other high paying residents. Their solution was one grand entrance at the front of the building and a second, smaller one at the back of the building – two separate sets of lifts, stairs, and corridors were planned – so that the two “types” of residents would never cross paths. I don’t want to equate Blackness with low-income per se – but the legacy of colonization and enslavement and structural racism in housing and financing has resulted in very real intergenerational wealth disparities and the reality was/is in this area of London (and is in many cities across the UK, the USA, and the world) that low-income communities are majority Black and Brown – and the higher wage gentrifying class are majority white.
The architectural concept described above was a concept of segregation – segregation built into the built environment – design gone wrong – but a great example of the lasting impact a series of design decisions could have on the lives of hundreds of people for however many decades the block would stay up. Buildings are very permanent, yes and something like advertising or packaging can feel temporary, fleeting even – but campaigns or designs that stand the test of time are literally with us for generations.
Who are we designing for?
Let’s think about who we are designing for – and not just about our “ideal” consumer/user, but about everyone that has a want, use and need for our products or services. What type of society are we designing for? What interactions do we want to encourage? What is informing our viewpoints, our briefs, our goals, our desired outcomes?
In conversations about representation, in the media or in advertising for example, you often hear “You can’t be what you can’t’ see” – following that thread, you also can’t design for what you can’t see. This leads us to the next section…
Black Designers Matter
To borrow from Mellody Hobson, whose talk I linked above: be color brave: if you didn’t already, start to see color and also see the lack of color in your surroundings and communities (both on- and offline) and start to question what you see.
Think about when you were studying, about when you were in school – think about the reading lists, about the design theories and whose points of view you were taught. Did the designers and creative thinkers that you learned from reflect society in your country? How many Black designers or designers of color were among them? Go look at your bookshelves: how many Black authors or authors of color are there?
Go out and seek points of view on topics that interest you from people that don’t look like you. Find Black designers and designers of color in your design field and listen to what they have to say.
For example: 39 Creatives Talk Being Black in the Design Industry—and What Needs to Change. Next time you are looking for some inspiring innovators to read about, why not look for posts like this: 14 Black Inventors You Probably Didn’t Know About. Design Indaba has collated an overview of thought-provoking work using creativity to right social wrongs in “Expressing solidarity through design”.
A few starting points
Get googling (or use another search engine of your choice)! Diversify your feeds, if you find something you like, share it – and give credit where credit is due:
The Black Artists + Designers Guild is a global collective of independent Black artists, makers, and designers throughout the African diaspora. Badguild.info
The Black in Design Conference, organized by the Harvard University Graduate School of Design African American Student Union recognizes the contributions of the African diaspora to the design fields and promotes discourse around the agency of the design profession to address and dismantle the institutional barriers faced by our communities. blackindesign.org (One of the panels in 2019 was titled Imagining Black Futures: Designing for the Possible)
Blacks Who Design provides a directory of inspiring Black people in the design industry with the goal of encouraging people to diversify their feeds, and discover amazing individuals to join your team. blackswho.design
Contemporary And (C&) is an art magazine and a dynamic space for issues and information on contemporary art from Africa and its Global Diaspora contemporaryand.com
Decolonising Design seeks to connect with already existing endeavors within and beyond the design field for a decolonisation of not only academia, but all professional practices and pedagogies, to connect and foster exchanges of knowledge that speak from, cross, and remain in the borderlands of design and coloniality. decolonisingdesign.com
Design Indaba drives a better world through creativity with its online design publication, an annual festival, and other “design activism” projects. designindaba.com
GRIOT is a creative and cultural platform celebrating Arts, Music, Style, and Culture from Africa, its diaspora, and beyond. griotmag.com
People of Craft is a growing showcase of creatives of color and their craft in design, advertising, tech, illustration, lettering, art, and more. It’s time to redefine what a creative looks like. peopleofcraft.com
Where are the Black Designers is an initiative which aims to give a platform to creatives of color. By connecting designers, educators, and creative leaders we hope to start a dialogue about change in and out of the design industry. wherearetheblackdesigners.com
Back to the drawing board
For racist advertising “fails” never to reach the public, there would need to be people in the pitching discussions and/or in the back offices that would say “wait a minute, that’s racist”. For product ranges to be more inclusive from the get-go, it would need people in the creative team to say “let’s make this product inclusive”. It would need people to be there, yes, but it would also need for there to be an established culture in which people felt empowered to raise a critique about racist stereotypes or non-inclusive product offers and not fear for their job security or getting phased out of future projects.
There would need to be a culture of open and honest communication, a culture in which people are comfortable having uncomfortable discussions. A culture in which decision-makers care enough to listen and take constructive criticism seriously. A culture where listening to marginalized voices and respecting what they have to say is prioritized over attempts by people to prove they are “the least racist person ever”. Often when racism gets pointed out, people are so busy bending over backward to prove they are “not racist” that the actual racist comment, incident, whatever it was gets glossed over and never satisfactorily dealt with. Don’t be that person!
If you are ever in charge of or can influence the make up of creative teams working on a project, think about how you can make that team diverse. But go beyond checkboxes and tokenistic diversity – making sure people are “in the room” is an important first step, but it is only the first step. There is a common phrase used in discussions about diversity and inclusion: “Diversity is being invited to the party – inclusion is being asked to dance. ”And there are many discussions about how “being asked to dance” doesn’t go far enough – ie inclusion is more like “creating the playlist” or “being a member of the party-planning committee”. Whatever variation on the metaphor you want to use, the point is if you are actively wanting to involve a diverse group of people in a project or in a company you need to think about diversifying every level and, most importantly, the decision-making levels.
Diversity has to be behind the camera and not just in front of it. Having a Black model front a campaign is often where companies start. But were there hairstylists and makeup artists at the photo shoot that had experience with making-up Black skin and styling Afro-Hair – did they have suitable products to hand? Did the person in charge of lighting have experience lighting Black skin? Had the copywriter been trained to avoid “unfortunate” copy? Would someone in the team notice if the copy inaccurately names two Black models? Those last two questions relate directly to a piece in Elle Germany last year that completely missed the mark, but I hope you are getting the point. Contemporary And (C&) are collecting thoughts and comments from creatives and thinkers from the US, other parts of the Global Diaspora, and Africa in an ongoing piece titled WE ARE. This one, from writer, curator, and critic Antwaun Sargant, touches on the point I am trying to make:
“The museums now posting “black lives matter“ are the same ones who have participated in the social death of black folks… Do black lives matter on your curatorial team or board? Do they matter in your collections and shows?”
It’s not enough to just say or think – “well, we just pick the top designers that come from XYZ Design School – racial bias has nothing to do with our decision”. This presumes that racism (and other intersecting oppressions) play no role in who gets access to and excels at the “best” design schools, or, for that matter, access to high schools that know how to support budding design students in preparing a portfolio, etc. The world is not a level playing field and the design and creative industries certainly aren’t either. Who has the resources to do unpaid internships? Who has the right connections to get their foot in the door at an agency? What structural challenges are there to overcome to access all the tools to be successful in our industries?
Let’s go back to the drawing board, let’s think about how to make creative work diverse and inclusive in ways that are sustainable and not just “one-offs” and therefore tokenistic. Let’s stop pushing eurocentric design as the design blueprint (The wording of that last sentence is borrowed from the Black Interior Designers Network). Let’s challenge ourselves. And let’s stick with it. It’s going to be a long journey, it’s going to last for the rest of our lives. I will finish with a quote by interdisciplinary artist and designer Ekene Ijeoma from a talk he gave about his work, combining data and design:
“Let’s think like citizens, not just creatives.
Let’s use data to educate citizens, not just to market to consumers.
Let’s make conversation pieces, not just masterpieces.”
UX Collective: Combatting unconscious bias in design