The Problem with Liberal White Designers
We’ve read the medium posts, listened to the inspirational talks, subscribed to their newsletters but designers’ favorite personal narrative that their success is due to talent and hustle is a mirage.
Two days after a frozen steak salesman became President I was invited to DynamicMTL in Montreal and asked to speak on the designers’ role in the world. Below is an edited version of the talk.
Hi. I am white.
Despite all my advantages as a white person, I too am oppressed!
As a child, I was bullied for having a speech impediment!
As a Jewish teen raised in the Midwest I got anonymous letters telling me to convert to Christianity!
As an adult I fight infinitely harder for the same promotions and salaries my male peers receive!
As a working mother … well, that’s a total shit show!
And yet … despite all of the ways I feel like an outsider in America I am white and framing my life as anything other than being extremely charmed is alt-fact. To deny my privilege as a healthy white woman today is to deny the biases that I am often not aware of. With privilege comes comfort and who doesn’t loooooove being comfortable.
Chapter 1. On whiteness
You see, white people can be oppressed and be an oppressor at the same time! Privilege is not an either/or idea. I get it, we’ve spent a lifetime experiencing privilege so it’s easy to take it for granted. It has grown into entitlement and we started to conflate challenges in our lives as being oppressed. And it didn’t take long to start genuinely feel oppressed.
“It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
— MLK JR. .
Okay okay okay. There’s nothing white people love more than quoting MLK out of context so of course I think it works here. In reality there are circumstances that have enabled me to get where I am. Hell, why was I even selected to speak here tonight? Because I’ve spoken at other conferences. And why was I invited to those? Because I critique design culture on twitter. Why can I freely critique design culture publicly? Because I have no fear of professional consequence. Why do I not fear consequence? Because I’ve never had to. Is it because I feel secure? Do I feel secure because of my social class? Probably? What I do know is, fact: it is easier for me to do things that are harder for others. Now that an extra from Home Alone 2 is President never want to hear about a meritocracy again.
Despite believing I am a progressive-liberal aware of multiple world views, I’m closed in my own way unaware of other people’s experiences. I was shocked by the election results in November. Meanwhile, everyone else who experience racism are all, “I told you so.”
What the outcome of the American election exposed for me, was not entirely new for marginalized people. White women have long been prioritizing race privilege over solidarity with women of color. After the election a friend of mine DMed me and said, “Most POC don’t live a in a bubble. We can’t afford to. But many white people do.” I didn’t understand what she meant but I’m starting to now. Designers, take a hard look at our country and acknowledge it isn’t what it claims to be. We live in a fucked up country. 52% of white women voted for a racist landlord to be President.
The symptoms are there, BLM needs to be taken seriously, the experiences of gay, trans, POC, are not merely the results of misunderstandings. It’s easy to dismiss burning crosses because they seem so extreme but the real enemy claims to be on your side, going “I agree with you but not with your tactics,” shoving oppression under the rug, even under the banner of equality, that’s a hard one to address.
Liberals suck at staying on message. Intersectionality is hard. We can’t even agree if hitting nazis is ok. But, to be fair, this is a new question I mean, Hitler was a vegetarian.
Additionally, White American liberals have deliberately separated themselves from their conservative family and friends. So why are we so surprised by all the shit that went down? Is it because… we’ve walled ourselves off from the reality of the racism in our own families? How many times have you, or someone you know said, “I hate facebook” because of the racism there? But … like … those racists are your aunts, uncles, dads, moms, friends.
I need to recognize and remind myself and other white women that our families put a beauty pageant owner into office. I can’t do this If I don’t talk with them.
No one likes being called racist. And … maybe not every person who voted Pepe for President is racist. Fact: you can still do something racist but not necessarily be a racist. Regardless, voters didn’t board the Trump Train because they saw a compassionate man. Voters had lots of reasons. They hated HRC. They are pro life. They’re anti gay marriage. Some voted for him with reservation. But, everyone who voted for a Birther was able to rationalize his misogyny, racism, and his fragile baby boy ego for some other reason. And, the majority of them were white.
White people love saying “not all men” or “not all white people”. White American Liberals want so badly not to be associated the rest of whiteness. There’s nothing people hate more than when they’re lumped in as a group of people. But lol SURPRISE white Americans do that to marginalized groups of people all the time and seem to have no problem with it. We have to stop acting so surprised that a reality TV show host is President, take responsibility for the community we deny exists, let ourselves be angry, and get to work.
Chapter 2: What is good?
Leah Finnegan recently asked in her very excellent not to be missed weekly newsletter, “What is good? Is good Meryl Streep’s award-show speech about how Hollywood slays and Trump blows?
Is it posting that speech on Twitter with a note saying “Yas Queen!”?
She’s talking to the media, but it’s not hard to pivot to designers.
Is good… a business card?
Is good… writing essays on medium about white privilege?
Is good … re-designing Trump’s Logo?
SPOILER. I know designers can’t help themselves but aesthetics are no replacement for ethics. If twitter is your therapy it may be time to see an actual therapist.
Do designers ever do “good” things for any reason besides promoting their personal brand? How can the world be so bad if there is so much “speaking out” on social media, enamel pins with pilthy trump turd designs, and hand lettered protest posters?
Finnegan continues, “This impulse and the pressure to be good immediately and all the time is sort of a problem. In a liberal world, our impulses to be good lends itself to a very specific kind of self-deception on which late capitalism thrives.”
Within capitalism and the design industry it sometimes takes very little to be … ｇｏｏｄ. Designers want to change the world by disrupting the taxi industry, by delivering your groceries faster, heating your food smarter. Facebook wants you to experience empathy by hanging out with family or looking at someone in Syria in VR up close, because like, you’re so close to the humanity.
That’s not compassion, that’s not even empathy. That’s just the male gaze. It’s another excuse to put tech between us and people. Finnegan again, “Liberalism could be about being “good”— being tolerant, being progressive …
… and yet it is closer aligned to monetizing things that don’t need to be economized — feminism, education, incarceration. We don’t want to look deeper into the problems of these movements and social services otherwise it may reveal all their ugly, dollar-driven flaws.”
I get it. Confronting the new Presidency, a senate majority, the house majority, the supreme court nominations, it is only natural that we are trying to cope with feelings of hopelessness by trying to take control of the situation. It’s easy to throw design at the problem because the mandate is much clearer. Where we actually stand is messier.
Instead of interrogating that hopelessness, accepting that we discounted how scary progress can be for people, and confronting issues that are hard to understand and threatening, I’m listening to designers talk about how they’re donating the profits for their designer shirts and designer spoons to legitimately important progressive organizations because that is the only way designers know how to connect with other people: by buying and selling shit. And surprise, it’s useless and ineffectual but it’s okay because it landed you a sweet interview in FastCo Design.
In short, designers who are taking the election and making it about personal creativity can fuck off. No numb nuts. Art isn’t going to get better during a Trump/Pence/Bannon administration. I can see if you don’t experience racism it is hard to understand that America is actually *that* racist. America’s goo-goo design community is completely out of touch with world views outside of their own. Stop unfriending people who disagree with you and challenge your personal narrative. We got into this mess because everyone groups themselves by likeness instead of differences. You make stuff for people who don’t look like you, who don’t have a beautifully manicured beard. It’s imperative to broaden your own worldview.
Chapter 3: Why should I care?
A friend of mine who is African American hears a lot of conference organizers say that they want “more black people” but are unable to articulate why other than diversity is a thing well intentioned white people should be concerned with.
So many people want a reason to care about diversity but in reality those folks are pursuing just more capitalism, not compassion.
And there are other people who defend the results of design competitions by repeating the mantra “as long as the work is good the competition is fair”. This is what everyone says but that’s where the bias lies. It’s not nefarious, it’s not an organized effort. To paraphrase Jim Datz, New York Times Op-Ed Art Director, in the thread mentioned above, “Design, by it’s very nature can be subjective… aesthetics are defined by race, culture, and class which create zones of exclusion without consciously trying. So of course this bias that exists in design competitions is not unique, it also occurs in society. It’s simply amplified in concentrated environments where aesthetics are judged and the applicant pool is self-limiting.”
Diversity in other cases can breed tokenism and I’m just as guilty of it as others.
I have this friend Robyn who is trans and we talk about the potential violence she faces when people gawk at her, how she didn’t choose to be trans, how she doesn’t want to die for using the quote wrong bathroom when she needs to pee, how frustrating it is when people misgender her on phone.
One day she was venting to me about someone who made her the token trans representative when I realized…that I had made the same mistake. I was horrified. I forced myself not to just ping her for consultation on pronoun use. And the fact of the matter is the least interesting thing about her is that she’s trans.
We talk about shopping, graphic design and the band Nada Surf and our friendship has gotten that much deeper because of it.
But it wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco that I was confronted with my place in society.
San Francisco is a horrible terrible city. It’s a funny joke that we make San Francisco seem like a fancy place with fancy toast but San Francisco is a city that is falling apart. Sometimes I wonder if ’Frisco is the canary in the coal mine as the disparity between the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich gets wider and wider in America. You’re next, Portland.
Living in San Francisco has made me far more aware of my privilege in a way that living in New York never did. I moved from one of the most diverse cities in America to the whitest. ’Frisco is full of white male elites, and without people who identify as a minority occupying positions of power and decision-making, our future will only continue to get more white.
This goes beyond optics, this is about designing for everyone. Snapchat is a prime example of how white leadership subtly reinforces white superiority. Katie Zhu, a product manager at Medium has rightly pointed out, as have others, that many of the lenses (flower crown, butterfly crown) whitewash users’ skin and lighten their eye color. Other filters are not as subtle.
Zhu continues, “It should come as no surprise that everyone in a position of power at snapchat is a white man … even last Fall Apple did a demo in Chinese with a white woman!”
We all know Trump will be more preoccupied with being able to declare success than with actually succeeding. And if that doesn’t remind you of when product designers celebrate the launch of a product… regardless if it’s a good product.. then I can’t help you.
As an illustrator, I’m not surprised to see his image everywhere, but how ironic is it that he’s cutting the NEA and yet many of us will be assigned to draw his portrait for news and magazine clients. It doesn’t matter how subversive or neutral or beautiful he is depicted. Each image normalizes him. His legacy empowered.
Chapter 4: Expand your Circles
What we need going forward is to address bias in the creative industries by acknowledging our own biases. Lacking perspective is hard because… you lack the perspective. Start by listening to people that don’t just tell you what you want to hear. Are you faving tweets that exclusively include avatars of people who look like you? Do the folks reassuring you that you are great have anything to lose?
Ok, I realize I have spoken for a long time and not really offered any tactile advice. We’re designers, we’re naturally tactical. Remember when everyone was talking about how Facebook needed to create a new algorithm to ‘solve the problem’. Fuck your algorithm.
I’m not going to tell you just to go volunteer. “I volunteered” frequently gets followed by a feeling of “great I can put that to rest”.
Designers LOOOOOVE HUSTLING. I hate the word, but the design industry loves it so much … so how are we gonna hustle about issues a little closer to home? Over the next four years how are you going to commit to understanding your own biases and how they apply to the spaces you work every day?
Working with folks who think differently than you is just the beginning. The real work starts after they’re hired.
Bridge the gaps within your hiring process to give more access and making creative opportunities available to all and not a select few.
Push back when people select photo stock imagery of only white folks.
Be generous to your peers — especially with your knowledge and your ideas and your resources. Today, has presented us with a renewed opportunity to really discuss privilege, power and inclusion. Continue to find places outside design to do good, rather than think of design as a force for good.
It’s us, white folks, not folks who are suffering from our privilege, that need to start talking and questioning underlying assumptions we have about our surroundings and how we got here.
The industry has a lot of inequalities. Realize we have the power to be truly representative and provide real change. What politics have to do with the design industry is a discussion that we’ll be having for a long time.
Nothing has forced myself to reckon with what is important to me more than talking to people who disagree with me. I would challenge designers to talk to people who challenge them. People who don’t look like you, people who don’t think like you, people who make you angry and confused. It’s fucking hard but you can do it, or at least try*. For me, that may mean writing personal letters to trump leaning relatives. It is only because of the great progress we have experienced in the past decade that the thought of it being reversed is so anxiety inducing. And honestly, the past eight years were good but we we’re just getting started.
Jennifer Daniel is a liberal white designer who lives in … surprise … Berkeley California!