Reframing Racism: A design approach

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

How can we address racism through design principles?

Before beginning, it is important to note that design itself will not solve a systemic social problem, but it can provide guidance on how we should think about the situation, co-create and collaborate with our fellow person, and ultimately get in a better place than where we are today.

Proposed Approach

Following design thinking methodologies, we can approach racism through 3 preliminary phases:

  1. Define the foundational problem underlying racism
  2. Ideate potential solutions to address racism

1. Understand

We see racism everywhere. It can be explicit (‘Whites only’ bathroom) or can arise in a more subtle, nuanced manner, potentially interlaced with other factors (getting denied housing or a job offer). According to Merriam-Webster, racism is ‘a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race. That is racism in text. But to truly understand its form in practice, let’s look at 3 central questions:

  • Where does racism come from?
  • How is racism experienced today?

What is race?

Intuitively, racism is rooted in race, but race is not fixed nor a characteristic that can be deduced from physical appearance. It is a dynamic and constantly changing force, as seen with the idea of ‘white’ in the United States. Irish people became ‘white’ only after the late 1800’s. Similarly, Italians and Jews became ‘white’ after World War II.¹

Where does racism come from?

The history of racism and its role in society is unfortunately long and consequential. Rather than recounting this history or looking at the main perpetrators of racism, let’s look at the psychological factors that have enabled racism to take hold.

How is racism experienced today?

Overt and intentional racism is easy to spot. “You don’t belong here you Mexican.” “Shut up and dribble boy.” But this is only 1 layer. White job applicants were found to be 74% more likely to have success than ethnic minorities with identical CVs.² Doctors have been found to recommend less pain medication for black or Latino patients than white patients with the same injury.³ As race is constantly shifting and shaped by politics and society, we process and reinforce those racial models. From an individual’s perspective, we can think about racism manifesting itself on 3 levels:

  1. Group [you vs. others]: you are subjugated to racist prejudice from others
  2. Systemic [you vs. society]: racism is ingrained in society and affects how you interact with social systems

2. Define

Racism only works in a system where people are categorized in such a manner to justify exploitation and discrimination based on external factors. To address the overall issues means to look at the system as a whole and the basis of racial categories.

How might we limit the power that socially constructed racial segments has on our internal and external experience?

Black lives matter. But they aren’t the only lives that matter. All lives matter. But that’s not an appropriate response either (e.g. imagine if you went to the doctor with a broken arm and s/he responded with “all bones matter” and neglected to address your arm). But solutions driven by race cannot holistically solve racism. They seek to solve racial matters through a racial lens, and in doing so reinforce the notion of race as an appropriate segmentation of people. When racism is inherent in the system, we cannot be content in elevating certain racial groups. Ultimately, we have to eradicate race as a factor.

3. Ideate

Current solutions to address racism today range from blindspot training and counseling to diversity quotas and affirmative action. In looking at racism at the surface, our solutions reflect surface inequalities rather than addressing the foundational root cause.

  • Imagine a different race of people that influence your day-to-day life. What would change? What stays the same?
  • What social institutions are most tied to racial power structures? How could they be redesigned so race does not become a factor?

Considerations

I suspect some may read this article and think it is either too idealistic or leaves you feeling helpless. “Yeah obviously if we didn’t have race, there wouldn’t be racism. How can I enact any change if the system is inherently flawed?” But this over-simplification omits the key points and opportunities in this approach.

Parting Thoughts

  • The concept of race is socially constructed and dynamic in nature
  • As humans, we are tribal and want to be in groups
  • We are in a vicious cycle, where our environment is influenced by racial lines. We process these models and reinforce racism.
  • Solutions to address racism through a racial lens perpetuates the influence of underlying social constructs that we need to limit
  • Long term solutions to racism will limit the influence race has as a meaningful distinction
  • The role and nature of racism can be and only can be shaped by us

A country is only as good… only as strong as the people who make it up and the country turns into what the people want it to become… I don’t believe any longer that we can afford to say that it is entirely out of our hands. We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.” — James Baldwin

Next Steps

  • Be mindful of how you process and interact with others and the world along racial lines
  • Seek to collaborate and address racism not along racial lines, but along power lines to address the systemic disparities
  • Continue to proactively reflect and learn in this ongoing process of development and growth

References

¹Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. 2011

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Ibrahim Ayub

Ibrahim Ayub

Systems thinker and problem solver across human behavior, design, strategy, and tech. Exploring ways to think, be, act, and live fully. ibrahimayub.com