Reframing Racism: A design approach
“Wow, you look so exotic.”
Racism is a dynamic, complex, and global issue, affecting everyone in various intensities and forms. As a strategist, UX designer, and management consultant, I’ve devoted my career to understanding people in order to design and deliver user-centric products. As a concerned citizen, witness, and victim of racist forces, I’m passionate about tackling this issue through a different lens than those typically employed. And so, the question for today is:
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.
Following design thinking methodologies, we can approach racism through 3 preliminary phases:
- Understand racism today and how it is experienced
- Define the foundational problem underlying racism
- Ideate potential solutions to address racism
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:
- What is race?
- 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
Depending on the political context, two people can be visibly different or indistinguishable racially, and the boundaries of race — ‘white’ in particular — can shift. We do not see race naturally and it does not exist as a biological fact. Rather it is a social construct; a by-product of social perceptions that are created and reinforced by how we engage with one another.
Race doesn’t matter — it’s been proven biologically and genetically. It’s been proven socially — we as a society do not nor should not want race to be a major factor in one’s ultimate livelihood. Yet it does. Why?
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.
We are tribal. The notion of racial superiority can be traced to the ‘minimal-group paradigm.’ Social psychologists have sought to understand the minimal conditions required for discrimination to occur between groups. Experiments have found that arbitrary distinctions, such as artistic preferences or estimating the total number of provided dots, are enough to influence how people perceive the other group and allocate subsequent resources.
We subconsciously reinforce racism. Racism isn’t simply a result of evolution, but interacts with environmental factors. Studies have shown that growing up around people with racist views, or even simply in an environment that lacks diversity — can contribute significantly to how a person interprets race. As seen with Implicit Association Tests, we subconsciously maintain mental models of groups of people that influence our perceptions of them. The brain quickly categorizes people — friend or foe, threat or non-threat — based on information it has learned. Herein lies a central issue.
Whereas the arbitrary distinctions created in minimal-paradigm tests have little reinforcement in the real world — e.g. people who overestimated the number of dots in a test setting are not drawn to their group once leaving that study context, the cues and consequences of racial distinctions are ubiquitous. Think about the last time you only heard a voice or only provided a brief description of someone. How quickly does your image of the person reflect a certain race? Even though race too is manufactured, constant cultural reinforcement elevates the groupings of ‘race’ as a meaningful construct in today’s society.
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:
- Internal [you vs. you]: you internalize racist views of yourself and others
- Group [you vs. others]: you are subjugated to racist prejudice from others
- Systemic [you vs. society]: racism is ingrained in society and affects how you interact with social systems
Whoever you are, you may internalize others’ racist views which in turn affect how you think about yourself. You may experience racism from others who seek to elevate their racial group by putting down yours. And lastly, you are in a system that has race so ingrained in it that affects your environment and available opportunities.
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.
“Rather than something extraordinary or rare, racism is akin to the water in which fish swim” (White-Washing Race, 2003)
The central lever of racism here is power, and how race is used to raise or limit the conditions of others based on a socially constructed idea of people segmented by ‘race.’
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.
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.
By thinking about racism through the lens of power and influence, we can introduce ideas that address the underlying issues rather than temporary fixes to existing racial segments. In doing so, we can more collaboratively address and limit the influence of racial privilege as a concept, whoever may be benefiting, rather than attacking the most powerful racial group. Recent examples include initiatives such as reclaiming Columbus Day for indigenous people, dismantling Confederate monuments in New Orleans, and instituting ethnic-studies requirements in Nevada.
There won’t be lasting change in addressing racism if we return to the same racist worlds that reinforce and shape preconceived notions. We should thus direct our attention to the societal cues that racism relies on to maintain its influence and promote individual bias.
If we are all fish swimming in racism, we cannot settle for elevating or changing the fish so they can endure; we have to change the water itself.
Sample ideation exercises:
- Actively pay attention to your day. How many of your activities were influenced by racial considerations?
- 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?
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.
Race is not real, but its influence and effect on individual lives is. While the idea of a colorblind society is appealing, it dismisses the reality of race’s role. We shouldn’t seek to be blind to color; we need to eradicate it. To do so means we need to be open and collaborative, to actively unpack race and explore its influence through objective eyes.
For those whose identity is deeply rooted in their race, I am not advocating that race should not be a part of it. Race as a trait is not the issue, but rather the influence and power it wields — and how it influences people’s experience. But it is important to note that the racial lens will reinforce the race as segments.
“With him in office, we will be disenfranchised and our needs won’t be met.” ~White voters on Obama. ~Minority voters on Trump.
Recognizing shifting social solutions, a sustainable solution to racism does not seek to limit racist influences, but rather it challenges the idea of race itself. It is a collective effort to limit the idea that race shapes the opportunities, challenges, and ultimately overall experience of how we live our lives. Well-intentioned advocates for Black Lives Matter and anti-affirmative action republicans can both agree that race should not be the main contributing factor to one’s livelihood.
- 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
- 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
¹Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. 2011
² Wood, Martin et al. “A test for racial discrimination in recruitment practice in British cities” National Centre for Social Research. 2009
³ Hoffman, Kelly M et al. “Racial bias in pain assessment and treatment recommendations, and false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America vol. 113,16 (2016): 4296–301
- A New Model for Integrating Behavioral Science and Design (Sarah Reid, Ruth Schmidt)
- Racism in the Structure of Everyday Worlds: A Cultural-Psychological Perspective (Phia S. Salter, Glenn Adams, Michael J. Perez)
- The Pathology of Prejudice (Erika Hayasaki)
- Unconscious Bias: What is it and Can it be Eliminated? (Hannah Devlin)