Can Design Clarify the Complexities of Race?

Let me tell you a story, and you tell me the year it took place. An African-American man speaks about his pregnant wife to his coworker — a white man — and proudly tells him that she is expecting a son. Now, these two men are friends and have often spent time with each other in and outside the office. The white man shakes his head and states, “Poor kid has two strikes against him already: black and male.”

The African-American man can’t believe what he hears and just stares at his friend. And after the white noise of rage subsides in his ears, he simply keeps his mouth shut and continues with his work. He has to keep that job in order to provide for that unborn child and his wife.

Which year was that? It could have been 1855 or 2016 or anytime in between. But I’ll save you from guessing. That man was my father, and of course, that child was me.

My pop took those words home and unpacked them. He said he raised me to be better and to think better than he did. He wanted me to be able to have those uncomfortable conversations with people that didn’t look like me — as opposed to suppressing my perspective.

But my father also told me that the anger and frustration I would inevitably feel aren’t realities to simply sweep under the rug, that they are understandable emotions. That my job as a parent is to provide the same instruction for my children. That their life experiences cannot be contained and controlled like a science experiment. That they wouldn’t be able to avoid dealing with race in America. My father said he was sad that I felt the need to have a conversation like that with my kids — but it’s part of what I faced being a black man in America, like it or not.

I learned of this story a few months back when I asked my father a question I had never really asked him before. It was mostly predicated on the fact that I was confused as to how to raise my two-year-old son and my five-year-old daughter. In light of the recent racial unrest in this country, how was I supposed to imbue them with the proper respect for law enforcement, while also letting them know that law enforcement may not return that respect?

This issue aside, how would I instill respect for all people — regardless of race — when so many fellow citizens still demonstrate racial biases against us? That bias can be hard to respect. By even having that opinion, wasn’t I becoming part of the problem? By not teaching my children to be wary, wouldn’t I be sending them out into the world without all of the requisite tools?

Ferguson. Baton Rouge. Staten Island. Dallas. Baltimore. Charleston. Chicago. Austin. Houston. Charlotte. The list is far too extensive and ongoing to properly grasp, let alone process. Black lives matter. Blue lives matter. All lives matter. Conflicting ideologies are lobbed back and forth like grenades. People are scared and confused and angry.

Talking heads on television choose a side and argue it until the commercial break. Politicians use the word “change” to advance themselves, as opposed to discussing the actual issue itself. How does real change occur? How can we even begin to wrap our minds around a concept as nebulous and multifaceted as race? Notions of racial injustice and America are so intertwined that it feels impossible to separate the two. Is it even possible?

It saddened and inspired me. This is just my story. But I’m sure we all have similar tales involving race, gender, religion or sexuality. Whether we are profiled by police, discriminated against for our sexuality or religion, or persecuted for the way we look, we all have biases working against us that we’d rather not live with.

As designers, we have the ability to synthesize information into a palatable solution. We can humanize large ideas with troubleshooting and problem-solving. That’s why AIGA brought together a collaborative group of designers to help creative minds think and do more on these important issues.

You can watch AIGA’s first national Town Hall, “Racial Justice by Design.” Activists, law enforcement, policy makers, and artists dove into complex issues, incorporating your feedback and experiences.

On Sept. 27 in Washington, D.C., we invite you to join another discussion, “Designing Racial Equity.” We can work together to facilitate, create, inspire and promote social justice within our local community. Find out more on AIGA DC’s website.

The one commonality that exists is that people want change. They want to do more than just have a protest or a speech or a gesture. There has to be more. Designers are skilled in making complex issues clearer, and AIGA encourages us to continue this dialogue to affect change.

Theo Caviness is a Philadelphia born-and-raised graphic designer now living in New York with his wife and two children. Theo is also a proud product of Florida A&M University, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. and a connoisseur of cheesesteaks.

By Theo Caviness
Published September 23, 2016