Navigating whiteness, part 1

By Timothy B.
9 min to read
February 22, 2021
Timothy stands in front of a white rectangle that is double his size.


How do we design products that serve everyone? A product design manager addresses this question by unpacking whiteness — power centered in white people — and how it manifests in product design, popular media, and his own life.

You’ve likely noticed by now that the world has finally decided to amplify a long, on-going conversation about racism — at least for the moment. In the US, underpinning the headlines about policing and excessive use of force on Black and Brown bodies is the conversation about how systemic power disparities affect the Black community. As a Black, gay man from the South, I live this conversation. As a Black designer, I see my lived experience reflected in the perpetuation and preservation of white supremacy across the design field, both in how the field treats its Black professionals and in products it sometimes puts into the world.

I am among the many working to change both of these problems within design. But where to start? To begin, I suggest that the design field question its overwhelming whiteness.

Timothy approaches an unending field of giant white monoliths.

Whiteness is the homogeneous structure of power and authority which compels us to conform, which hands down a set of morals and ethics for all to follow, which illustrates and justifies conventions which are agreeable in and unto itself — and which expresses discontent for anything stepping outside or beyond those bounds. The implications of unchecked and unquestioned whiteness include implicitly racist and self-perpetuating power, privilege, systems, actions, mindsets, and expressions — and their resultant outcomes and traumas.

In this first piece of a two-part series, I unpack the concept of whiteness with examples from popular media, digital product design, and my own experience. In the second part, I talk about approaches to addressing whiteness and designing for justice and liberation in products.

Whiteness made visible in international media

Whiteness, while very clear and palpable in the US, is actually international. It surfaces itself differently in many cultures so much so that many are unaware of whiteness within their own culture. John Boyega, the first Black man to play a stormtrooper in "Star Wars," was a global ambassador to the fragrance company Jo Malone. After filming a campaign for the company based on Boyega's life story, Jo Malone created a separate, almost identical campaign with a Chinese actor for the Chinese market. This wasn't Boyega's first run-in with whiteness in Asian markets; in movie posters for “Star Wars,” his image was consistently deemphasized and reduced in size, unlike the images of his white counterparts. Boyega subsequently resigned as Jo Malone's global ambassador.

Another example of whiteness surfaces in the Netflix show, “Indian Matchmaking.” Some participants seeking matches have explicitly mentioned their desire for more fair-skinned partners over darker skinned people — this is also known as colorism, which is prevalent in a vast majority of cultures around the world. Colorism is a tool used to asses a non-white person's proximity to whiteness, both explicitly in the preference of fair skin over that of the more melenated complexions, and implicitly in the assumed complexion of the working class (as if the sun chooses your socioeconomic status based on how deeply it tans your skin).

Four faces of different color shades look ahead.

Whiteness in digital product design

Consider whiteness within design itself. In South Africa, where the population is almost 80% Black, white people account for 97% of design leadership roles — hauntingly similar to the US, where Black people account for 12.8% of the population yet hold only 3% of design jobs. This homogeneity, this indoctrination and acceptance of whiteness, extends to our products. In September 2020, Twitter was accused of prioritizing white faces in its algorithm. When encountering an image too large for the tweet’s view port, the algorithm would “choose” which section of the image to focus on; as you might’ve guessed, white faces in the image were consistently centered. People on the platform replicated this bias to prove its existence by creating obnoxiously tall and wide images with two seemingly similar photos on either end, the only difference being that one image was of a white man and the other a Black man — each time the algorithm would center the white face. These results were inconsistent only in extreme edge cases. The company’s response was that they'd tested for bias before shipping and found none, but obviously they have work to do. Many rightfully questioned who did this testing. As the saying goes, a fish doesn’t know it’s wet, so how can a team of (likely) white male engineers test for bias towards whiteness? They lack the lived experiences to understand that a preference for whiteness is a factor they even needed to test for.

A similar problem surfaced in Zoom: its backgrounds prioritized lighter, whiter skin while reading darker skin as background and shadows. While this is no different from the issues darker-skinned people face with no-touch technology (i.e., faucets, paper towel dispensers, etc.), it is the literal algorithmic expression of we don’t see you because this wasn’t made for you or with you in mind. Unfortunately, even when companies claim they understand this, they still seem to cause harm to the Black community.

Left side shows a Zoom screen with Timothy's face shaded and difficult to see; right side shows a white rectangle in a Zoom screen brightly lit.

This prioritization of whiteness isn’t new to the camera lens. In his talk Portraits of Color, social impact designer and co-founder of Greater Good Studio, George Aye, speaks about an early tool from Kodak. The company’s guide for photo printing in the mid-1950’s called the Shirley card, based on a white employee named Shirley, became the standard for good color prints. Photo labs used these cards to calibrate skin tones, shadows and light during the printing process. Because Shirely was so fair-skinned, this meant the darker your skin, the worse the photograph. In fact, the reason photos improved for those of us with more deeply melanated skin hues is that furniture manufacturers and chocolate makers in the 1970s complained about their products not rendering well in photos. Today we still see whiteness in how we interact with photography: until just a couple of years ago, you could search for the term “gorillas'' in Google Photos and the results page would display photos of Black people. And until recently, when you conducted a Google image search for “teens'' you'd be presented with a plethora of stock images depicting happy white teen faces, huddled together, smiling, at school, etc., while a search for “Black teens” would yield images of mugshots and faces within a criminal context.

On Facebook and LinkedIn this is also the case, as made public by many articles, where there have been problems with silencing more Black accounts for using harsh language against white people (i.e., “cracker,” or “white devil”) than the reverse. While Facebook has taken a stand in how we address these issues moving forward, many platforms have no nuanced understanding of racist dog whistles, but a keen understanding of perceived attacks against whiteness.

Whiteness in my life

My entire career — no, my entire life — I’ve navigated whiteness. When I think about my journey through life and design, navigating this choking, all-encompassing world of whiteness, I recall key moments in my life. In elementary school, when I was bored in class because I’d finished my work quickly, I’d play around. But instead of suggesting that I undertake a more engaging, advanced curriculum, my teachers suggested to my parents that I go on medication. I’ve had to wonder: if I had been white, would they have suggested that? And in middle school, when I got in trouble for talking too much in class, I would read. But then I’d get in trouble for reading because I wasn’t paying attention, yet I’d finished my assignments and needed something to occupy my time. And then there was freshman year in college, when I reported my white roommates for smoking weed. I didn’t want to take the blame for them and get in trouble for the smell escaping from the seams of our dorm door, permeating the halls with a pungent herbal aroma. Upon arrival, the campus cop came directly to me to interrogate me. He aggressively asked if I smoked weed, calling me “homeboy” until the resident director pulled him aside to tell him that I was the one who reported it. Afterward, as the cop drove by me talking on the phone with my mother, he yelled out of his window that he didn’t mean anything by it.

I’ve navigated whiteness when I was told I speak up too much in college and that I shouldn’t express my thoughts, even if others shared those thoughts. And I constantly felt I had to prove myself as the only Black design student. After graduation I didn’t have a single dime to buy a laptop or Adobe Creative Suite to continue doing design work. Up until that point, I’d worked two jobs and maxed out my student loans, every year, to have enough money to support myself and send money back home to cover the mortgage or the car payment that month. So I made a crowdfunding page asking for help buying the tools I needed to get a job in design — I received $65. When my white counterparts did the same thing, they raised thousands of dollars.

I’ve navigated whiteness through the lens of institutional trauma and lack of access to economic opportunity. This is what it means to navigate whiteness even before I’d gotten my first job. Every job I’ve ever had, I was under-leveled. I’ve always been the “first” or “only” or both. I’ve always had to leave companies to get a promotion. I’ve never had an advocate.

As a Black designer, my experience didn’t magically align with others’ when I finally landed that job or when my title jumped up a level. It has been a minute-by-minute re-learning of who I am as it relates to my surroundings and how others see me. Along my journey I’ve learned being a Black designer demands the consistent navigation of whiteness — including the internalized whiteness of non-white colleagues — and the ability to smile while also existing in a constant state of rage (a hallmark of being Black and conscious in America.) Navigating whiteness puts an ever-present societal, familial, professional and mental weight on my shoulders.

Timothy closes his eyes under a though bubble displaying a picture frame, a newspaper and a laptop.

Corporate life taught me how to navigate whiteness by leveraging my jokey demeanor and my gayness to be perceived as less threatening as a Black man. It taught me to lean on being gay to befriend white women and turn them into “fag hags” because it allows us to communicate more effectively, all while understanding I could never confide in them or get angry around them.

So now what?

There is a great diversity, equity and inclusion consultant by the name of Paku Her who uses the concept of “borderlands” to illustrate how whiteness (and by extension, power) is centered, and how those who are not a part of that power structure live on the borderlands. She speaks of how even being invited into that center comes with the cultural requirement of “fitting in.” Even with many companies today pushing this “bring your whole self to work” thing, there’s still this realization that the whole self doesn’t exist for non-white people, that the systems are structured in such a way that power can operate as it will and still maintain power, and others can only operate within the bounds of what keeps whiteness comfortable. Put simply: why doesn't the "whole self" exist for non-white people at work? Because for many of us Black, Latinx and Indigenous people, we’re busy navigating whiteness; doing so is natural, expected and required.

Now, I’ll pause here, because I know you may be thinking: I thought this was about design. Everything I’ve navigated was designed. Whiteness is designed. Antionette Carroll, Founder, CEO and President of Creative Reaction Lab and co-founder of our advocacy group &Design says, “systems are designed and can be redesigned.” The question is, how? In this first part of my article series, I’ve defined whiteness by showing how it operates in the culture, in products, and in my life. In Part 2, I’ll dig into whiteness in product design and some approaches to making the field’s output more equitable and inclusive.

A mobile phone screen displays a white monolith.

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