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.