STORIES

Navigating whiteness, part 2

PROCESS
CULTURE
OP-ED
BY TIMOTHY B.
13 MINS TO READ
FEBRUARY 23, 2022
A Black man cycles and then walks through a series of several closed, white doors.

SUMMARY

A design manager writes on decentralizing whiteness and frameworks that help communities, leaders and organizations in design and technology build more equitable products.



Designers naturally navigate and perpetuate whiteness. It’s possible to do while working within the context of products, teams, and companies—a situation which derives from and happens within much broader social, economic, legal and other macro-systems. Long histories anchor and depend on these systems. Acknowledging that we all navigate, or make space for, whiteness within larger systems necessarily means acknowledging the problem’s immensity, hopefully provoking us all to question the efficacy of quick-fixes (i.e. adding more skin color choices for emojis, creating profile stickers, etc.). Such band-aids are trivial in the face of the real work to be done to drive more equitable outcomes through digital products.



In Part 1 of this two-part series, I define whiteness and how it surfaces in products, media and in my personal life. Here in Part 2, I discuss whiteness in product design and some approaches to addressing it. Some of these approaches circulate only in the greater equity-in-design community, but many of them Meta has implemented, and dedicated groups such as the inclusive product council and the equitable product program seek to integrate more of them into our workstreams.


To take you through my thinking, I begin with a real-world example of how systemic social inequalities can reveal themselves in a product any designer might help create. Next, I highlight frameworks that help communities, leaders, and organizations work towards more equitable outcomes—many of which you can take to your work and your colleagues today. Finally, I discuss sensibilities—the preconceptions in design and technology we need to change in order to create transformative, equitable products.



This article isn’t meant to be a panacea, but a provocation and articulation of how to think about decentralizing whiteness in the things we design, and in doing so make them more accessible, inclusive and equitable.

A Black man on a bike stops on an imaginary digital user interface. Atop the interface lies an abstract system-like structure.

The relationship between social systems and products

Over the past almost decade, my vocabulary on whiteness has evolved. What began as an awareness of my personal experience with micro- and macro-traumas has expanded to understanding systems and how they were designed to be the conduits, purveyors, and protectors of whiteness. These systems are layers of interlocking tendrils built from centuries of sociopolitical decisions. They are traditions, reactions, protections and causes meant to create the perception of order, morality and rightness. Systems are the societal fabric connecting policy, economics and justice. These systems are complex and overwhelming, but by beginning to understand them, it’s possible to begin the root cause analysis work to more clearly see the whiteness we all navigate.



So how do the inequities of “a system,” whether it be legal, economic, or other, actually, in reality, step-by-step, surface in the form of a product that a designer might help create? Let’s look at an example product. We’ll call it “Generic Money App.” While I base Generic Money App on a real app currently in use, there are so many others to which my analysis applies. By looking at the adoption of Generic Money App, we can begin to glean the relationship between social systems and the products we designers create within (and sometimes in response to) those systems.

Question: Why would people need an app like Generic Money App?


Generic Money App is a part of a broader ecosystem of digital payment apps which help people send, receive and store money. Let’s say its mission is something like “make money more accessible.”

Question: Why would people need to send, receive and store money via an app like Generic Money App?


Many people who use the app are unbanked or underbanked. That means they don't have a bank account or live in an area with sufficient access to banks, so they need easy mechanisms for activities like cashing paychecks, using debit cards, and paying for services. Most people who use Generic Money App make less than $50,000 per year and/or who have lower than a 600 credit score—which has implications for their access to banks. According to a 2019 FDIC survey, approximately 7.1 million households were unbanked and underbanked, accounting for about 5.4% of all US households. Of these, approximately 14% were African-American, 12% were Hispanic, while less than 3% were white.

Question: Why are some people in Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities unbanked?


While the reasons may vary, generally people within these communities distrust banks, want to avoid fees, don’t have enough money to maintain a minimum balance or may have been blacklisted from banks due to issues like unpaid overdraft fees. In fact, the FDIC’s summary of its 2019 survey noted that “approximately one-third of unbanked households stated they did not have an account because they did not trust banks.”

Question: Why do some underrepresented communities distrust banks?


There are many reasons, but I’ll tease out why Black people may distrust banks, as one example of how the past constructs the present. Predatory and exclusionary practices of major banks led to the financial ruin of many Black families. During Reconstruction in 1865, the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company was set up by congress for newly emancipated Black Americans to help “accelerate their economic empowerment.” Its account holders were more likely to be literate, attend schools, work, have higher incomes and own more real estate than their unbanked counterparts. By 1873, First National Bank co-opted the cash stores of Freedman’s to fund risky railroad companies and real estate—dumping all of its liabilities on Freedman’s to protect its white patrons. In 1874 the bank was forced to close, leaving over 60,000 Black people with over $3 million in losses, equalling over $68 million today. The distrust generated by this betrayal has carried on through the decades.



While I chose the example of Freedman Bank’s demise to show how one system, in this case the financial system, created the conditions for the development of a product like Generic Money App, I could have easily traced Black people’s distrust of banks back to systemic redlining, which began in the 1930s across the intertwined legal, economic and cultural systems.



My discussion of Generic Money App is just one example of how systemic exclusion can be wrapped in a singular app. The systems within which we live (and design products) are deep and ingrained into the very fiber of our consciousness.



As everyone navigates these systems, we must continuously face the harsh reality that they aren’t broken, but operate as designed. We must also acknowledge that those who balk at the thought of dismantling these unjust systems are protecting their comfort instead of developing or adapting to more equitable systems—I address the “right to comfort” later.

A Black man rides a bike on a road winding through an imaginary landscape of oversized digital interface features.

Use new frameworks to make more equitable products

If an app like Generic Money App attempts to solve problems born of an inequitable system, does that make it an “equitable product?” In fact, what is an “equitable product?”



I would venture to say that there is no agreed-upon definition for “equitable product.” Even as Meta’s own inclusive product council attempts to define it, other groups are grappling with it, too. Is it one which is made with everyone considered in the product development process? Or the most marginalized? I would assert an equitable product is one that reduces harm, increases access and is co-created to first meet the needs of the historically underinvested, then augmented to meet the broader population’s needs. That said, the lack of definition and examples often results in designers, regardless of where they work, relying more on their own moral intuition than on a widely accepted theory or set of best practices. Indeed, at Meta we’re addressing this lack, but identifying practices is a work in progress.



There are very few examples of proactive, or transformative, equitable products—products that were built with historically underinvested social identities in mind. These are different from reactively equitable products, which were augmented after they caused harm to a specific group. There are many reasons why there are so few examples, but a dearth of frameworks to propel more equitable design (which has become its own discipline) is not one of them.



Designers of various stripes use all kinds of frameworks to do their work. We can call design thinking itself a “framework” that we use to create websites, hardware, apps, or anything else. We see this framework articulated in different ways across companies and agencies, but it basically surfaces as “learn, define the problem, ideate solutions to the problem, prototype a solution, then test your solution.” There also exist frameworks specifically intended to help designers build more equitable products. We should be sharing and using them. Here are a couple of my favorites:



Equity-Centered Community Design (ECCD)
Created by Creative Reaction Lab and pioneered by Antionette Carroll, Equity-Centered Community Design is a creative problem-solving process based on equity, humility-building, integrating history and healing practices, addressing power dynamics, and co-creating with the community. ECCD is at the intersection of community development, design-based problem solving, and equitable outcomes—designed to allow various combinations when addressing different challenges. The Equity-Centered Community Design process also integrates the acknowledgment, sharing and dismantling of power constructs, both of which are crucial in every step of the problem solving process.



equityXdesign

equityXdesign is a framework by Caroline Hill from 228 Accelerator, Michelle Molitor from The Equity Lab, and Christine Ortiz from Equity Meets Design created to mitigate the impact of racism and inequity in design practices. One of the many concepts within this framework is the Equity Pause, which is a series of questions to ask before, during and after the product planning and design process. These pauses invite designers to reflect on our language, ideas, and hunches in the context of a discourse of transformation. Without this moment to think, our brains default to the familiar and the known, making a repeat of past practice likely. Incorporating these discourse checks and pauses after each stage ensures that our ideas remain on the path of achieving equity.



These two frameworks are examples of so many otherframeworks thatexist to create new processes, check-points, gut checks, and other moments for awareness. In fact, here’s a list of equity design resources aggregated by the Equity Design Collaborative.

 People of different skin tones emerge from and interact with four doors in an imaginary space as a Black man on a bike behind them looks on.

Sensibilities

It’s important to use equitable design frameworks and to understand how designers navigate whiteness within systems, but they don’t make the crux of the work the global design community needs to do. Seeing systems helps designers understand the context of their work, while equitable design frameworks offer mechanisms by which to guide the inception, production, completion and implementation of product work. But underpinning systems and frameworks are our preconceptions; addressing whiteness in products means addressing the internalized sensibilities of whiteness we see as normal. So how does the design community begin addressing internalized whiteness in ourselves, our disciplines and our organizations?



Rethink “innovation”

Innovation as it’s been typically executed in the past—secrecy, first-to-market rush, the big reveal—is built on a sense of urgency, perfectionism, and individualism, which can trample the needs and perspectives of those who make the products and those who may use them. Innovation means nothing if it causes harm, ignores whole populations or negates the experiences of the historically underinvested and marginalized. Reducing whiteness in products begins with redefining innovation to be co-creative, accessible and equitable. It is part of the designer’s job to redistribute power back to communities and not only include them in the product design and development process, but also ensure they are heard, respected and paid. I’m heartened by the strides our own Reality Labs has made in augmenting their responsible innovation principles to include this sort of thinking, as well as our inclusive product council’s push to institutionalize product reviews by employees with diverse perspectives.



Get uncomfortable

Dismantling unjust systems is uncomfortable, and it is most uncomfortable to those who most benefit from these systems. If a designer is to develop or adapt to more equitable systems, that person can’t protect their own comfort. In the equitable design world, we call this resistance “the right to comfort.”



Throughout jobs at various companies, I have seen the right to comfort surface in design through the oversimplification of work. For example, in many cases, making products more accessible, inclusive and equitable means relegating essential framing to checklists, which some designers use to make work more simple and efficient. This happens in the accessibility space: Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) checklists abound, and while I appreciate the strides that the World Wide Web Consortium has made in building the WCAG guidelines and helping designers make more accessible products, the greater design world has a way to go in terms of connecting what’s on checklists to individual designers’ understanding of their guidance. Accessibility checklists can dehumanize the process of understanding human need as it relates to those living with disabilities or who are neurodivergent; they can replace understanding with rules for elements such as type size, color, and alt-text—much of which only scratch at the surface of a person’s need to comfortably navigate physical and digital space.



At Meta, instead of using WCAG as a checklist, we use it as a source of heuristics to assist with our accessibility assessments, making accessibility more of a long-term practice than a “to-do.”



A checklist is, among other things, a mechanism of comfort. Checklists make whiteness feel at ease while offering a sense of accomplishment for “being the ally” in doing the minimum work with little or no understanding of the work.



When considering how to address equity in products, the prioritization of white comfort also dictates who, how, and why these efforts should exist. At various organizations, I’ve seen senior product, engineering and design leaders prioritize engineering cost or metric gain over improving the quality of products and, by extension, the quality of people’s lives. Demma Rosa Rodriguez, Head of Community Trust and Safety for Facebook App, says it best: “At its core, this is a quality problem. When we build products that are inaccessible and inequitable they are of low quality, they don’t meet the bar for shipping.” Through this lens, how many products exist today that are of low quality?



Vivianne Castillo, Founder of HmntyCntrd, sums up the need to change our sensibilities about comfort in asking, “are you willing to suffer?” Black, Latinx and Indigenous designers have disproportionately suffered, and experienced organizational trauma in driving towards more equitable cultures, systems and products—it’d be nice if others shared the load.



Question the “master approach”

As product designers, we should continuously question our assumptions and take a more nuanced, case-by-case approach to researching, planning, designing, launching and assessing products. Because many of us work in for-profit companies, efficiency has had a significant hand in crystallizing our approaches into repeatable mechanisms, but there is no singular, master approach that will meet the needs of every person or product.



For example, can we free ourselves to question how we construct “people problems” or problem statements as mechanisms for identifying the gap between a person’s current and desired experience, or to clearly articulate a person’s unmet needs? These mechanisms, if poorly framed or overgeneralized, can oversimplify human need and fail to take into account the implications of age, gender identity, race/ethnicity, ability, health and socioeconomic status on people’s experience of products. Persona-based design can be effective, but it must take into account social identities and context as a part of the overall user journey and narrative. This isn’t a new idea, of course, but one manybeforeme have shared.



Open up to other perspectives

We designers should step outside of ourselves, our experiences, our biases and truly, deeply learn about, absorb and consistently consider the human condition of the most ignored, traumatized and marginalized. This is bigger than empathy, it’s humility. As Antionette Carroll says in her talk, Design No Harm: Why Humility is Essential in the Journey Toward Equity, “Empathy without humility often shows up as judgment… if empathy doesn’t have humility, it’s still about you.” She goes on to quote Emily Rowe Underwood, Community Initiatives Specialist at the Missouri Historical Society: “Humility asks us to step outside of ourselves, listen and absorb someone else’s truth, even if it makes us feel defensive.” This means identifying and addressing the internalized whiteness we all have absorbed simply by living in a commercial, capitalist society.



Reassess success

There’s more than one way to measure progress. Many for-profit companies prize such things as metric gain, more customers, and higher revenue. But if we are to do the hard work of designing for everyone, we can’t chase those carrots alone. Where are the opportunities to lead a project with the intent of empowering the most marginalized?

A Black man leaves his bike behind him as he approaches a door-shaped opening leading to an imaginary space beyond.

A provocation, not a panacea

This article addresses complicated topics, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of seeking out the simplest solutions. Systems are broad and deep with tendrils stretching back hundreds of years. Frameworks that help designers navigate inequality in these social systems are just tools. It’s possible to understand the systems and leverage the frameworks, but without understanding how our sensibilities connect to the micro- and macro-systems (and how they can influence our use of frameworks) we run the risk of causing harm.



Checklists and boxes won’t work here. A two-hour inclusivity workshop or a book on white fragility isn’t enough. Commitment to removing whiteness, and by extension white supremacy, from the products we build will be ongoing work for the rest of our natural lives—and for generations to come.



What I’ve written here is a provocation for Meta and the global design community—we are not exempt because we have begun some of the work but are even more accountable.



Progress is comfortable, change is uncomfortable—we better get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

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