Turning Devil’s Advocate on Devil’s Advocacy: It’s Time to Stop Debating People’s Lived Experiences of Racism
[dscout x HmntyCntrd] Why provoking disputes around others' lived experiences has no place in design (or anywhere).
dscout has partnered with HmntyCntrd–an award-winning community that's transforming what it means to be human-centered in our professional and personal lives. In the coming months, we’ll be collaborating on original research and sharing insights from HmntyCntrd contributors.
This piece is one of those contributions. Here are the others:
When Blackface Goes Digital
Advocating for People in a Profit-Driven World
4 Reasons Why Tech is Political (And What We Can Do)
The Systematic Under-Rating of Rest, Silence and Hobbies
The Challenge of Evaluating Research Ethics
I can’t have been older than seven. I remember the autumn leaves crunching under my school shoes and the weight of the saxophone case I was holding.
My mum had just nipped back to grab my lunchbox that we’d forgotten. I was waiting for her courteously—admiring an Oak tree and wondering if I had ham or jam sandwiches— when a group of older boys approached me. They must have been around 11 but the age gap felt like lightyears as their shadows towered around me.
They started at me on their approach, once they were close, the ring leader looked me in the eye and boldly asked:
“Do you know what a n***ger is?”
I didn’t, of course. My vocabulary was good for a seven-year-old but largely filled with names of Pokemon, imaginary characters, and Kenan and Kel references I’d overheard from my brother’s TV watching. So, “No,” I told them, “I don’t.”
“It’s you,” he replied, in no uncertain terms, while the others laughed raucously and scuttled off.
My whole life changed in that moment. It was the first time I realised I was ‘other.’ And I’ll never forget how my Mum’s face lost all colour when I told her.
I’ll especially never forget the words of my headteacher when I was urged to tell him. His rouge face and booming voice echoed as he asked, “Are you sure that’s what they said?” followed by “I can’t imagine those boys using that language.”
Over two decades have passed and I still can’t say that word out loud. I still download the radio edit of songs to avoid hearing it. But one thing I’ve never been able to avoid, as a Black woman, is people’s debating and playing devil’s advocate when it comes to racism.
It’s time to press pause on playing devil’s advocate
Playing devil’s advocate is a role commonly encouraged in the design community, in the name of constructive criticism or critical thinking. But it’s high time to pause and discuss the potential harm that can come from playing a role that often over-indexes on argumentative commentary and under-indexes on the competencies required to avoid the advancement of racism.
Following the horrendous murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery, more conversations about racism started happening openly. While this was a positive step, with it came more people playing devil’s advocate, blasting their privilege over people’s heartfelt stories and pain.
According to Oxford dictionary, devil’s advocate is:
“A person who expresses a contentious opinion in order to provoke debate or test the strength of the opposing arguments.”
It comes from the Latin phrase, “advocatus diaboli'' which, in Roman times, was an official job role for someone who would draw up a list of negatives about candidates being considered to become saints. It is now widely considered a technique of argument, where people will share perspectives that they may not even believe ‘for the sake of it.’
While it may have its harmless uses, I want to highlight the issues and hurt that can come from playing ‘devil’s advocate’—especially on topics like race. This is crucial for us to consider as it’s our job to design things that support and don’t harm. So, we need to be aware of the dangers of defaulting to ‘devil’s advocate’ when working with other design professionals and the people who interact with the experiences we help to shape.
Questions to ask yourself before you light the flames of devil’s advocacy
It’s easier to logically debate a topic when it doesn’t affect you. But by debating topics like racism, you’re debating people’s traumas and lived experiences.
When my headteacher questioned if I was sure the boys had called me a n**ger, it was abundantly clear he didn’t believe my experience. For him, as a white man in a position of power, that statement may have meant nothing but it’s sat vividly in my psyche for nearly 30 years.
Playing devil’s advocate with people’s experiences often causes more harm than it does good. We need to move away from a place of auto-debating racism and understand the roles that power and privilege play in this. So, here are some questions to think about before playing devil’s advocate, in future research meetings and design and content reviews:
Is this a topic I have lived experience in?
It’s easy to say all lives matter when your life always has. If you don’t have a lived understanding of something, then question how helpful it is for you to debate it. Could you ask with compassion and seek to understand, not be right?
We need to move to a place of genuine empathy over interrogation. There are many other ways that we, as skilled designers and researchers, can seek to fill our knowledge gaps without forcing people to debate their own painful experiences.
We wouldn’t do this with a research participant – and we shouldn’t do this with those in and out of the design community.
What is my intent from playing devil’s advocate?
Are you asking a genuine question or are you just keen to get your opinion across? As the age-old saying goes, “Until you’ve walked in someone’s shoes, who are you to judge?”
If you haven’t experienced racism then count yourself as fortunate but it is never OK to invalidate the experiences of those that have and continue to daily. Racism is alive and kicking—that’s a fact, not a debate topic.
While white people have probably also experienced hardships, these aren’t due to the colour of your skin, your race or the systematic oppression structures in place. So, try to understand this before you plead the D.
How might it make the other person feel?
It takes incredibly high levels of bravery for people to speak up and out about racism. You might immediately feel like asking questions or defending but a good place to start is always actively listening and responding instead of reacting.
I get that defence can be a knee-jerk reaction as folks generally don’t want to be thought of as racist. But the society we exist in has a backlog of racism that stems centuries—whether you consider yourself racist or not.
It’s therefore crucial that we accept that racism exists. We can't make meaningful progress with anti-racism until we’re willing to acknowledge its existence.
What other ways could I enhance my knowledge in this space?
Racism can be a complex topic, I can appreciate that. But the very nature of our jobs are also complex. It’s our business to navigate complexity and seek out different perspectives with compassion.
I promise there are far more effective ways to do this than playing devil’s advocate with strangers on the social sphere, or being defensive towards Black or brown mates. The internet and bookstores are full of useful content about race, ethnicity and anti-racism. Here are a few of my favourites:
- Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Renni Eddo Lodge
- Natives by Akala
- Iconic Women of Colour by me
So let’s practice the empathy we preach. And let’s embrace being more thoughtful in how we critique and slower to light the fires of devil’s advocacy.
By day, Candi’s a content leader who loves nothing more than seeing her team thrive, solving complex DesignOps challenges and flying the important flag for truly inclusive design. By night, she’s a published author of four books (including Iconic Women of Colour)—and counting. She co-leads Ladies that UX Bristol and is a Chair of BIMA South West, super passionate about unlocking opportunities for underrepresented communities in tech. Outside of work, you'll find her desperately trying not to buy more crystals, nurturing her houseplants or listening to Lizzo.
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