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When Blackface Goes Digital: How to Go Deeper Than Cosmetic Diversity

[dscout x HmntyCntrd] How anti-Blackness plays out in digital spaces and tips on how to go beyond cosmetic diversity.

Words by Jaryn Miller, Visuals by Allison Korr

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:

Turning Devil's Advocate on Devil's Advocacy: It's Time to Stop Debating People's Lived Experiences of Racism

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

“And our fifth and last persona is Laquisha. She's a low-income, single, working mother in a dangerous neighborhood, but she is strong-willed and determined to overcome the challenges she faces! This app will help her...”

I know, It’s bad y'all. I can’t tell you how many times I've seen some version of the stereotype above presented as a design persona. But, I can tell you that it’s only slightly more often than I've seen her cousin, persona. In this version, the only sign of a person’s race or culture is the picture attached to the presentation.

While you mentally catalog all of the personas you’ve seen and made in your life, just know I’ve made similar mistakes. More often than not, I'm the only Black designer on the project, and I've built my career around developing more equitable and inclusive design, so I have a heightened sensitivity to stereotypes. I still messed up. And then a really helpful thing happened; someone called it out then called me in and told me it was potentially harmful. Let this article do that for you. It isn’t here to judge your intentions, but rather to inform your impact.

This article will:

  1. Show the importance and opportunity of spreading the burden. The Black, brown, queer, disabled, and immigrant team members shouldn’t be the only ones looking for these issues, it’s everyone's job.
  2. Give applicable tools and examples of how to go beyond the surface to develop more rich meaningful designs that reflect and embrace the complexities of our communities.
  3. Hopefully, spare you the pain of getting dragged on Black Twitter, and more importantly, help keep you from causing harm on communities and/or coworkers.

Let’s get into it.

Two quick notes:

  1. I’ll only be lightly code switching in this article, if at all. Keep up.
  2. This article is focused on Black people, so I won't be using BIPOC or other generalizations. My hope is that the content is applicable to many other (separate and intersecting) oppressed identities, but here the focus is on Black people.

Case study 1: Black face, White content

My wife has a beef with Issa Rae...or more accurately, it seems like Issa Rae wants smoke with my wife. It’s not something I ever would have imagined, and yet almost daily I hear my wife screaming out in frustration, and Issa’s calm mechanical voice replying back. The root of the issue is the same as it is in most relationships, communication. Issa doesn’t understand my wife, so I have to step in and help out.

You see, Issa is the voice for our Google smart speaker. And, like all the other speakers, Google’s doesn’t do well with higher pitched (often deemed “feminine”) voices. While it’s ironic for Google to hire a Black woman to be the voice of the product while leaving the voices of Black womxn out of the data, design, and testing of the product, it’s not unusual. Ruha Benjamin’s Race After Technology highlights a Netflix example:

“The Netflix movie recommendations that pop up on your screen can entice Black viewers, by using tailored movie posters of Black supporting Cast members, to get you to click on an option that you might otherwise pass on. Why bother with structural changes in casting and media representation, when marketing gurus can make Black actors appear more visible than they really are in the actual film?”

Ruha Benjamin in Race After Technology
Promotional images taken from four different Netflix accounts for the movie “Set It Up.” Clockwise, from top left: Zoey Deutch + Glen Powell; Deutch + Powell; Taye Diggs + Lucy Liu; Pete Davidson. Credit: Netflix. Image from New York Times article.

The seemingly benign, innovative, and revenue generating promise of the first sentence makes it easy to ignore the second point; that the design encourages the continued exclusion and minimization of Black talent.

This phenomena isn’t limited to tech. There is an epidemic of ads highlighting the strength of Black women from companies with no Black leadership. Signs declaring Black Lives Matter thrive in neighborhoods where no Blacks live.

Lesson 1: Nothing about us without us.

Cosmetic Diversity happens when you’re more focused on signaling inclusivity or marketing to a demographic than you are on doing the hard work to integrate inclusivity into your products, services, and workplace.

Key recommendation: Before you put Black people in your ad, be sure you’re including them in your research and design.

Case study 2: If you don’t see my color, you don’t see me.

Black Maternal health is a personal and professional passion of mine. So, I was really excited to join a project exploring how telehealth could support prenatal care during and after the pandemic. That is, until we started talking to vendors working in the space and I had to have conversations like this:

Vendor: The U.S. has poor maternal health metrics compared to other rich countries. Moreover, Black [birthing people] are 3-4 times more likely to die [than white birthing people] during childbirth, [regardless of income]. That statistic really highlights the major need for our product.

Me: Given that stat, what about your service specifically addresses the Black birthing people?



Vendor: we are working to try and connect with Medicaid!

Serious The Four GIF By Diddy via Giphy

This exchange reveals a few things. First is the incorrect belief that the word “all” is a reasonable substitute for “(usually young middle class) white people”. The second is the incorrect belief that the word “Black” is a reasonable substitute for “poor”.

The third is the incorrect belief that you can counter the effects of systemic racism with just vibes. The vendor went out of their way to highlight the extreme and distinct need of Black people, but offered no targeted solutions. Instead, they apparently expected Black people to somehow benefit by fitting themselves into a product very clearly targeted at upper class white cis-women.

Lesson 2: Specificity is sexy

Race is a social construct, which is to say it’s embedded in every aspect of our society. Race based problems demand race based solutions. Age ain’t nothin but a number, but you don’t often see a product marketed to both preschoolers and senior citizens. We don’t expect everyone 65+ to have monolithic experiences, but we do recognize that as a group they often have related and distinct needs compared to other (equally non monolithic) groups.

Whether you want to talk about it or not, in a society based on race, race will inevitably have an impact on your work. Schools are more segregated now than they were when the division was explicit. The choice you have is whether to be intentional about that impact, or not. In my experience, it’s always best to have explicit conversations about how race, disability, language, gender, and sexuality may or may not impact the work we do. It’s even better to build frameworks so you can be consistent across projects and embed inclusivity into your processes.

Key recommendation: Is your data set almost all white? Change that. Does your algorithm embed historical racism? Maybe don’t instead. Are you only user testing with people who have privileges making them easy to access instead of making sure you reflect all of your desired users? Slow down and reach out.

Case study 3: When keeping it real goes right

“So how does something like this go down? Well, it all popped off when...”

Shereen Marisol Meraji, Co-Host of Code Switch

When I first heard the line above I was driving. I flipped on NPR mid-segment and got wrapped up in the story. Then, when I heard that line, I instantly knew the podcast I was listening to was made for me. A typical NPR host would have said “it all began when”. Instead, this host spoke my language. I love the podcast Freakonomics, but I know it's not made for me.

We’ve come a long way in getting more representation in the media. But there is still ground to cover in terms of letting people be their authentic selves. I remember when it was national news for Tamron Hall to show her natural hair on national TV. I can’t explain the feeling I got from hearing Ms. Meraji be herself on such a large platform, but I can tell you I started listening to Code Switch.

Lesson 3: Be authentic

Most global companies recognize that moving into a new locality means more than just translating the content. You have to adjust to a whole new culture. I recommend you take the same approach to different markets within a country. You don’t need four separate apps, but you do need to understand what’s resonating with each of your audiences and what’s not.

If something isn’t working for a target group, then try something new [We all agreed we’re not using the word “pivot” anymore right?]. Just keeping in mind lessons 1 & 2. Netflix’s Strong Black Lead is a good example of building with your intended audience and amplifying authentic voices.

For many groups, quickly clocking whether a space is made for you or not is rooted in safety, and all too often a matter of life and death. The music, playlist, tone, language, and images can mean the difference between danger, tolerance, and community. We bring that same mentality into a new product or service experience. It’s great to see or hear yourself on a product. It’s even better to feel seen when using a product.

I hope you take these lessons into your work, and that they help you connect with new audiences, increase revenue, and get that promotion. But, more importantly I hope your work gives those audiences a chance to breathe deeply and feel safe, welcomed, and included. Lastly, I hope that you recognize Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion isn’t a single role, but a principle that has to live within the whole company. It’s not a box to be checked, but practice to be iterated on and lived out daily.

Jaryn is a Service Designer, writer, & advisor focused on mental health and wellbeing. More specifically, his work centers Black people and other oppressed communities and explores how design might support the many ways trauma manifests in our lives and communities. He began this work as a Tipping Point fellow, and carried it through to the VA, Kaiser Permanente, and now Headspace. He is also the co-founder of Oakland Reparations. He wrote this in the third person while chillin’ in his house in a redlined Oakland neighborhood on Ohlone Land before waking his partner and 4 year old up for breakfast.

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