A Toolkit for Breaking Down Racialized Design in the Classroom, Racism Untaught

Constructing necessary conversations in the classroom about issues of race in design isn’t an easy or comfortable task to take on. Our lack of information, limited personal experiences, or the fact that the conversation has been absent from design classrooms during our own education, make many design educators reluctant to integrate the concept of race into their classrooms. Many institutions offer resources and methods on how to initiate the conversation and create awareness in the classroom in order to support greater diversity and inclusion efforts, but little hone in on the forms of racialized design that surround us everyday. Two design educators, Terresa Moses and Lisa Mercer, are passionate about creating a design approach for other educators that provide an informed and intentional process to analyzing racialized design, understanding how it is systemically perpetuated, and then working to unteach it. The following Q+A with Lisa and Terresa share their project titled “Racism Untaught”.

What is Racism Untaught?

Racism Untaught is an academic curriculum model created to support educators and organizations who are interested in creating design approaches that challenge elements of racism. This process looks at how participants might utilize design research to critically assess anti-racist concepts and solve racialized design challenges within project-based learning environments. The model helps participants identify, contextualize, and re-imagine forms of racialized design by taking them through an intentional version of the design research process. The “toolkit” includes a large 60 inch by 30 inch workboard that visualizes the steps of the design research process but specifies each step as a progression to creating an anti-racist outcome. The five steps are: 1) Context– understanding the racialized design challenge, 2) Define– exploring methods and theories to frame an approach, 3) Ideate– exploring and re-imagining creative solutions, 4) Prototype– creating a deliverable, and 5) Impact– measuring the implementation. The workboard has associated activities to guide participants such as; the levels of oppression model, a thesis question guide, an idea plotting quadrant map, and a rubric. Dotted lines on the workboard indicate how participants can jump back in the process if they need further development of past steps in the process. Each step also includes a deck of circular cards which participants use to guide questions and discussion about the racialized design challenge they are analyzing. For instance, the first step, Context, includes over 40 cards they created that display elements of racism and their definition. Participants use this deck to discuss their assigned design challenge and discover what elements of racism show up (and which elements do not) to further contextualize that particular instance of racism.

Why was this toolkit created?

Both Lisa and Terresa find that navigating the issue of racism to be of the utmost importance in sustaining inclusivity, equity, and diversity in academia and in the design industry. At their campuses, they are continually asked how to discuss and develop projects for students around issues of race and racism. In response to the cultural taxation they were both experiencing, they decided to join forces to develop the Racism Untaught toolkit to help campuses nationwide tackle these issues. “We wanted to provide a creative way to discuss and analyze how designers play a role in upholding or tearing down systemic racism.” The kit is used to challenge and undo the racist ideologies we have been taught throughout our lives and work to breakdown racist elements and identify design approaches that challenge those racialized designs. 

What is ‘racialized’ design?

Racialized design is anything created around us that perpetuates the system of racism and holds up the culture of White supremacy. While there are obvious forms of ‘racialized’ design there are also the invisible forms of racialized design that exist in our society– causing further damage to our culture and to the lives of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. 

Through the project, Lisa and Terresa have defined design as existing in three categories–each of them with a high probability to become racialized. The first being Artifacts which are objects that are the result of human workmanship or machine modification. An example of a racialized artifact would be the Aunt Jemima packaging, intended to reflect the Black woman as a mammy archetype whose job it was to care for White families. The second category of design is Systems which are an organized set of doctrines, ideas, or principles intended to explain the arrangement or working of a systematic whole. An example of this would be the development of the bridges erected in New York City in the 1940s purposely developed so low that it prevented city buses from going under them, thus limiting the Black and brown communities who primarily used public transport from entering certain areas of the city. Lastly, the design category of Experiences which are simply something in which you might have personally encountered, undergone, or lived through. An example of this shows up in interpersonal experiences in which White folks treat folks of color particular ways based on their race. 

Can you give an example of invisible forms of racism?

These invisible forms of racism are perpetuated every day in the three forms which we have identified earlier. And perhaps a better word would be unseen, because these invisible forms are definitely there. Artifacts that react to motion, like soap dispensers in public restrooms, would be a form of “unseen” racialized design. While folks might not give it a second thought, the way that light reflects off melanated skin tones makes it hard for folks of color to activate these artifacts. This has to do with who is making the products and who are the testers– mostly White folks. Systems are generally unseen to most, like our educational system. Because taxes inform how much money is invested into certain schools, something like a zip code gives many folks of color less educational opportunities than their White counterparts. And lastly, a personal experience of Terresa’s in which she was mistaken for hired help in her apartment building although no people of color worked in the building. These types of experiences happen all the time, leaving folks of color to deal with them on their own with no reconciliation or support for the trauma they endure.

Why should design educators consider using tools such as Racism Untaught?

Design schools have become a place where social impact, engagement and innovation can be developed, analysed, and sustained. Many institutions of higher learning have outlined goals and action plans geared toward advancing a more positive campus climate. It is imperative that design educators possess the tools necessary to foster conversations and learning environments with a focus on diversity, inclusion, and equity. The only way to do that is to become equipped with the tools necessary to talk about racism as the foundational structure of our society and culture. “If our job as designers is to fix ugly things, why aren’t we all talking about racism?’

Fully exploring the concept of ‘racialized design’ is accomplished by challenging concepts and analysing our everyday artifacts, systems, and experiences. Ignoring the issue of racism makes you a supporter of the current system, and yes, that makes you racist. We should be working toward a culture of anti-racism, creating design approaches that not only remove the racist artifact, system, or experience, but create a design that actively fights false narratives and creates opportunities for restoration, healing, and reparations for communities of color.

How do you best recommend interested educators start to use the tool?
Racism Untaught is still being tested with educators around the country. The best way for educators to start using the tool is to contact Lisa and Terresa at getstarted@racismuntaught.com.

To learn more about the project visit:

Instagram: @racismuntaught
Identifying Racialized Design to Cultivate a Culture of Awareness in Design

Terresa Moses is an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Minnesota Duluth and the Creative Director of a social justice-based design studio, Blackbird Revolt.

Lisa Mercer is an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design and and Graduate Co-Coordinator for Design in Responsible Innovation for the School of Art and Design, at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

By aigaeducators
Published February 13, 2020
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