Perspectives & Reflections: Thoughts on Identity, Race, and Design Education

George Floyd, Ahmaud Arberry, and Breonna Taylor demonstrate deeper issues of how racism has historically played out here in the United States. These tragic events are more than just surface level microaggressions but overt acts of white supremacy. Today, the vestiges of slavery, racial injustice and systems of oppression can be applied to every field and discipline. When we look at American history and we examine the Post-Reconstruction era, the implementation of Jim Crow laws, redlining and White Flight, it becomes clear how Black people in America have continually been denied opportunities for advancement. 

“But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”
– Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

In reflecting on the last few weeks, the two of us (AIGA DEC Steering Committee Members) have been thinking critically about our experiences as Black designers and design educators, specifically growing up in the United States. While we’ve had similar experiences, our stories offer unique and divergent perspectives on the ways we approach design, and how the experience of being black has informed the ways we teach our students. In the paragraphs that follow we share our stories.

Kaleena Sales – Reflections
Throughout grad school and corporate work, being the only black person in the room, I often sat quietly as stories were shared about college experiences that were drastically different from my experience at an HBCU (Historically Black College and University). From social life to classes taken, there were times I felt like I was from a different world (no pun intended). There were also the looks of shock on everyone’s faces when I didn’t know any of the words to nearly any Beatles song, or had no clue who the artist was that was in concert that night, or the group trip with classmates to visit a civil war gravesite, and witnessing the blissful patriotism from my peers, while I again sat awkwardly waiting for the experience to be over. To manage, I often found ways to accommodate other people in the room by just being quiet. I didn’t share parts of myself for fear that I wouldn’t be understood or worse, be thought less of. I wouldn’t talk about the southern rap music I listened to in my car on the way home from work for fear that my favorite artist would be turned into a joke. Similarly, I wouldn’t discuss the trip to the hair salon over the weekend, or the food I ate the night before. I learned time and again that discussing these things signaled my difference more than I wanted.

Being the only black person in a professional or friends circle leaves you with at least a handful of cringeworthy moments. I can think of one in particular years ago when one of my white colleagues mentioned that she had met a really nice black guy on a plane ride, and was impressed by his ability to speak so well. These experiences aren’t uncommon. Yet, all too often for me, it isn’t those dumb, or flat out racists comments that make up my black experience. Instead, it’s the collection of much smaller, unintended, deceptively insignificant moments that remind me that to be black is to be misunderstood. 

I teach at an HBCU where I am surrounded by young black men and women. I have the privilege to experience the fullness of their personalities and not have to rely on what I see portrayed on television or across social media. I hear my students when they call their moms to get help with their class schedules, and I see them when they laugh with their friends about bad haircuts. I work with them when they are trying to figure out their next steps after graduation. These students are funny, intelligent, goofy, and all the things that anyone is at that age. They grew up with the same interests and dreams, and hobbies as any other kid in America. But even with all these things that tie humanity together, and make us alike, there are some shared experiences by virtue of being black in America that connect these students as minorities. Histories of oppression and economic disadvantages have directly impacted their lives, often making them first generation college students. Many rely on financial aid to cover living expenses and tuition, while also juggling work study jobs. The experiences that they’ve had impact their understanding of the world and the choices they make as visual artists and designers. 

In preparation for a talk at AIGA’s 2019 Design Education Symposium, I wrote: “Historically, several minority visual artists – Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, and Basquiat being a few, have been heralded for their ability to represent the spirit and struggle of their community through the use of distressed brush strokes, layered torn collages, graffiti, or iconography. But unlike fine artists, graphic designers are typically taught against having such a specific urban aesthetic and learn instead to service a mainstream culture largely governed by central European trends.” When students graduate from an HBCU and leave their community, they are faced with a new reality. The ways in which they are different become more noticeable. Choices in imagery, colors, textures, fonts, and subject matter suddenly separate them from their white peers. They are faced with choices in whether or not to code-switch their design aesthetic to accommodate an audience with long-standing ideals on European standards of design. 

In the novel, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes: “You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable.”

I share that same wish for my students.

Kelly Walters – Reflections 
When I think about my experience growing up in the United States, I consider how particular circumstances have influenced where I am now. In the 1950s, my great-grandparents migrated from Alabama and Georgia to Connecticut, with the intent of seeking a better life. Their movement to the North aligned with the Great Migration era and was when, “Thousands of African-Americans left the South to escape sharecropping, worsening economic conditions, and the lynch mob. They sought higher wages, better homes, and political rights. Between 1940 and 1970 continued migration transformed the country’s African-American population from a predominately southern, rural group to a northern, urban one.”¹ In the 1970s, my paternal grandparents would also migrate to Connecticut from Jamaica. Understanding this legacy of the United States and how my family is connected to this history, is critically important to how I think as a designer. Race was something we talked about in my family and as my brothers and I learned more about our roots, we understood that we were children of an immigrant,  descendants of slaves and that our maternal great-grandfather was once a subject of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Histories like these make clear how and why black people in the United States, can and have been cautious of the intentions of white people.

From elementary school through college, I was often the first black friend that many of my white peers ever encountered. Being in this position meant that I faced a lot of white people with varying degrees of comfortability – with black people and other people of color. I experienced numerous comments about my hair, saw increased fascination with the styles I would get, received questions about how long it would take to get done, or worse white peers reaching out to touch my hair (without consent) in order to see what it felt like. As a designer, small microagressions like these accumulated. I often thought about whether anyone would care about my work, whether it was “too black,” “made people uncomfortable,” “wasn’t simplistic enough,” “wasn’t legible,” “was too confrontational” and the list goes on. 

In a recent article for “Design & Culture,” Open Dialogue: Artists + Designers of Afro-Caribbean Descent, I share more about how I began to engage with design in order to push against these anxieties, “As I began to formally learn graphic design in college, I also double majored in Communication Sciences. Researching how language functioned and the ways messages were transmitted was all new. I began to understand the ethnographic and visual semiotics that were connected to Black identity. Blending this knowledge into my art and design practice was a natural progression, and I found that I could explore the dynamics of racial identity through printed and digital forms. Design became an opportunity to learn about the legacy of Black literature, music and fashion and examine how Black visual culture has impacted the United States and around the world. During this time, my appreciation for graphic design expanded to include representations of Black identity and the formal typographic elements that allowed them to function. For many students, design is a space to contend with who they are and what they want to say about their identity through explorations of written language, visual symbols and imagery. Students of color are continually navigating their identity in relation to their design. While some students of color do not want to be defined by their race, others are explicitly addressing it in their work. They carry with them their cultural and ethnic backgrounds to institutions that don’t always reflect them in student or faculty composition.”²

As design educators we have a duty to understand history. We must be reflective of the multiple histories that co-exist (U.S. History, African-American History, Indigenous History, etc.) that shape culture, behaviors and mindsets and consider how these take form in our classroom spaces.

Reflection Questions for Design Educators

  • Are black educators being critiqued harder or with a different set of standards?
  • What are the supports and resources that retain black educators? 
  • Who are some examples of black educators that have successfully completed the tenure process? 
  • Are there projects or assignments that unintentionally isolate students of color? 
  • How are you defining “good” design when grading?
  • What are the experiences for students of the African diaspora, who grew up outside the United States that do not see themselves as African-American?

  2. Kelly Walters (2020) Open Dialogue: Artists and Designers of Afro-Caribbean Descent, Design and Culture, 12:1, 83-101, DOI: 10.1080/17547075.2020.1690281

Much of what has informed graphic design education comes from the Western world, with a heavy emphasis on principles and practices from movements like the Bauhaus, Constructivism, and the International Typographic Style. This narrowed lens ignores design contributions from many parts of the world and perpetuates a narrative that “good” design must be derived from these specific origins. At what point are we, as design educators, responsible for challenging this narrative? The content featured in Beyond the Bauhaus aims to highlight design contributions from underrepresented cultural and social groups that do not have roots in modernist or Bauhaus methods. The goal is not to deny the contributions of the Western world, but to broaden the scope of what we teach and discuss in the classroom, while providing ideas toward practical applications of the referenced work. Submissions from readers are encouraged. Contact Kaleena Sales ( to submit a feature.

By Kelly Walters and Kaleena Sales
Published June 10, 2020
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