What Design Needs to Understand About Racial Gaslighting

“As Americans, we have no grammar for understanding art.” 
Dr. Gloria Ladsen-Billings on the lack of Social Funding in visual arts

Note: The following description of the problem space, and suggested strategies to address this problem, are harvested from a lived experience. I do not have all the answers and for that matter, I do not have all the problems. There are so many! I am very much a champion of feedback, discourse, and most of all learning. 

I was born in California, in 1980 to a Mexican father who crossed the US-Mexico border in the ’60s, and a White* mother whose American branch of the family tree started with immigrants who arrived to this “frontier” from across the world—Scotland, Prussia, and the Netherlands. 

My parents were very young, and their relationship lasted just long enough to bring me into existence, and by the time I was 6 months old they were living separate lives. My existence was one of moving back and forth between their two worlds. My mother’s world is White. Subsequent husbands, half-siblings, and all of my aunts and uncles on my mother’s side of the family are White. My father’s side of the family looks like a United Colors of Benetton ad—the family on that side is Brown, Black/African American, White/Italian, Chinese, Japanese. 

Being a person of mixed race is one of feeling both and neither. Moving between two segregated worlds, I experienced what I now understand to be racial gas-lighting. Racial gas-lighting can show up as a denial of racism, or a denial of your whole self in favor of a racist idea of who you are. It’s a manipulation that leaves you questioning your own reality, and leads to feeling like you must hide your whole self.

In my father’s world our family name—Chavez—was replaced when, as a child, my dad was adopted by his Italian stepfather. In my own childhood, I was coached to try and pass as “not Hispanic.” This grooming included discouraging my mingling with other children of color—especially boys—especially Black boys. I was instructed to identify myself as “European” when asked, “What are you?” When I tried to learn Spanish I was told that doing so would only hurt my opportunities in the long run. In a misguided act of protection, my father made little effort to keep his kids connected to their Mexican roots. Many first-generation parents do this. On the flip-side—in my mother’s world—our extended family never missed a chance to point out that I was Mexican. My uncles often cracked “jokes” about the difference of my color. I was lovingly nick-named “Beanie”—while other Brown people were openly referred to as “beaners” (a racial slur for Latinx people). 

I could not move between these two worlds without experiencing an overwhelming sense of cognitive dissonance about my own racial identity—and reality. I knew that I was Mexican and White—but neither side of my family knew how to hold space for me to be both at the same time. 

The racial gas-lighting continued beyond my family experience. Trusting my grooming, I walked into the White spaces of the schools I attended thinking that I wasn’t Mexican enough to encounter the same blatant racism that traumatized my dad in the exact same schools, sometimes with the exact same teachers. When I encountered racism I felt a profound sense of confusion. One early education teacher insisted on speaking very loud, very broken Spanglish at me, and then sent me off with the other Spanish speaking children to an English Language Learning class—I never spoke Spanish. This experience was book-ended in high school when my government teacher told me he could use my “Latin spice” on the debate team (not my intelligence). 

When invited over to a friend’s house after school there would  inevitably be a curious parent who inexplicably had the same interrogation script:

Them: “Your name, that’s Italian right?” 

Me: “yes.” 

Them: “Is your dad Italian?” 

Me: “No.” (My religious upbringing kicks in, forcing me to be truthful.)

Them: “So what is he? Why do you have an Italian name?”

I would then tell them how our story started in Mexico. My biological grandfather left one day and never came back. I would tell them about my Mexican grandmother coming to the US as a single parent trying to find a better life. After those conversations, there would rarely be another visit that didn’t include some new line of interrogation. “So does your dad have a job?” 

In school, when the questions came from the Brown kids, I was accused of being a sellout because I didn’t speak Spanish and because I was friendship-adjacent with White kids. I spent time floating through short-lived friendships, and I spent a lot of time alone. A recent study,—cited in the Code-Switch podcast—found that students of mixed race were most likely to have friendships that crossed racial lines—if they have friendships. The same study found that mixed-race kids are the least likely to have friendships at all. 

Because I didn’t understand the intricacies of race, racism, or why any of it mattered, I was left with one conclusion—I was alone because something was fundamentally wrong with me and my ability to maintain friendships. This is the social peril of racial gas-lighting in a culture that is self-segregated by race. It’s like everyone knows that they are supposed to be racist toward you somehow—but they are  not sure what kind of racist to be—it then becomes a problem you are tasked to solve for them by picking a side already.

I share this story with you because this same kind of racial gas-lighting happens in design education and profession ALL. THE. TIME. 

Designers deemed “other,” are often forced to move between two worlds, the world of Euro-centric design that exists in the classroom, or at the office, and the world of their underrepresented cultural experience. Rarely are we able to be all of ourselves in one space. 

In documenting visual culture (in education, media, etc), there have not been enough seats at the table held by people who are culturally literate enough to evaluate the work of, or tell the stories belonging to people deemed “other.” The heart of this problem lies in impostor-syndrome-driven denial and an ego that refuses to decenter itself and accept the vulnerability of not knowing. Teachers and co-creators alike often SWERVE around discussing work centered on the telling of a marginalized person’s lived experience in order to avoid discomfort, or fear of making mistakes, or confessing one already has made mistakes and might need to apologize and become open to learning. I HAVE MADE MISTAKES. We all do it. It’s okay. 

For hundreds of years, the gatekeepers of visual culture have been the institutions, educators, and mentors of design students, interns, and apprentices. As the gatekeepers of visual communication, we hold so much power to shape the future, and this next generation of visual storytellers is demanding that we make space for everyone, and tell all the stories better. When I stop and listen to my students, my fellow OTIS alumni, my friends in the design community—I learn. 

Here are some things I have learned as a BIPOC/AFAB student, designer, and professor:

There is no universal design language. Pedagogy too often pushes the idea that design fundamentals are universal, or identity-free. The “fundamentals” are often presented as non-culture, failing to unpack the identities that originated them or call into question how they became so widely adopted. At the same time, this swerve around those complexities is happening, many students are told that their work is too Black, Brown, feminist or queer when that identity is centered in the work—and then they are handed an assignment prompt which requires them to design a poster in Swiss International style, or design a bookplate in classical French/Italian renaissance style. Resources like BIPOC Design History have been essential in learning how to teach Graphic Design and Design History with greater awareness, and accuracy.

Let your students become your teacher. Those of us who come from marginalized communities can clearly see that the dominant design identity is White European and male. He’s written our textbooks, he is often the main character in our textbooks, and in our work, we are asked to think like him, and make like him—what we really need is for our professors and collaborators to learn more about who we are, and the cultures we come from in order to speak competently about our work and provide useful feedback. Without a mentor who is willing to learn, we are forced to set down our own identities in exchange for the “fundamental” and “universal” to gain their approval, and taste success. We then carry that lesson into profession, and end up perpetuating the same narratives that alienates us. In our design lives we feel isolated from our collaborators by the conflicts we feel, and within our lived experience we suffer the repercussions of perpetuated racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism. Creating space for students to center their experiences—allowing them to talk about the things that drive their visual storytelling—will help educators understand their design choices better, and empower students to resist the urge to hide their whole self in the workplace. 

*Whiteness is not the baseline of culture, it’s an American invention to erase all culture. Whiteness is a tool of oppression, used to force assimilation and consolidate power. To be “White” is to be American. Not Italian, not Irish, not German or French. The cost of participating in America is assimilation, and because America sorts its people by color—fair-skinned immigrants were lumped into a White monolith. I know this, because I am half “White,” and have heard my family, and other White-identifying people lament that they “have no culture” and are envious of the “other” for having so much of it. They are at once revealing their own awareness, and fear of erasure, while simultaneously scaffolding White Supremacy. My White family has traditions and behaviors and food-ways that connect back to their pre-American roots, and they are missing out on celebrating those things – because they are hidden behind the veil of “Whiteness.” 

White students in my classroom often discount their own lived experience, and describe themselves as culture-less or “boring”. When this happens I tell them about my family, and how my Grandma Hinker’s “Dough Gods” (an adaptation of Dutch doughnuts and southern “fry bread”) are as rich a tradition as my Big Nana’s Fried Tacos and Menudo on Saturdays. I encourage them to dig into their family histories and tell the stories they find there.

TLDR: Dismantle White Supremacy by celebrating actual culture, embrace hyper-individualism and plurality, listen to a podcast produced by Black and Brown people, recognize that so many of your “DACA” kids are actually native to this continent, and were crossed by  a border (not the other way around). Dismantle sexism and homophobia by taking a queer studies, or women’s history course. Watch POSE! Read a book that doesn’t look like it was designed by Jan Tschichold. 

Let’s get free.

By Shannon Doronio (Chavez)
Published February 5, 2022
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