A Hundred Racist Designs

Pierce Gordon, Ph.D.
25 min readAug 3, 2020

To build an antiracist future, we have to take a hard look at today’s creations.

This moment feels different.

It seems overnight, the world is overcome with injecting anti-racism into every endeavor. Some colleagues, for the first time, are coping with the weight of the oppressive system. Others, fortunately, have collected countless resources posed to help design a more equitable future.

Unfortunately, racism proves to be larger, more abstract, and more elusive than the objects traditional designers are used to constructing. To some extent, it’s not their fault: racism’s been designed into our society for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, designers still fail to recognize the countless ways — tangible, yet invisible — that racism has been injected into our technologies.

It’s time to do more.

A couple of months ago, I logged onto ‘Design Twitter’ to see how the community was coping at large with the political climate. I happened upon a tweet thread, started by @LabSpecEth, which asks the design world this question above.

When we think about racist artifacts, we lean on products of the past: figurines, old advertisements, and other anachronisms. Droning on past designs keeps us from recognizing the objects that continue to affect us today. What are the objects that were designed to, or are used as unique leverage points towards racial inequality?

But before we get started, let’s make something clear. Just because a design isn’t intentionally made by a racist doesn’t mean it hasn’t adopted racist politics.

Sure, racism is woven into every part of our society; but how deep does the rabbit hole go? Surely some of these designs weren’t made to oppress black folks, right? Of course, the cotton gin, the noose, and slave ships were racist. But does the banjo count, because it was designed and popularized by black people. Sure, countless racist books have been created; but is the book itself racist?

Pierce Gordon, Ph.D.

we think about transformation + liberation.