A Hundred Racist Designs: Part Two

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

Design is the process by which the politics of one world become the constraints on another.

Fred Turner

I’m glad you’re back.

If you made it here first, you might want to check out A Hundred Racist Designs, Part 1. It will clarify the context for you.

If you have, I’d love to hear how your reflection went. What racist objects inhabit your daily life? What changes can we make so the things we make are more equitable? How are we making oppression more visible to our objects, day by day? It’s important to note how truth-telling is only one step on the journey. What’s next for you?

Glad to hear your perspective. How, to the task at hand.

Let’s reclarify the question: What are the designs that were designed to, or are used as unique leverage points towards racial inequality?

Let’s dive in.

51. Cameras

Heard of the Shirley Card?

Named after Shirley Page, a white woman who worked at Kodak which “was used to ensure the colors and densities of the prints were calibrated correctly,” which was in turn used as the standard of determining how pictures were taken across the economic reach of the Kodak company?


According to Roth, the dynamic range of the film — both still photo stock and motion picture — was biased toward white skin. In 1978, the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard famously refused to use Kodak film to shoot in Mozambique because he declared the film was racist. People also complained that photos of blacks and whites in the same shot would turn out partially under- or over-exposed.


An important point: the economic pressure of a black customer base wasn’t even enough to pressure companies to develop Shirley cards of black people:

But the photographic industry did not fully take notice until companies that manufactured brown products like chocolate and wooden furniture began complaining that photographs did not depict their goods with enough subtlety, showcasing the varieties of chocolate and of grains in wood.


52. Stock Photos

Photo by Vasily Koloda on Unsplash

I love Unsplash, Pexels, and Shot Stash, but one of the things I’ve noticed is that all of their content could use a little more diversity. As an influencer mgmt agency for black and brown creators, we’re very intentional about cultural representation in the work that we do. And because of that, we aren’t always able to find the photos we need from those sites.

For example, if you were to type in the word ‘coffee’ on Unsplash, you’d rarely see a cup of coffee being held by black or brown hands. It’s the same result if you type in terms like ‘computer’ or ‘travel.’ You may find an image or two but they’re pretty rare. But black and brown people drink coffee too, we use computers, and we certainly love traveling.


53. Steel Glasses

Masala Tea and South Indian Filter Coffee — Chennai Banana Leaf, Syndal AUD2.50 each

So, when Brahmin families had guests over, they were expected to serve coffee. This was a problem for orthodox Brahmin families that have strict restrictions to avoid caste “pollution,” which includes sharing utensils used for eating and drinking.

In an urban setting, ritual caste practices are hard to maintain–oftentimes the family would not immediately know the caste of the guest, and would not risk the impoliteness of offering coffee in a cup different from what was used by the household. As it turns out, the tumbler has its unique design (with the curving rim) so Brahmins could pour the coffee down their throats without their lips touching the cup.


54. Makeup Shades

Photo by Raphael Lovaski on Unsplash

At least twice monthly for the near-two years I was employed there, I would ask higher-ups (who, before you ask, yes, were all white) why we didn’t carry makeup meant for women of color. I was given the same answer every time:

“We dealt with too much shoplifting when we carried those shades.”


55. Skin Colored Crayons

Photo by Kristin Brown on Unsplash

A 19-year-old law student [filed in 2013] a complaint in the consumer court against one of the country’s largest stationery manufacturers over a stick of wax crayon that he found racially offensive. The crayon, which is labelled ‘skin’ by the manufacturer, is a shade of pink or peach and distinctly representative of white skin.

He argues that such a crayon will reinforce stereotypes about racial supremacy. It is written on the box of crayons that they are meant for four-year-old children. “What impact will it have on these young minds when they realise that their skin colour is not recognised? Won’t it reinforce the notions of beauty that fairness products or films seek to impose?” he asks.


56. ‘Nude-Colored’ and “Skin-Colored” Clothing

…the Band-Aid was long manufactured in a single color: a soft pink. In a 1955 TV commercial, the company showed one on the hand of a Caucasian woman: “Neat, flesh-colored, almost invisible,” a voice-over said.

Searching for ‘Nude bra’ in Google.

Orundu Johnson, a 66-year-old African American woman living in Harlem, remembers. “The bandages would say flesh color, and I’d explain to my kids, ‘Well, that’s not your flesh.’”

The irony of African-Americans sticking pink patches on their darker flesh did not go unnoticed by the black liberation movement either. In White Is, a militant cartoon book published in 1969 at the initiative of Harlem-based activist Preston Wilcox, a drawing depicted a young man in Black Panther garb with eyes rolled upwards, fixated at the protuberant white adhesive bandage on his forehead. The caption read: “White is a flesh colored band-aid.”


Note: That article above was published in 2013; and an entrepreneur is listed having made darker-colored band-aids 15 years prior. Band-Aid said they were adding different colored colors in June 2020.

57: The “Asian Super Consumer”


The narrative surrounding WildAid’s campaigning is very focused on presenting China, and an undifferentiated figure of the Chinese “Asian super consumer” as the problem….

IFAW’s ivory campaign promotes the message that ‘Trading ivory anywhere threatens elephants everywhere’, but the campaign itself centers on Chinese ivory consumers as concerned with wealth and status, and as uninformed about the origins of ivory and the impact on elephant populations…


58. Automatic Faucets


…the soap dispenser uses near-infrared technology, which sends out invisible light from an infrared LED bulb for hands to reflect the light back to a sensor.

…the testing phase that measures how effective a product is when used by people of different skin variants is crucial.


59. Airport Scanners

Photo by William Navarro on Unsplash

For years, black passengers at airports across the United States have said Transportation Security Administration agents often pull them aside for so-called “hair pat-downs,” in which agents run their fingers through passengers’ hair, allegedly to look for explosives or other potential security threats.


60. The Banjo

Admittedly, the banjo came to America with Gambian slaves. According to musicologists, the akonting from the Gambia has the closest resemblance to the banjo we’ve come to recognize today. So, how is it racist?

During the Great Migration [which began around 1916], people didn’t want to be associated with the old sharecropping system. The banjo represented a community in the South that was born out of slavery, and so if you’re someone who has just been emancipated and you move away from that old culture, the banjo is left behind with it.

African-Americans moved to the North and West, from rural places to cities, and music went towards jazz, blues, spirituals and then, later, gospel music. The guitar ended up becoming the instrument for the blues, and the banjo was left behind.


61. The Server Tipping System

Former slaves who avoided the debt trap of sharecropping were exploited by employers who offered them no-wage jobs with the promise of tips. Tipping, therefore, was explicitly used to avoid paying black Americans for their labor in this period….

Photo by eggbank on Unsplash

Years later, these practices were codified in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 , the United States’ first minimum wage legislation. Under the FLSA, certain occupations are exempt from the minimum wage, particularly agricultural and domestic work — jobs which have historically been held by workers of color.

Those classified as independent contractors face the same exclusions from minimum wage laws, and tipping is becoming increasingly prevalent in the “new” economy.


62. Hair Straightening Tools

Photo by Shari Sirotnak on Unsplash

In 2015, south Londoner Simone Powderly was offered a job on the condition she took out her braids, and two years ago, a black woman wanting to work for Harrods was told to chemically straighten her hair.”

— Source

63: Fusion Food

In the late 1800s, hundreds of thousands of Chinese laborers came to work in farms, factories and mines. But before long, White Americans began to feel threatened by their willingness to work for lower wages.

Eventually, that fear turned into law. It was called the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This law banned all Chinese laborers from entering the US, and made it really difficult for those who were already here to reenter if they went back to China for a visit. But there was one important loophole: some business owners could get these special visas to return to China and return back to the US. Restaurant owners were on that list….

But, getting these special visas weren’t easy. Only high-end restaurants qualified, which meant applicants had to invest a huge amount of money upfront. Plus, they had to find two white witnesses, because no one trusted Chinese people.


64: Magic: the Gathering

Photo by Wayne Low on Unsplash

Wizards says it felt compelled to specifically address a Magic card called “Invoke Prejudice,” which features artwork of black, pointy-hooded figures that closely resemble members of the Ku Klux Klan. The card was first released in 1994 and granted players the ability to stop an opponent from casting a spell based on the colour of certain creatures within the game.


65: Cigar Boxes


Racism, bigotry, vanity, repressed sexual fantasy, these are all themes that were used on 19th century vintage cigar box labels to help promote the idea of white male supremacy. Anthropologists of the day treated people as racial specimens measuring everything from facial features to cephalic brain size to prove the white man was the superior race. Blacks, Indians, Mongolians, and Women, were all depicted as inferior to the white man.


66: Disney Movies

Take your pick. Which Disney movie has more racism?

Photo by Joel Sutherland on Unsplash

The Jungle Book?


Peter Pan?


The Aristocats?

The Little Mermaid?


The Song of the South?

At least they added this disclaimer into Disney+ show and movies on their streaming platform :

“This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions.”

67: Food Brands Featuring People of Color

Photo by Duncan Kidd on Unsplash


Aunt Jemima.

Cream of Wheat,

Uncle Ben’s.

Eskimo Pies.

The global uprising’s got these companies shook.

Dating back to slavery through the Jim Crow era, white Southerners, in an effort to justify having slaves, designed propaganda which displayed black women in particular as happy and filled with laughter “as evidence of the supposed humanity of the institution of slavery,” Pilgrim stated in an online blog post.


68. Dolls

Photo by Kirill Sharkovski on Unsplash

In 1959, the first Barbie doll was created by Ruth Handler….In 1979, the company released the first official “Barbies” in African American and Hispanic varieties. For more than 30 years, Barbie didn’t get much more inclusive than that. Well, Mattel did go ahead and release an “Oriental Barbie” in 1981 as part of their special edition Dolls of the World collection. So sure, the company went on a global safari in the 80s where they made embarrassing cultural stereotypes and faux paus. Like calling the Asian Barbie “Oriental….”

It wasn’t until 2016 that Mattel introduced us to the supposedly groundbreaking Fashionistas line of dolls which included three new body shapes (curvy, petite, and tall), seven different skin tones, along with multiple new hair shades, eye colors and facial features.

The move sounded like a promising start, and the toymaker famously tweeted #thedollevolves. But more than two years later, the Barbie aisle in stores is still swamped with white, (mostly) blonde, and blue-eyed dolls.


69: Standardized Testing

At the time, psychologist Carl Brigham wrote that African-Americans were on the low end of the racial, ethnic, and/or cultural spectrum. Brigham had helped to develop aptitude tests for the U.S. Army during World War I and was influential in the development of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). At the time, he and other social scientists considered the SAT a new psychological test and a supplement to existing college board exams.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

For some college officials, an aptitude test, which is presumed to measure intelligence, is appealing since [in 1926] intelligence and ethnic origin are thought to be connected, and therefore the results of such a test could be used to limit the admissions of particularly undesirable ethnicities.”

Decades of research demonstrate that African-American, Latino, and Native American students, as well as students from some Asian groups, experience bias from standardized tests administered from early childhood through college.


70: Tenure

Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

While all new tenure-track faculty members are being held to higher expectations, nonwhite faculty are attempting to meet those standards with more demands on their time and less insight into the tenure process through their social contacts. In this racially skewed workplace, higher publication expectations make nonwhites more disadvantaged in hiring and tenure promotion.


71. Facial Recognition Technology

(Pikrepo, Creative Commons Zero — CC0)

Face surveillance is the most dangerous of the many new technologies available to law enforcement…

First, the technology itself can be racially biased….Second, police in many jurisdictions in the U.S. use mugshot databases to identify people with face recognition algorithms…. [and Black people already] face overwhelming disparities at every single stage of the criminal punishment system, from street-level surveillance and profiling all the way through to sentencing and conditions of confinement.


72, 73, 74: Political Prediction Algorithms, Predictive Text, and Word Processing Software

In 1960, Democratic Party leaders confronted their own problem: How could their presidential candidate, John F. Kennedy, shore up waning support from black people and other racial minorities? An enterprising political scientist at MIT, Ithiel de Sola Pool, approached them with a solution.


He would gather voter data from earlier presidential elections, feed it into a new digital processing machine, develop an algorithm to model voting behavior, predict what policy positions would lead to the most favorable results, and then advise the Kennedy campaign to act accordingly. Pool started a new company, the Simulmatics Corporation, and executed his plan. He succeeded, Kennedy was elected, and the results showcased the power of this new method of predictive modeling.

Racial tension escalated throughout the 1960s. Then came the long, hot summer of 1967. Cities across the nation burned, from Birmingham, Alabama, to Rochester, New York, to Minneapolis Minnesota, and many more in between. Black Americans protested the oppression and discrimination they faced at the hands of America’s criminal justice system. But President Johnson called it “civil disorder,” and formed the Kerner Commission to understand the causes of “ghetto riots.” The commission called on Simulmatics….

…They gained entry to these communities under the pretense of trying to understand how news media supposedly inflamed “riots.” But Johnson and the nation’s political leaders were trying to solve a problem. They aimed to use the information that Simulmatics collected to trace information flow during protests to identify influencers and decapitate the protests’ leadership….

by the end of the 1960s, this kind of information had helped create what came to be known as “criminal justice information systems.” They proliferated through the decades, laying the foundation for racial profiling, predictive policing, and racially targeted surveillance. They left behind a legacy that includes millions of black and brown women and men incarcerated.


75. Computer Chips

Coltan is used primarily for the production of tantalum capacitors, used in many electronic devices. Many sources mention coltan’s importance in the production of mobile phones, but tantalum capacitors are used in almost every kind of electronic device.

Photo by Yannick Pipke on Unsplash

Coltan is also used to make high-temperature alloys for jet engines and air- and land-based turbines. More recently, the nickel-tantalum superalloys used in jet engines account for 15% of tantalum consumption, but pending orders for the Airbus and the 787 Dreamliner may increase this proportion, as well as China’s pending order for 62 787–8 airplanes.

Here lies the vicious circle of the war. Coltan has permitted the Rwandan army to sustain its presence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The army has provided protection and security to the individuals and companies extracting the mineral. These have made money which is shared with the army, which in turn continues to provide the enabling environment to continue the exploitation.


76. DNA Tests

For several years, I have been leading a large research project on genetic ancestry testing. During this time, I have learned that those pie charts showing percentages of ancestry are grossly oversimplified, revealing a probability rather than a definitive answer. They are based on science that is meant to address questions at the population level, not about specific individuals. But consumers often take their results seriously.

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

As a social scientist who studies the way that racial identities and categories change over time and place, I believe our ideas about race and ethnicity are shaped by societies and not just what is found in our genes. I wanted to find out whether test-takers view their results as definitive, and whether that might encourage them to view racial differences as purely biological….

Research shows that reading media articles that depict genetic ancestry tests as able to reveal your race increases belief in essential racial differences. My research with test consumers finds that they typically believe these tests support the views they already held: Those who believed that race was determined by genes before claimed that these tests offer proof of that view.


77. Speech Recognition Technology

Speech recognition technologies developed by Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft, and IBM make almost twice as many errors when transcribing African American voices as they do with white American voices…

Photo by Ben Koorengevel on Unsplash

We can’t know for sure if these technologies are used in virtual assistants, such as Siri and Alexa, as none of the companies disclose this information. If they are, the products will be offering a vastly inferior service to a huge chunk of their users — which can have a major impact on their daily lives.

Speech recognition is already used in immigration rulings, job hiring decisions, and court reporting. It’s also crucial for people who can’t use their hands to access computers. With the technology set to expand rapidly in the coming years, any racial biases could have severe consequences on careers and lives.


78: Time


Time has a history, and so do black people. But we treat time as though it is timeless, as though it has always been this way, as though it doesn’t have a political history bound up with the plunder of indigenous lands, the genocide of indigenous people and the stealing of Africans from their homeland. When white male European philosophers first thought to conceptualize time and history, one famously declared, “[Africa] is no historical part of the World.” He was essentially saying that Africans were people outside of history who had had no impact on time or the march of progress.


79. Video Games

Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash

Vox-owned site the Verge recently compiled multiple accounts of players who claimed to be harassed by others reenacting slavery-era behavior by targeting, rounding up and killing black characters in the massively popular and critically acclaimed game “Red Dead Redemption 2,” which takes place at the start of the 20th century. A November story by NPR also reported that hate groups were actively using video-game chats to recruit new, young members.


80. Guineamen Ships

You likely know them as slave ships.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Slave ships were transporting from 400 to 700 slaves at a time in such horrifying conditions that 15% of them would not survive the trip, dying from diseases, from the cruelty of the crew or by committing suicide. Design seems to have “a solution to each problem” since some nets were sometimes set up around the ships to avoid slaves to jump overboard to escape this hell….

…The revolts at the port of embarkation and on board were incessant, so that the slaves had to be chained, right hand to right leg, left hand to left leg, and attached in rows to long iron bars. In this position they lived for the voyage, coming up once a day for exercise and to allow the sailors to “clean the pails.” But when the cargo was rebellious or the weather bad, then they stayed below for weeks at a time.


81. The Rickshaw

Photo by Nischal Masand on Unsplash

Hand-pulled rickshaws became an embarrassment to modernizing urban elites in the Third World, and were widely banned, in part because they were symbolic, not of modernity, but of a feudal world of openly marked class distinctions. Perhaps the seated rickshaw passenger is too close to the back of the laboring driver, who, besides, is metaphorically a draught animal harnessed between shafts.


82: The Bible

Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash

When the Northern and Southern Baptists split in 1845 over the issue of slavery, Southern Baptists were using an obscure reference in Genesis to justify owning slaves — the so-called “Mark of Cain.” In Genesis 4, we read of God placing a visible “mark” of some sort on Cain for murdering his brother and lying about it when God asked what had happened. As early as the fifth century, Cain’s curse was interpreted as black skin, and millions of Christians have used it to justify slavery.


83, 84, 85, 86: The Whip, The Punishment Collar, The Muzzle, The Iron Mask


Africans resisted enslavement from the point of capture. When enslaved people tried to run away after being captured by the slave traders, this heavy iron collar was placed on them to infilict punishment. It stopped them from running away again as the spiked ends prevent the wearer from moving into any areas with trees or bushes. Punishment collars such as these clearly marked out a person as having transgressed in some way and were often used to punish other crimes such as theft. The four spikes sticking out, would have made it impossible for a person wearing it to lie down or to lean up against any surface. Other punishment devices included muzzles or iron masks, used to restrict an enslaved person’s ability to talk and eat.


87. Cotton Gin

This one’s a bit obvious.

Photo by Hanna Balan on Unsplash

The invention of the cotton gin forever altered the economy, geography, and politics of the United States. The cotton gin made cotton tremendously profitable, which encouraged westward migration to new areas of the US South to grow more cotton.

The number of enslaved people rose with the increase in cotton production, from 700,000 in 1790 to over three million by 1850. By mid-century, the southern states were responsible for seventy-five percent of the world’s cotton, most of which was shipped to New England or England, where it was made into cloth.


88. Chattel Slavery

Slaves of General Thomas F. Drayton

Chattel slavery was supported and made legal by European governments and monarchs. This type of enslavement was practised in European colonies, from the sixteenth century onwards.


89. The Welfare Queen

Have you heard of Linda Taylor?

She was the person for whom the infamous stereotype, the Welfare queen, was stereotyped. Her story, amazing as it is, was warped into stereotypes intent on destroying a system helping the most marginalized of American society.


…the biggest problem with the program was not that people were cheating the system with elaborate, Taylor-style schemes, but that the system was cheating them.

An in-depth examination of AFDC in the Chicago area in 1960 found that the biggest problem was public “hostility to this most disadvantaged segment of our population.” A 1970 Associated Press report found that 39 states were “illegally denying the poor either due process or deserved relief benefits.”

If there was an epidemic of fraud, it was almost certainly more prevalent among white-collar people such as doctors bilking Medicaid or civil servants who collected both salaries and benefits.


90: American Patent Support Systems

This paper [Violence and Economic Activity: Evidence from African American Patents, 1870 to 1940] uses the rise in mass violence…as an historical experiment for determining the impact of ethnic and political violence on economic activity, namely patenting. I find that violent acts account for more than 1100 missing patents compared to 726 actual patents among African American inventors over this period.

Photo by Caspar Camille Rubin on Unsplash

Valuable patents decline in response to major riots and segregation laws. Absence of the rule of law covaries with declines in patent productivity for white and black inventors, but this decline is significant only for African American inventors. Patenting responds positively to declines in violence. These findings imply that ethnic and political conflict may affect the level, direction, and quality of invention and economic growth over time.”


This one neighborhood in Tulsa had become famous as a bustling, affluent community, a place where black Americans could settle and live well. It had its own newspaper, its own hospitals, schools, banks, a bus service. But in late May of 1921, mobs of white men invaded the town. They massacred residents, shooting on sight. They also firebombed the neighborhood from airplanes. This haven of black affluence burned to the ground.

[The Tulsa Race massacre] demonstrated that no one would help them — no one. The local government failed. The state government failed. The U.S. government failed. At every single level, nobody had their backs. They were all afraid.


91. Last Names

Photo by Allie on Unsplash

In all these records, while slaves are usually called only by first name (exceptions are discussed below), their identity in the community — whether as legal, social, spiritual or economic entities — as seen through the eyes of the persons who wrote the records, is defined by their association with the slaveowners.


92: The Electoral College

When the framers met for the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, they aimed to unify the colonies with a government that gave fair representation to all states, no matter their size….

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Slaves were the economic heart and pulse of the country and the Northern states, even if they did not engage in slavery, benefited from their labor. So even though slaves were unable to vote, the Convention decided that slaves should be counted as three-fifths of a white person for the purposes of representation in Congress….

With that, Madison had proposed the prototype for the same Electoral College system the country uses today: instead of a direct vote, each state was to choose electors, roughly based off their population, but weighted by slaves.


93: The Census

Race categories are complicated.

…Up through the 1950 census, specially trained enumerators who visited people’s homes filled out the form for each family, including the section on race. Asking directly about race was considered rude, says sociologist Carolyn Liebler of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. So enumerators eyeballed the person at the door and made a decision….

Photo by Enayet Raheem on Unsplash

Starting in 1960, though, officials made a money-saving decision with far-reaching consequences: They started cutting back on enumerators…. Crucially, for the last half century, the vast majority of respondents have been identifying their own race….when respondents started filling out the census themselves, the absence of an appropriate checkbox felt like an affront.

What Roth is getting at is the idea that discrimination is more about how a person is seen by others than how they see themselves. A white-presenting individual who receives a genetic ancestry test result that reveals American Indian ancestral ties could check “white” and “American Indian” on the 2020 census, but that decision says nothing about the level of discrimination that person has experienced, Liebler says. And that decision makes it harder for policy makers to identify communities in need.


94. Credit Scoring Algorithms

Photo by Tierra Mallorca on Unsplash

Lenders and their trade organizations do not dispute the fact that they turn away people of color at rates far greater than whites. But they maintain that the disparity can be explained by factors the industry has fought to keep hidden, including the prospective borrowers’ credit history and overall debt-to-income ratio. They singled out the three-digit credit score — which banks use to determine whether a borrower is likely to repay a loan — as especially important in lending decisions.

The ‘decades-old credit scoring model’ currently used ‘does not take into account consumer data on rent, utility, and cell phone bill payments,’ Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina wrote in August, when he unveiled a bill to require the federal government to vet credit standards used for residential mortgages. ‘This exclusion disproportionately hurts African-Americans, Latinos, and young people who are otherwise creditworthy.’


95. The Drone

‘…[T]he concept of ‘Americans’ most definitely does not include people with foreign and Muslim-ish names like ‘Anwar al-Awlaki’ who wear the white robes of a Muslim imam and spend time in a place like Yemen,’ Glenn Greenwald wrote.

Photo by Goh Rhy Yan on Unsplash

‘Does anyone doubt that if Obama’s bombs were killing nice white British teenagers or smiling blond Swiss infants — rather than unnamed Yemenis, Pakistanis, Afghans, and Somalis that the reaction to this sustained killing would be drastically different?,’ Greenwald queried.

This double standard caused Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu to write a letter to the New York Times, asking ‘Do the United States and its people really want to tell those of us who live in the rest of the world that our lives are not of the same value as yours?’


96: Anthropology


Knowledge production by outside scholars often serves to legitimize the institutionalization of colonialist policies. As an example, anthropologists working in Botswana officialized their narratives about the San’s lifestyle and experiences, building a knowledge foundation for policies that separated the Khoisan from their ancestral lands…

…early anthropologists, whose narratives began the institutionalization of colonialist policies, took data on what their faces looked like, the size of sex organs, observed how they made love, and other unspeakable acts.


97. The Birth Certificate

In the Jim Crow era, states used these seemingly innocuous public records to ensure that the rights of citizenship were accessible to white Americans — and no one else. The best example of this comes from the career of Walter Plecker. Plecker, the state registrar of vital statistics in Virginia from 1912 to 1946, worked with the white-supremacist Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America to persuade the state legislature to pass the 1924 Racial Integrity Act.

Photo by Patricia Prudente on Unsplash

Plecker’s office made his opinions official state policy. He and his clerks policed the boundaries of race, scrutinizing birth, death and marriage certificates for what they considered to be fraudulent attempts to pass as white or Native American (anyone having 1/16 or less of Indian ancestry was allowed to marry a white person). Plecker identified several Virginia counties that he believed were home to large “mixed blood” populations and assembled a list of surnames from suspect families….

Though being re-classed from white to colored did not transform citizens into foreigners, as Trump’s passport denials threaten to do, it did transform them into second-class citizens. When access to employment, schools, marriage, voting, public accommodations, military service, jury duty and more could all be restricted by race, as was the case in the Jim Crow era, Plecker’s use of vital registration turned thousands of Americans into strangers in their own land.


98: The Lawn Jockey

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The lawn jockey is a decorative yard ornament that caricatures black people and promotes the idea of their servitude. Typically a cast replica about half-scale, it depicts a black man dressed in jockey’s clothing carrying a lantern or a metal ring suitable for hitching a horse. The black lawn jockeys often have exaggerated features, such as bulging eyes, large red lips, a flat nose and curly hair. The flesh of the figure is usually a glossy black color.

Traditionally, two styles of lawn jockey have been produced: the stocky, hunched “Jocko” and the taller, thinner “Cavalier Spirit.” Both styles were still manufactured in 2012. Many Americans, especially African Americans, feel that lawn jockeys are racially offensive. It is common for homeowners to repaint the figure’s skin with pink or white paint to avoid charges of being racially insensitive.


99: Clowns

A golden skinned Piet featured in a store display window during the 2015 holiday season.

In 1874 James McIntyre and Tom Heath created a new variation on the standard Minstrel character, the Tramp clown based on the vagabond former slaves. McIntyre and Heath wore the standard Minstrel style make up for their Tramp characters which is the origin of the white mouth still used by Tramp clowns today. (The white Tramp mouth has continued because it no longer has a racial connotation but simply makes the mouth most visible against a painted on beard.)

McIntyre played Alexander Hambletonian, a simple naïve fool, and Heath played Henry Jones, a clever rogue who frequently got Alexander into trouble. (This type of relationship is common in clown duos, for example an Auguste and Whiteface clown.)


100: Nuclear Families

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

African Americans have always relied on extended family more than white Americans do. “Despite the forces working to separate us — slavery, Jim Crow, forced migration, the prison system, gentrification — we have maintained an incredible commitment to each other,” Mia Birdsong, the author of the forthcoming book How We Show Up, told me recently.

The reality is, black families are expansive, fluid, and brilliantly rely on the support, knowledge, and capacity of ‘the village’ to take care of each other. Here’s an illustration: The white researcher/social worker/whatever sees a child moving between their mother’s house, their grandparents’ house, and their uncle’s house and sees that as ‘instability.’ But what’s actually happening is the family (extended and chosen) is leveraging all of its resources to raise that child.


If you want more explanation, each link offers more discussion about each artifact. and I hope you dig into the examples that resonate.

This much is clear: there are many more out there. I argue it’s harder to find the alternative; namely, designs that aren’t free of racism’s effects.

Additionally, racism intersects — by design — with sexism, transphobia, ableism, classism, nationalism, and all other oppressive systems. Whether developing technologies that hinder reproductive freedom for black women, or defensive architecture intended to ‘cleanse’ a city of the poor, each of these projects likely oppresses more than a single identity. As Audre Lorde said, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”

These artifacts are foundational, but they’re not above contestation. Once they’ve found value in society, no matter their racial politics or intent, it’s extremely hard to find alternatives. Those with decision-making power, their customers, and the economic system developed to support the design adds enough value to make designs seem incontrovertible.

Fortunately, we can dream bigger.

Race hides in the artifacts we use and develop every day. As we create, use, and shape things to be used in society, certain objects embody meaning never intended by their initial designers — in some situations, not even by the people who use them. This is why culturally pluralistic design is such an important endeavor.

Designers, engineers, scientists, cooks, policymakers, artists: we all must cope with the reality of how race makes these products, and how products embody oppression. Design is a manifestation of humankind’s beliefs and values: what people believe, they construct and ossify. Therefore, if we want to live an anti-racist society, there are no better places to start than the designer’s tabula rasa.

What’s the next antiracist design you’ll create?

You made it! I can’t thank you enough.

I can feel it; you have a lot to say on this topic. My ear is yours. Let’s find a reason to connect.

we think about transformation + liberation.

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