Unfair advantages and discriminations are rampant in design and tech circles. Why is no one speaking up?
On a Thursday afternoon, August 29th, 2013, an interesting story started to brew on Twitter. You know the type, scrolling through your timeline and noticing that it suddenly becomes back and forth @ replies from a group of your friends, a forum that you want to watch is slowly taking shape. It’s said that there are no such things as accidents—anything that brews in the subconscious will eventually come to light—and this conversation was one that needed to be heard.
Eventually the subject broadened towards gender, race and economic disparities and discriminations in the fields of design and tech. No boundaries were left un-touched as Sharlene King (@typodactyl) unleashed a flurry of critiques swimming around the floor of these communities that are left unsaid. At the end of these tweets she coined the phrase that evoked the garment of choice for the design and tech community, Plaid Collar Privilege, or #PlaidCollarPrivilege for that matter. Using this hashtag as a punctuation after statements on what’s wrong in the design and tech communities such as unfair advantages, discriminations, and practices, everyone on Twitter was able to weigh in their thoughts as the conversation spread from Chicago design circles to the different coasts. The full conversation can be found here.
While I sat at my desk and saw this conversation slowly flourish, I took a pause from my design and dev work as my palms slowly began to sweat and throat started to dry. It was a grouping of familiar stories that I was reading, not because these were problems that I noticed being solved, but because I’ve experienced a handful of these issues. I began to contribute to the conversation, unleashing an assortment of tweets to my feed telling stories of discrimination that I’ve experienced in the short amount of time I’ve been designing professionally. Being reminded of these moments—such as being questioned of my ability to code due to my race, “complemented” on my diction because it was “unexpected” or trying to relate to speakers that were story-telling to those in a completely different economic situation—made my fingers shake as I told my story in 140 character groupings. Many of these instances I’ve held in because “the best way to survive and slowly move forward in a field that is dominated by those outside of your racial and economic background is to fit in, play along and not rock the boat”. I still remember being told this by my parents as I informed them of my major in both art and design in college. That phrase burned in my soul and guided my interactions from then on.
“Racially ignorant comment by a professional in my field? Laugh it off and don’t call them out, they could hire you someday…”
“Everyone knows everyone in these circles, you’ll be shut out if you make them mad…”
“They didn’t mean what they said, they have black friends and talk about how much they love hip-hop, but it’s weird that no people of color work at their studio when I looked them up online…”
“No people of color at that conference I’m going to? I guess that’s just the way it is…maybe the gatekeepers will choose me next if I play nice, work hard and say the right things on Twitter…”
“Nobody wants to hear about hard hitting issues or opinions about racial and gender disparities, I might lose followers, let me just send links about design shit or generic arguments on UI designs, that’s what everyone likes right?…”
As a kid from the smaller Illinois suburb of Joliet who freshly moved to Chicago at the time, I took in all these comments and internalized them. I didn’t know any better. Seeing these conversations underneath #PlaidCollarPrivilege gave a voice to what I was screaming inside but too scared to discuss. #PlaidCollarPrivilege made me say screw playing nice and start playing truthful, arranging new projects and opportunities for others that rock the boat. #PlaidCollarPrivilege brought to light the real issues that are a daily happening in not only our “seemingly progressive” design and tech circles in Chicago, but across the nation.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that an overnight revolution is on it’s way, but it’s a step in the right direction. A few of my friends of color in various art, design, and tech circles stated that they felt like they were heard for the first time. If design is about communicating a message, shouldn’t the makers be able to communicate their own stories? Let’s be real, every college freshman in that Intro to Typography course is not a white male.
So let’s take that conversation on #PlaidCollarPrivilege as a guide. Let’s start holding people accountable for their racial, gender, and economic insensitive comments and not write it off as ironic. Let’s start having more conferences or workshops that represent the current demographic of design and tech (if you need some notes, the 2013 Weapons of Mass Creation line-up did a great job). If you are realizing that everyone else is slagging their feet on this progress, make our own things. Start visiting your organizations of color and support a community of growth (my personal favorite is the Organization of Black Designers). It’s not being “corny” or “politically correct”, it’s called being a good human who is inclusive and respectful of everyone around you. If I finally felt like I had a voice that mattered after declaring design as my career path in 2007, let’s not make that same mistake for the class of 2017.