Anti-racist framework created by Illinois art professor helps identify racialized design

Life's a Bridge board game
Life’s a Bridge is a board game developed by a student in Mercer’s class. It is designed to teach about power and privilege in society through the example of the design of bridges into New York City that were too low to accommodate public buses, whose passengers were mostly people of color.
Courtesy Lisa Mercer

University of Illinois graphic design professor Lisa Mercer co-developed Racism Untaught, a framework that uses the design research process to explore issues of racism and other forms of oppression. She uses the framework in her classroom and in workshops for universities and corporations to identify design that perpetuates racism.

A graphic design professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is using the design research process to explore issues of race and racism.

Lisa Mercer co-developed the framework Racism Untaught with Terresa Moses, a graphic design professor at the University of Minnesota. They use it in the classroom and in workshops in higher education and the corporate world to help identify design that perpetuates racism and find ways to solve problems through anti-racism projects. They developed the toolkit more than three years ago but demand has increased significantly in the past year and a half, particularly after the Black Lives Matter protests last summer.

Photo of Lisa Mercer
Graphic design professor Lisa Mercer (Courtesy: Lisa Mercer)

Mercer and Moses were looking for ways to have meaningful conversations about race, diversity and inclusion.

“People need to lean into these difficult conversations, and we’re creating space to have the opportunity for these conversations,” Mercer said.

She and Moses have led several workshops for faculty members and staff at Illinois and at other universities, as well as for corporations – including the training of high-level managers at a national retailer to run a workshop for 600 product designers.

“We were looking to see if what we do in academia applies in industry. What we’ve found is this applies really well,” Mercer said.

The workshops – which recently have taken place on Zoom – start with building context by looking at a specific situation given as a prompt. Participants are asked to identify elements of racism in the prompt. They could be experiences (a racial slur), artifacts (use of a degrading, stereotypical image) or systems (a disciplinary code that more heavily penalizes people of color).

The prompts come from experiences described in surveys of the university campuses participating in the workshops or examples from industry. Mercer identifies as a mixed-race Latinx woman and Moses as a Black woman, and they have used some of their own experiences as prompts. For example, Mercer has been questioned about her language and heritage.

Some of the prompts used in Racism Untaught include racist branding for pancake mix; a skin cream ad that promotes and encourages lighter skin; and the public highway system designs of urban architect Robert Moses, which specified bridges over highways into certain areas of New York City be built too low for public buses, effectively excluding passengers – primarily people of color – from those areas.

Participants also consider how the problems exist at an individual, institutional or cultural level. Then they come up with ideas to re-imagine the racialized prompt and be agents of change, and they test those ideas for their impact and any unintentional consequences.

Image of a quote from the Just Say Hi campaign
A student in Lisa Mercer’s class created “Just Say Hi,” a campaign to help people understand why questions about a person’s race or ethnicity, language or sexuality can be insulting. (Courtesy: Lisa Mercer)

Mercer has used the Racism Untaught framework in her design classes. One student project was a board game, Life’s a Bridge, that uses the Moses architecture example to teach about power and privilege in society. Another student developed a campaign called “Just Say Hi” to help people understand why questions about a person’s race or ethnicity, language or sexuality can be insulting.

“If students are really given the space to analyze this, they start to understand the systems in place that uphold these levels of oppression. That is typically my favorite conversation with students,” Mercer said.

She and Moses are expanding the framework to add information about sexism, and they hope to include ableism next.

“We have been very deliberate in holding space for conversations on race and racism before we include other forms of oppression. We have begun adding prompts focused on sexism and ableism to work toward an intersectional conversation on oppression. The ultimate goal is to extend the framework to include homophobia, transphobia, cissexism, gender binary, ageism and other forms of oppression,” Mercer said.

She would like to create a class using the Racism Untaught framework that meets the U. of I.’s general education requirements to reach students from disciplines across campus. A graduate student is translating the framework into Spanish.

“We’d also like to make it more accessible, not just for people in academia or industry who have money, but to grassroots community organizers who need tools to create anti-racist design,” Mercer said.

Mercer and Moses will present a Racism Untaught workshop in June at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity.


Editor’s notes: To contact Lisa Mercer, email lemercer@illinois.edu. More information about Racism Untaught is available online.

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