Reflections on Race

I’ve spent the last couple of months trying to understand how life is different for 2nd Generation Asian Americans. I spent weeks showing up to stranger’s homes and asking them what being Asian American means to each of them; I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about race. How do I–as a six-foot tall, red-headed ,white woman–show up to someone’s home with the explicit intention asking difficult questions to understand experiences that are impossible for me to have? I’ve had to acknowledge that I might not always get it right. Right now, I’m working through how I can share what I learned with others in a way that speaks to the specific experience of the (rather diverse) people we talked to. I am constantly thinking of ways to make this topic resonate with a mostly white audience without people having a defensive or dismissive reaction.

I have to admit, it’s the first time I’ve actively had to worry about an audience connecting because of ethnicity. I recognize that many people have similar thoughts every time they walk out their door. Last week, a classmate’s colleague talked to our Research class about White Privilege. She talked about taking cultural expectations other than White America into consideration when designing anything. I thought that was an important conversation to start. In the time since, I’ve had a couple of conversations with classmates about White Privilege, and I realized when reflecting on those conversations, that “White Privilege” was being used synonymously with “racism.” Each individual, human or otherwise, has advantages and disadvantages in their life. Each individual has challenges in their life. You can understand that and treat people in full equality and that can be a wonderful thing. But if you look at things macroscopically, there are patterns in those individual experiences. Why are black people more likely to be in debt? Why are white people more likely to have someone in their lives that they can borrow money from to cover small debts? The answers are complicated, but it’s part of Privilege. Systematically, there are biases that help people who look like me, probably because people who look like me built the system. As we go forward as designers, I do think it’s important to think about how we present ourselves to our research participants. How do we honor diverse experiences in our design?

Asian Americans, as the highest educated and highest earning minority population in the country, have an interesting relationship to the Privilege framework. There’s a diverse group of people who are lumped into the category of “Asian American” who’s only shared language is English. There’s a whole lot of pressure put on Asian Americans to “succeed:” to have high earning jobs, live out the American Dream, be the “Model Minority.” One pattern I’ve noticed in our research, is that when fitting in means financial success, and money is synonymous with whiteness, people of color don’t have a clear idea of where they fit into American society. I’m thinking a lot about how we can tell stories about our participants, giving our audience context, without falling into outlining “The Asian American Story.” Whatever that is, it’s varied, it’s complicated, and I’m really not sure that it’s for me to tell.