Recently, my/our esteemed design anthropology leader, Dame Dori Tundstall, wrote what she described as a ‘love letter’ to her students after a discussion that was had in a previous class. I wasn’t there for the class, but I know the students involved and have read this ‘love letter’ and feel a reply is worthy of my privileged Caucasian time.
The full ‘love letter’ can be found here – https://theconversation.com/un-doing-white-privilege-a-love-letter-25167
I would like to firstly say that writing a “No offense but….” Statement where you then go on to sledge the very people that are engaged in your course that are patently and actively aware in the shortcomings of ‘individualist’ design and are actually doing something about it is highly counter-productive. (Although very American. Just sayin’.) If there is a group of people more active in wanting to change the creative status quo I think you’re going to have a tough time finding them. The friends that I have made through Swinburne DA are some of the most intelligent, engaged and progressive people I’ve ever met. We are all united in our disdain for the status quo and the way in which design is used as a tool to reinforce it. We are all ‘on your side’ so I’m still puzzled as to what the point of the letter actually was.
The largest issue I have with the letter is the very idea of a link between culture and melanin levels, this notion of ‘white’ culture. Frankly I find the idea very much an “us and them” concept that can only further marginalise and stereotype. Not to mention the fact that I reject it just as much as I reject the notion of ‘black’ culture or ‘yellow’ culture. Hardly a ‘thick description’ wouldn’t you agree, and lacking in the nuance and importance of everyone’s individual and unique experience of culture that is espoused in the course and so fundamental to DA itself.
I’d like at this point to directly address some of the statements made in the ‘love letter’:
1) The pursuit of our own happiness has left us isolated / pursuit of happiness over that of people whose skin is darker / fear of losing yourself
I’m generally of the belief that ‘the pursuit of self interest’ is a human trait, and not monopolised by any one particular skin colour. It’s a mechanism of global capitalism to ‘divide and conquer’ and we are all guilty through association in that respect, even ex-corporate consultant African-American women working in academia on six figure salaries.
2) “Let go of your exceptional talent for using your great intelligence to maintain hierarchical dominance”.
Again, I don’t really see the connection between melanin levels and hierarchy. India has an awesomely shit caste system. Korea and Japan were recently rated a couple of the most sexist and racist countries in the world. I would suggest that if you asked everyone in Swinburne DA their opinions on hierarchical social systems, I doubt you’d find anyone waiving any pom-poms.
3) Reject our cultures to flee from a ‘talent for dominance’, only to reproduce them elsewhere.
This statement alludes somewhat to Australia’s and the US’ break from the UK as being some idealistic search for utopia, only for the two counties to ‘become the thing they hate the most’. I would debate that there were no plans to create a utopia in the first place, just simply a transference of the same ideas in a more resource rich and tax-vague environment. If I was being facetious, I could liken it on a smaller but much more contemporary scale to the descendants of former slaves rapping about ‘get rich or die trying’, or ‘life ain’t nothin’ but bitches and money’. Which segues nicely into your next point…
4) Lost so much of our own history that we are appropriating that of ‘fellow brothers and sisters of darker hues.’
Statements like this confuse me because when I look at a world I’d prefer to live in through the lens of DA, all I really see is an embrace of other cultures and a hybridisation for those that live cross-culturally. I don’t really see cultural appropriation as being an issue, largely because, well, all culture is appropriation. Culture is in a constant state of flux, and as we move to a world that is much more diverse, interconnected and inter-mixed, I do not yearn for the well-defined past. I can see and understand conservatisms’ fear of change and the propensity for the capitalist system to want to decrease complexity and make us all the same so that it’s easy to sell us widgets, but these concepts are past concepts as far as I’m concerned. Whether our next phase is a rich and diverse multi-verse of experience, or a 1984-esque dystopia, is up to us all – not just those that are sadly melanin deficient.
5) Our self hatred expresses itself in the death and destruction of those we don’t see as peers.
Again, this is a human trait. ‘White’ people hardly have a monopoly on ‘death and destruction’, but I will confess that European imperialists sure did do a particularly good job over the past 500 years or so. Luckily for us though, post-Vietnam the imperialists come equipped with Levi’s and Burger King so we all get to die in much less obvious ways, regardless of the colour of our skins.
It’s very difficult for me – as I’m sure is the case with almost everyone in DA – to make statements ‘from inside’ of the system we’re all involved in in one way or another, largely because I see us collectively as outcasts of the mainstream status-quo. I’m less interested in the starting conditions and more interested in where we’re going, and whether it can if possible be slightly less shit than where we are. On a collective global scale, even an African-American woman working in Australia, having the opportunity to forge a new course, a new stream of design, living in Prahran on a six-figure salary is coming from a place of privilege (Which surprises me for someone who did their thesis in Ethiopia) So really, it’s what we do with what we have that’s the important part of the equation – ‘who is the most privileged’ is not really a discussion that I think is that important. (Especially when you make more money than me, are more educated than me, have more opportunities than me, live in a better suburb than me etc. etc..) What we’re doing with what we’ve been lumped with is much more forward looking in my opinion.
Don’t get me wrong, I also understand that we all have baggage both personal and cultural, and this reflects on how we see the world and ourselves. As an extremely white person – to the point of being ostracised as being too white by other white people – I’ve always been drawn to the Lacanian sense of ‘the other’. I find other cultures and people with more melanin than me beautiful and fascinating. I’m jealous of anyone who laughs at the sun. I want to do all the things that I’m genetically not suited to do. But this is not because I hate myself or lament the fact that I just so happened to have popped out of the womb in a comfy bourgeois existence, but it’s because even though I pretend to hate people, I kinda think we’re all a bit interesting.
So back to the crux of the letter – what of this idea of ‘whiteness’? Me personally, I don’t really recognise colour as having any particular cultural trait/s. I reject the whole idea. (Is that too ambiguous?) Do the remnants of a European imperial past echo across the globe, whether it be American style global capitalism or Australian….whatever we do that isn’t sucking up the the US? Of course. Were these original European imperialists of slightly less melanin content than those of say Africa or South Asia? Yeah, mostly.
So to this I leave you Dori and dear reader with the question – In the ‘Asian century’ (let’s face it, it’s really going to be an ‘Asian millennia‘) will it be any different? Personally, as a person that would be no longer ‘basking of the glow’ of Western imperialism, (If I’m still alive, that is) I certainly won’t be bemoaning any perceived privilege of ‘yellowness’. I’d encourage my son and his offspring to share the same value system as I do, which doesn’t involve dividing people up by the colour of their skin, by judging people on situations they have no control over or the cultural choices that they make. (Although I would recommend finding an Asian wife and learning Mandarin!) Dominant systems will always be dominant systems and I believe that its the job of design anthropologists to find equity and egalitarianism in these systems and change them through the design process, so that long term (very, very long term), we’ll all kind of look somewhat ‘mid brown’ and will no longer have to have inane conversations about notions of ‘whiteness’ or ‘blackness’.
As Keanu Reeves I believe once said, “I have a dream…..”