Racism Untaught: An Interview with Terresa Moses and Lisa Mercer

January 14, 2021

Assistant Professors Terresa Moses (University of Minnesota) and Lisa Mercer (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) first met at the University of North Texas as graduate students. Three years later, the two reunited to create the Racism Untaught toolkit—a resource to help design educators bring social impact projects and discussions of race, culture, and identity to their classrooms.

Now used by their academic partners at the Parsons School of Design, Auburn University, University of Illinois, University of Minnesota, Bowling Green State University, and Louisiana State University, as well as their industry partners, PayPal, Target, and Spotify, the Racism Untaught framework has evolved and expanded. Moses and Mercer talk about these changes as well as how the toolkit can be applied and discuss the Racism Untaught exhibition on display at the Goldstein Museum of Design starting January 19 in this interview.

What motivated each of you to start Racism Untaught?

Racism Untaught was created in response to multiple design educators asking how we incorporate social impact projects and discussions of race, culture, and identity in the classroom. Because of these conversations, we decided it would be impactful to create tools and frameworks that would allow other educators to guide discussions around these concepts as well. We wanted to help educators incorporate these concepts into any classroom and not only those focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

When did you first launch the workshop together?

We started the research for the kit in early 2018 and then hosted the first workshop in May 2018 at the AIGA Inclusivity Summit, which is a pre-conference to the Design + Diversity Conference. We hosted close to 200 attendees and were approached by not just design educators but corporate representatives excited about bringing us to their organizations to teach the toolkit to incorporate into their design processes. This is when we found the framework we created to be more cross-disciplinary than expected.

How has the Racism Untaught workshop changed over the years?

We are continually improving and updating the tools based on what we learn from working with our participants and through advice from our advisors. The framework has over 350 cards, and we are now adding and defining words focused on sexism and ableism to work toward an intersectional conversation on oppression. The ultimate goal is to extend the toolkit to include homophobia, transphobia, cissexism, ageism, and other forms of oppression.

Racism Untaught focuses on three identifiers: artifacts of Racialized Design, shared experiences, and systemic forms of racism. Why are these three identifiers the focus for the framework and workshops?

Racism Untaught has always focused on three different identifiers because designers have the ability to design and re-imagine all three. We wanted to create a tool that supported educators in these conversations and supported a process where participants analyze and re-imagine racialized design, and we have found that anything designed can always fit within one of these categories.

What are common forms of Racialized Design that you have observed in workplaces/organizations and what methods do you advise for identifying them?

Some of the common things we notice and discuss with participants are systems that support and perpetuate racialized artifacts and experiences. When participants begin to dissect the design challenges and prompts, we often hear them start to analyze the systems that support the design. For example, one artifact we have given students is a Nivea Ad of a Black man whose hair is short, and he is holding another head that looks like him but has an Afro, next to him the text reads. “Re-Civilize Yourself.” When students analyze this ad, or other ads that are racialized, they start to wonder how many people were a part of the process that approved the ad before it reached the public domain. Some companies like Nivea repeatedly run ads that perpetuate racialized design, and students start to wonder if they are doing it on purpose, to earn more money. The conversation ultimately ends in the discussion of capitalism and the systems in the industry that perpetuate these ads.

How do the curriculum and tools change when applied over the course of a semester as opposed to a three-hour workshop?

The main difference between the workshops and the course work is time. The most common feedback we get from running a two, five, or 8-hour workshop is that participants would like more time. This is difficult when we are working with our industry partners because they are taking time away from their work.

We understand the concern for wanting more time to process and learn, but we believe this work does not start or end with this toolkit and urge our participants, in our workshops and courses, to acknowledge the same. We believe it is important for individuals to understand their positionality in the context of systems of oppression. We hope this tool kit provides a space for learning and prompts an individual’s agency and power to enact positive change within their communities.

What are some of your favorite pieces of feedback or outcomes that have resulted from the Racism Untaught workshops?

The most affirming outcome is when participants walk away having learned an element of oppression that helps them speak to their own social experiences. They feel empowered by the cards that define different elements of oppression. One participant said, “I could keep these cards in my desk, and when I am experiencing a form of racism, I will be able to refer to these words and pull out the card and say, this is what I am experiencing.” This type of feedback resulted in a peer-reviewed paper we wrote titled, The Ethics of Knowing a Shared Language and Intention in Design. It will be presented and published with the International Association of Universities and Colleges of Art, Design and Media, CUMULUS, in Rome, Italy.

You have an exhibition on display starting January 19, 2021, at the Goldstein Museum of Design's HGA Gallery. Can you tell us more about this exhibition?

It was exciting to put together this exhibit. Essentially, it is a highlight reel of the Racism Untaught toolkit and framework. It showcases three projects that were final deliverables from the courses we have taught. There is one example for each identifier in the exhibit (artifact, system, and experience), and people will be able to walk through each step of the framework and see how our students made decisions.

The Racism Untaught exhibition is on display starting January 19, 2021, in Rapson Hall's HGA Gallery and is free to attend, though visitors need to adhere to University of Minnesota COVID-19 guidelines by wearing a facemask and maintaining physical distance. Learn more about Racism Untaught by visiting the Racism Untaught website or following on Facebook or Instagram.

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Terresa Moses (she/her) is a proud Black queer woman dedicated to the liberation of Black and brown people through art and design. She is the creative director at Blackbird Revolt and an assistant professor of graphic design and the director of Design Justice at the University of Minnesota. As a community-engaged scholar, she created Project Naptural and co-created Racism Untaught. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Social Justice Education at the University of Toronto. She serves as a core team member of African American Graphic Designers and as a collaborator with the Black Liberation Lab.

Lisa Elzey Mercer (she/her) is an assistant professor of graphic design and design for responsible innovation in the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests are in developing and executing design interventions that responsibly fuel and sustain responsible design for social impact. Her work has been integrated into academic, industry, and community settings. The developed frameworks and tools are meant to create a space for conversation and knowledge exchange where participants can actively collaborate in the creation of new ideas and solutions.

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