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Hacking the Racial Binary: Design Provocations for Identity and Shame

Type Masters Design Thesis

Context Fall 2017 - Spring 2018 (9 months), MFA Products of Design, SVA


 

The Challenge

When assimilation really means erasing of one’s cultural heritage, how can design help immigrants of color celebrate things that make them unique?

The Outcome

A suite of design proposals including a workshop, an app, a service, a 3D product, and experience design that empowers immigrants of color to show their cultural heritage in their day-to-day lives.


 
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What It Is

Hacking the Racial Binary: Design Provocations for Identity and Shame focuses on identity crisis as a key form of oppression that Asian communities experience in America. Since the 1960s, Asian Americans have been labeled as the “model minority.” While they have benefitted from this almost-white status, they have also suffered: in order to be accepted in the mainstream American culture, they had to efface the markers of their cultural heritage. My year-long thesis culminated in a suite of design offerings, including a workshop, an app, a service, a 3D product, and experience design that sought to challenge this status quo, by empowering immigrants of color to show their cultural heritage in their day-to-day lives.

What’s the “Model Minority”?

Since the 60s, the rhetoric of hardworking Asians achieving success has wrongly been used to condemn black Americans, ignoring the institutionalized racism and discrimination that black Americans have faced, and foolishly claiming that their plight is because of laziness. As the historian Ellen Wu claims, Asians were especially prone to whitewashing as they became the “model minority” in America, where their supposed “self-reliance, valorization of family, reverence for education, and political moderation” became the basis for differentiating them from black Americans during the civil rights era, assigning them to the “almost white” status.

But precisely because of this privilege of being “almost white,” where Asians are perceived as posing no threat to whites, they continue to experience oppression in a form of identity crisis. In a 1969 Yellow Power Manifesto, an activist Amy Uyematsu writes, “Fully committed to a system that subordinates them on the basis of non-whiteness, Asian Americans still try to gain complete acceptance by denying their yellowness.” Today, almost 50 years after Uyematsu made her speech, things have not changed much. We try so hard to erase our heritage, but it does not matter. It seems that even if you are second, third, or fifth generation American, as long as you look Asian, you are not going to be fully American.

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We try so hard to erase our heritage, but it does not matter. It seems that even if you are second, third, or fifth generation American, as long as you look Asian, you are not going to be fully American.
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My Point of View

This thesis challenged my point of view as a designer: should I dare my users to be different by empowering them to proudly show their heritage, or should I help facilitate their integration into the dominantly white American culture, thereby respecting their earnest desires for acceptance? I struggled to reconcile this dichotomy because encouraging users to amplify their immigrant identities put me at risk of belittling all the work they (and I) put into assimilating.

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Conclusion

I grappled with the two objectives of my users, i.e. to fit in or to be different, trying to decide which position to take until it became clear that there was no right answer. These two opposing objectives are part of the everyday experience for the model minority as they navigate through prejudices, misperceptions, stereotypes, and personal shame. But in acknowledging these two common perspectives, I learned to develop design solutions that confront a spectrum of concerns. For example, an app could be used to help one user speak more comfortably with an accent, and to train another to speak standard English more fluently. A shopping platform might help users find clothes that reference their cultures while also exposing brands that practice exploitative cultural appropriation. Recognizing that in a complex system, designers cannot always offer solutions that single-handedly fix problems may be the most humbling lesson I learned from this thesis process. What we can do, instead, is to listen to users and respond to their needs in ways that are meaningful.

Recognizing that in a complex system, designers cannot always offer solutions that single-handedly fix problems may be the most humbling lesson I learned from this thesis process. What we can do, instead, is to listen to users and respond to their needs in ways that are meaningful.

Projects from the Thesis

 

Awkward Middle Place

A workshop for the “model minority” that explores questions about race and assimilation using magazine cutouts as tools to express themselves.

Switch

A mobile app that uses accent recognition to track one’s code switch, encouraging them to push the boundaries of their comfort zones and try speaking with the other accents.

Dress Code

A shopping platform that helps consumers find clothes that reference their cultures while also exposing brands that practice exploitative cultural appropriation

 
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Xenophone

A speaker that is shaped like a mask. Using bone conduction technology, it creates a visceral experience for users to connect with their ancestral stories by literally embody them.

Hyphen America

A pop-up event that celebrates the hyphens in our cultural identities through creating kaleidoscopes. The event engaged with more than 60 participants in Union Square on March 24th, 2018.

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Thesis Book

Full documentation of my masters thesis