External News

25 August 2020

Decentering Whiteness in Design History Resources

Decentering Whiteness in Design History Resources

We are a group of White design historians in the USA who are working to decenter Whiteness in our design history courses and in our work as scholars. By “decentering Whiteness,” we mean simultaneously decentering White people within the history of American design, and decentering North Americans and Europeans within the global history of design.

Some of us have been working toward these goals for years, or for our entire careers. However, we began working together to assemble this bibliography in June, 2020, in response to our students’ demands for design histories that accurately represent the contributions of Black, Indigenous, Latin, Asian, and other non-White designers, and in support of Christen A. Smith’s Cite Black Women movement and similar calls to highlight the work of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian writers on our syllabuses.

We are acutely aware that our shared racial and national identity limits the knowledge and constrains the perspectives we can bring to this project. Yet we believe it’s incumbent on us as privileged White people to do as much of this work as we can on our own, rather than (or at least prior to) asking less-privileged people to do the work of educating us.

We are also aware that many valuable lists of resources regarding race and racism, generally, and even a few bibliographies addressing race and racism in the field of design, specifically, have been circulating widely during the summer of 2020. These include, among others, AIGA DEC’s Anti-Racism, Equity, and Inclusion Resources Archive, Ramón Tejada’s collaborative project The decolonizing, or puncturing, or de-Westernizing design Reader V4, Kimberly Jenkins’s The Fashion and Race Database, and Rikki Byrd’s The Fashion and Race Syllabus. We support, applaud, and have benefited from all these resources, and did not want to colonize them, distort them, or diminish their usefulness to their originators by bending them to suit our own purposes. We therefore chose to create a new bibliography.

What we think distinguishes this bibliography from others we’ve seen is:

Its focus on race and ethnicity, specifically, in design history. Gender, sexuality, class, nationality, (dis)ability, age, size, and religion all have profound implications for the study of design history, and many of us focus on one or more of these dimensions of identity in our own work. But at this historical moment in mid-2020, we feel that design history instructors’ single most urgent need is for resources about race and ethnicity. We have therefore confined this document to sources that explicitly address racial/ethnic identities and/or the intersections of race/ethnicity with other aspects of identity.

2. its attention to the field of design history as a whole, rather than a single subfield. Our teaching and research spans at least four major subfields of design—graphic/interaction, craft/industrial, textiles/fashion, and interiors/architecture—so we’ve made an effort to ensure that all of them are well represented in this document.

3. its theoretical and political range. The items on this list support the study of race and ethnicity from many different disciplinary and theoretical/political perspectives.

4. its flexible, expansive definition of design. White men have historically policed the boundaries of the design professions quite vigorously, and as a result, “design” has, almost by definition, excluded the activities of most women and people of color. In contrast, we understand design to occur within a network of producers, laborers, intermediaries/mediators, consumers, and users, so the entries in this bibliography span the gamut from high-status, “professional,” public-facing, and innovation- and profit-seeking design activities to informal, everyday, “amateur,” private, self-fashioning, and convention-following design activities.

5. its thematic rather than stylistic or chronological organization. We propose that decentering Whiteness entails (among other things) organizing courses around themes other than canonical Western styles, movements, and designers. The headings and subheadings that emerged organically as we grouped (and continue to group and regroup) these entries into logical clusters could, we realized recently, also be used as themes around which to structure a design history course.

6. its complete bibliographic information. We hope that providing a complete bibliographic entry for each item—rather than merely a link that may go dead in a few years—will ensure this resource has enduring value not only for faculty assembling syllabuses, but also for students writing papers and scholars conducting research.

7. its annotations. One of the greatest contributions we think this bibliography makes to the field is its annotations, which enable readers to discern at a glance—without, or at least before, clicking on a link—what a source is about and, in some cases, how other instructors have found it useful in their teaching. We’ve already annotated many/most of the sources on this list, and are working steadily to annotate the rest .

8. its system of hashtags. We’re still in the throes of systematically tagging each entry to make it easy for readers to locate entries on specific themes, regions, time periods, and groups of people. Notably, there are no hashtags for Western style names or movements, which is a feature, not a bug, of this bibliography. Readers can of course hit Command+F/Ctrl+F and perform a natural-language search for the words Art Nouveau, but we suggest instead that they consider searching for the hashtags #1850-1900 and #1900-1940, which will reveal a wealth of other themes they could fruitfully explore alongside or even instead of Art Nouveau.

The hashtags have proven to be one of the thorniest challenges we’ve faced in assembling this bibliography, and we are still working through how best to deploy them. We’re agreed that in contrast to the standard practice of “marking” all racial identities other than White and leaving Whiteness “unmarked,” we will (soon!) tag #WhiteAuthors and #WhiteDesigners. However, identifying the race, ethnicity, and gender of designers and authors has proven to be a very fraught enterprise. Recognizing that racial identities are inherently complex and fluid, we are committed to honoring the terms that designers and authors use(d) to self-identify, when we are able to determine what those terms are/were. On the other hand, we recognize that readers who do not know the names of (m)any #BlackAuthors and #BlackDesigners will find it unnecessarily challenging to locate their works in this document if they must search using many different self-identified terms, such as #Black, #AfricanAmerican, #AfroCaribbean, #AfroBrazilian, #African, and—in the case of historical figures—#Colored and #Negro. In short, we are very wary of imposing racial, ethnic, or gender descriptors on individuals who, for example, may self-identify neither as #Black nor as #women, but to help those who are trying to Cite Black Women, we may need to. We are still grappling with how best to balance our desire to honor designers’ and authors’ self-descriptors with our desire to make it as easy as possible for others to find, cite, and assign their work.

We are actively and continuously adding new entries and annotating and tagging existing ones. We have a lot of work still to do. But we know there is an urgent need for a resource like this one. We are sharing this bibliography publicly now, in its incomplete state, in hopes that it will prove useful to others with similar teaching goals. It will continue to change and grow, as, no doubt, will we.


Victoria Rose Pass (#VRP), MICA, began this document, and invited the following folks to contribute:

Matthew Bird (#MB), RISD

Carma Gorman (#CRG), The University of Texas at Austin

Elizabeth Guffey (#EG), Purchase College

Brockett Horne (#BH), MICA

Jennifer Kaufmann-Buhler (#JKB), Purdue University

Anca I. Lasc (#AL), Pratt

Yelena McLane (#YM), Florida State University

Erica Morawski (#EM), Pratt

Gretchen Von Koenig (#GVK), Parsons/NJIT/Michael Graves School of Design

Bess Williamson (#BW), School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Kristina Wilson (#KW), Clark University

Sara Reed (#SDR), VCU


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