Decentering Whiteness in Design History, an annotated bibliography in progress

Check out Decentering Whiteness in Design History, an annotated bibliography in progress.

One of the great FemOS ladies shared the above resource recently. She came across it via the Simply Secure Slack chat. It seems like a strong doc, I hope that the researchers and others continue to add to it.

If you’re looking for resources on a particular topic like typography or graphic design, it’s best to refer to their hashtag list currently on page 8 (search the doc for “Hashtag Authority List” if it moves). Then find a tag you’re interested in and search the doc for that tag.

Below is a list of a few resources that caught my eye and I’d like to follow up on. These are all freely available online in one form or another or could likely be loaned from a library.

  • “The Font that Never Was: Linotype and the “Phonetic Chinese Alphabet” of 1921”, an article by Thomas S. Mullaney. The article is behind a paywall, but he also presented it at ATypI 2016 (see video).
  • Saki Mafundikwa’s TED talk Ingenuity and elegance in ancient African alphabets
  • Chromophobia by David Batchelor published in 2001. The editorial description: “The central argument of Chromophobia is that a chromophobic impulse—a fear of corruption or contamination through colour—lurks within much Western cultural and intellectual thought. This is apparent in the many and varied attempts to purge colour, either by making it the property of some ‘foreign body’—the oriental, the feminine, the infantile, the vulgar, or the pathological—or by relegating it to the realm of the superficial, the supplementary, the inessential, or the cosmetic.” Purchase from the publisher, buy it secondhand, or look for it at local library.
  • “New Blackface: Neuland and Lithos as Stereotypography”, an essay by Rob Giampietro that was originally published in the journal of the Type Directors Club (an org that has been been in hot water over the past few months, incidentally…). It’s available to read on his website.
  • Design in California and Mexico 1915–1985, the catalogue for the exhibition “Found in Translation: Design in California and Mexico 1915–1985” at LACMA in 2018. Purchase from the LACMA online store, buy it secondhand. Feel like this is unlikely to be in a local library unfortunately.
  • “Violence and Economic Growth: Evidence from African American Patents, 1870–1940” by Lisa Cook, published in the Journal of Economic Growth in June 2014. Cook analyzed over two million patents, cross-referencing with Census records to track Black patent activity over time. From the bibliography: “Her data suggested something huge happened after 1921 that caused the rate of Black patenting to tank after that date; it turned out to be the destruction of “Black Wall Street” during the Tulsa massacre.” Available in full as a PDF via Cook’s website.

Time to reintroduce a whole lot of color on this site, I think!


“I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously”

America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization. One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error. I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Many passages in Between the World and Me are worth quoting, but this one really hit home. Coates also brands this “patriotism à la carte” in his Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations” (see below).

This blind national pride has been particularly painful to many people recently with the wildly inadequate pandemic response, the killing of George Floyd, unmarked federal officers’ violence in Portland, and so many more recent events.

I’d forgotten about how very pervasive it is until I got back to the US in early June. It’s insidious, sad and borderline delusional. And it’s not just a right / conservative thing.

It’s all well and good to be proud of your accomplishments, but if you can’t identify and work to rectify your failings then what the hell is the point?

I’ve been speaking with some friends about this book, they mentioned a few resources I’d like to follow up on.

And I’m still working through my previous list.

I just finished “The Case for Reparations” and learned so much.

Coates weaves together individual and collective experiences, history, and data to connect the dots between the Jim Crow South, the Great Migration, redlining by the Federal Housing Association following the New Deal, the efforts of the Contract Buyers League, Belinda Royall’s early and successful petition for reparations in 1783, John Conyers’s HR 40 bill, the early history of slavery in the US, the failure of Reconstruction, the levelling of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” and its subsequent suppression in law and the media, the myth of fatherhood as the antidote to Black poverty, the fuzziness of affirmative action, the “gulag of the Mississippi” Parchman Farm, the impact of Germany’s post-WWII reparations on Israel and the evolution of contemporary Germany, the prevalence of subprime lenders preying on Black home buyers in the run up to the 2008 crisis, and so much more.

He argues for the cooperation of every aspect of society in a real discussion and debate about reparations to “reject the intoxication of hubris” and bring about “a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history”.

HR 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans “to examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies”, has progressed since Coates wrote “The Case for Reparations” in 2014. Texas Representative Sheila Jackson Lee is now first sponsor of HR 40 having taken over from John Conyers in 2018. There has been some progress with the bill, but a vote has not been set.


“it is possible to imagine [a critical sensibility] in which social paranoia is not foundational”

The sore winner is a product of the hyper-surveilled and personalized world in which we all now live, one in which people feel both nebulously responsible for everything wrong while also feeling responsible for nothing at all.

From the Outline article “A decade of sore winners” by B.D. McClay. A lot of stuff in this article is spot-on. It also relates directly to the response I received from my Republican representative regarding the impeachment of President Trump.

One of my rep’s many dubious points was that Ukranian leaders publicly attacked candidate Trump in the press, and that this was evidence of Ukranian meddling in 2016 elections. Specifically, he linked to an article in The Hill by Ambassador Valeriy Chaly, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States from 2015 to 2019. I read the article by Amb. Chaly, and all I can see is an opinion piece that fairly criticises statements made by a candidate for one of the most powerful positions in the world.

How do you make the mental leap necessary to conflate principled criticism with personal attack? Furthermore, how could anything in that article be considered meddling in an election? The vast majority of Chaly’s article is a recent history of events in Ukraine.

This is sore winner territory. Here’s how McClay illustrates it in their article:

Worse still than the idea that things are for you is the extension into identification: that these things literally are you. If someone writes books for teen girls, to criticize her books is to criticize teen girls. Expressing something other than support for Taylor Swift guarantees you a place in that special hell for women who don’t support other women. If you like superhero movies and video games, and somebody outlines the reasons they think superhero movies and video games are a waste of time, that’s an attack on you, personally, not a disagreement over aesthetics.

How do we get past this? More critical thinking taught in schools and beyond? More restrictions on social media? Surely it has to be a personal exercise but it seems like such a fundamental and widespread problem, almost a public mental health emergency (one of many).

It is impossible to imagine a critical sensibility that does not exist socially. But it is possible to imagine one in which social paranoia is not foundational, and in which social reception — of work, of ourselves — does not have to determine our reaction to each other.

It’s possible to imagine it, but it’s pretty difficult to picture without some sort of major overhaul in day-to-day life.


Notes from MozFest 2019

This is super delayed! I typed up my rough notes right after MozFest finished in October but never pressed publish. Voila.

MozFest is 10 years old! This was their last year at Ravensbourne in London. Sad, but I’m excited to see where it heads next.

This is a haphazard brain-dump of everything I want to remember and follow up on, a lot of questions for future consideration and resources that I need to explore. See also Common Knowledge’s notes from MozFest written by Gemma Copeland.

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Reading via Victor Papanek

Two more books for the reading list: Future Shock by Alvin and Heidi Toffler and Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher.

These suggestions come via Victor Papanek’s preface to the first edition of his book Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. I finally started reading it at long last after many recommendations from SB.


“A leaf a gourd a shell a net a bag a sling a sack a bottle a pot a box a container”

That’s right, they said. What you are is a woman. Possibly not human at all, certainly defective. Now be quiet while we go on telling the Story of the Ascent of Man the Hero.

Go on, say I, wandering off towards the wild oats, with Oo Oo in the sling and little Oom carrying the basket. You just go on telling how the mammoth fell on Boob and how Cain fell on Abel and how the bomb fell on Nagasaki and how the burning jelly fell on the villagers and how the missiles will fall on the Evil Empire, and all the other steps in the Ascent of Man.

If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it’s useful, edible or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag a container for people, and then later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a solider container or put it in the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred, and the next day you probably do much the same again — if to do that is human, if that’s what it takes, then I am a human being after all. Fully, freely, gladly, for the first time.

From Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay The Carrier Bag of Fiction published by Ignota

GC gave me this book the other day, perfectly timed.

It can feel like the path to success, whatever on earth success actually is, takes some sort of aggro-ambition. What if it is gentler, more of a methodical and deliberate accumulation than a conquest?

SB has been playing Death Stranding and I’ve really enjoyed following along. The arc is definitely hero-centric, and of course the story is way out there in sci-fi land, but the main mechanic of accepting and delivering cargo is much more human than so many other supposedly more realistic video games.

I’d like to get and read Elizabeth Fisher’s Women’s Creation from 1975, but it might be tough to find in print. Thankfully the Internet Archive seems to offer it for borrowing. Pretty cool, I didn’t know that they had a lending library for scanned books.


Notes from Redecentralize 2019

Been a busy few days with Redecentralize on Friday followed by MozFest over the weekend. Redecentralize was a one-day unconference at 4th Floor Studios in Whitechapel. The event was expertly organised by Ira Bolychevsky and her crack team.

It was a day of thought-provoking conversations and notebook scribbling. This is an attempt to decode the scribbles, make some follow-up plans, and to generally summarise the day from my perspective. There was a lot going on so I can’t cover it all, but I’m going to keep an eye out for other people’s notes via the Redecentralize newsletter.

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Where do you draw the line?

There’s a fine line between changing from within and being complicit.

Dr Kate Darling, MIT Media Lab researcher and expert in robot ethics, said this in her 27 August Guardian opinion piece on Jeffrey Epstein’s influence on the science world. This comment referred to her relationship with the MIT Media Lab and with literary agency Brockman. There was an all-hands Media Lab meeting on 4 September to internally address their part in all this, read more in the MIT Tech Review. Sounds like the meeting was something… hard to tell. Ended on a thoroughly rotten note.

That line from her article has stuck with me, it’s a succinct way of articulating an ever-present worry. If you’re doing good work at an organisation that is being questionably governed or is doing iffy things, you either A) stick with the org and live with that worry every day or B) step away from it entirely and be free from the worry. In scenario A, in order to feel ok with yourself you do everything you can to make a difference. This is exhausting, and you resent colleagues that aren’t working as hard to fix things. In scenario B, you’re free from this worry but you live in a fresh hell of new worries (missed opportunity, financial stability, unfulfilled potential, etc).

Don’t know where the line is, it shifts constantly and is probably different for every person. Just have to keep it on your mind and keep having the hard conversations. Don’t let it build up, talk little and often, with everyone.

Edit 10.09.19: Deleted a sentence mentioning Darling’s plans to drop Brockman and stay with the Media Lab, from her Guardian article. That may still be the case, but more has come to light so I wouldn’t assume anything. It must be incredibly tough thing to navigate.