A Thoughtful Response to Schessa Garbutt’s “Black Lives Matter is Not a Design Challenge”

 

The article shared on Medium’s Design Toast at the beginning of June made a lot of great points about virtue signaling and how garnering likes for social justice sketches is a less than okay way to respond to the Black Lives Movement. To be honest, I was sitting in my cozy seat of white privilege doing exactly nothing because I felt it was my place to do nothing when I got a message from my friend that catapulted me into action. I agreed with all the points of Garbutt’s article, and I still do agree with the points—but I wanted to respond in case the article might shut-down some actually on-point actions and responses to BLM for fear of being the wrong kind of help.

Close up of old English dictionary page with word privilege
I was sitting cozy in my white privilege until a friend reached out. Image: Adobe Stock

 

The message I received was a tearful, exhausted confessional of emotions and maybe a decade or more worth of her personal and silent struggle to pretend it’s all okay and race issues in America aren’t all that bad. She and her family have been living the struggle on the daily, but her public persona would never let you in on that fact.

“I’ve been up all night. I fear for the lives of my kids—my husband could have lost his last night.”

You see, her (black) husband had been peacefully protesting the day before, and before he could come home, Columbus, OH police kettled the protesters for six hours before letting people leave. People tried to get in their cars and leave, but police were forcibly removing them from vehicles and “beating their faces off,” my friend related to me.

It was at this point I decided I couldn’t sit by and say this isn’t my fight because I’m white and I don’t belong. Being intentional about purchasing take-out from black-owned local restaurants suddenly seemed like a paltry contribution. Reaching out to say, “you okay?” to my black friends seemed hardly enough. And now, I had a friend reaching out to me in fear saying very blatantly, we need your help.

We need your voices right now because when black people speak up here, it doesn’t mean as much. We need white voices to help lift up the black voices.”

So, if you are white/privileged/otherwise leading a comfortably entitled existence but wanting to contribute in some way for the right reasons, let’s have a look at some ways to do this productively–and some of these do completely echo Garbutt’s suggestions. Her words are what I, as a white writer/illustrator/communicator, need to be listening to first before responding. If you haven’t read her article, please do click on this link.

 

  1. Defer to the black community about what is needed.
  2. If you are a white person, be cognizant of the racism embedded in your community. Talk about it. Educate your community. Be an ambassador.
  3. Be really aware of what your goals and intentions are with your work.
  4. Find ways to give back to the black community through your work.
  5. Feature black-owned businesses, connect and collaborate with black creatives, and find ways to utilize the works and voices of the black community.

 

 

hands_reaching
Image from Adobe Stock

 

After this article was published over at Medium, I heard a few creatives discussing it in various forums. I digested the message and double-checked my actions, and truly felt my work was coming from the right place—but I decided to keep evaluating and adjusting the way I approached things.

 

But then I got an email from a local designer friend whom I know is genuinely, deeply committed to the causes of social justice and change. She had been working on some truly beautiful works for our print efforts, but she said, “well, as per this article, maybe I shouldn’t even put these out there.”

 

I responded, “no I think you should keep doing the work—let’s just be mindful how and when and where we put stuff out there.”

Because, you see, this friend has experience with oppression and missed opportunities, judgment, and assumptions because of being differently abled. She is deaf and has experienced audism (which I did not know about and she educated me to understand this term used to describe a negative, ableist attitude toward deafness and the deaf community). She has also dealt with sexism and religious oppression, and she has developed her worldview through her unique experience.

Her experience aligns her empathy with Black Lives Matter in a way I can’t even fully fathom. Just as, in other ways, my own experience aligns me empathetically with the cause in ways others may not realize and I don’t feel the need to explain or justify, because right now my story doesn’t matter: but the ways it has prepared me can at least be useful to Black Lives Matter.

SayTheseNames_List
I did my own design work with all the right intentions, but the names overwhelmed. It seemed trite and ridiculous to even attempt. Besides, the issue goes so much deeper than police fatalities and systemic racism. Image is mine.

We all probably have a story or an experience that in some way helps us empathetically align to the cause. To say we have no point of reference is to minimize the collective human experience and how we are all uniquely equipped to be first responders to the Black Lives Matter issue. Whatever your positional point of reference may be, I think the important point of consideration remains: consider your white fragility, your place of privilege, and what you truly have to offer the world on behalf of Black Lives everywhere.

I decided to double-check my intentions, re-examine my privilege, and make sure my actions are going to help further the cause rather than pollute the social media sludge scroll. I encourage others to do the same, and if someone asks, “are we being white saviors?” or “is this really going to help?” I think that measuring your output against this list is a worthwhile litmus test.

If you have engaged with black thought, read about current events, white privilege, virtue signaling, divisive thinking, and you have done the internal work to check yourself—by all means, continue on with your crusade. Be mindful and definitely defer to number five on Garbutt’s list of how to direct your energy for the greater good and cause of Black Lives Matter.

 

“If you must make art, here’s a challenge: figure out how it can benefit the movement without benefitting you.” Schessa Garbutt, from “Black Lives Matter is not a Design Challenge”

 

I truly believe art is often the most powerful and effective tool for change. Writing and art can educate and empower in both an immediate and lasting way. Art persists when protests end in violence. Writing remains when the words of angry rioters are lost into the elbows of their oppressors. Powerful writing can lift up a cause and become a voice for the oppressed, and powerful art can spread a message that transcends language and meets us on another level where our emotional conscience fights to raise our awareness to another level.

So while I ask that everyone check their intentions and do the necessary navel-gazing work in the shower where it belongs, I also encourage everyone to do their part—even if that means it falls on the creative spectrum and you are not yourself a person of color.

 

Not everyone is able to protest.

Not everyone is able to donate.

Not everyone is able to write.

Not everyone is able to draw/paint/sculpt/sketch.

 

For the Cause

Take up the cause however you can while carefully listening to the black community, deferring to the voice of the unheard in order to amplify the cause rather than to virtue signal.

If you are unsure where you fall in this category, you’re probably at least asking the right questions to keep self-aware. Keep going. But remain open to criticism and questions. Be ready to have that hard look in the mirror and carefully reflect on why you’re doing what you’re doing, and if it’s going to make a difference.

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