Designing Experiences for Learning: White People & Racism

Two people sort photograph cards into groups for a research exercise

As a PhD student in Transition Design at Carnegie Mellon, I am following along with Stacie Rohrbach’s course on learning + design. Here is my week-by-week journal.

Week 1:

My dissertation inquiry topic — shifting how white people can better understand the problems of racism — is ultimately the process of developing a learning experience for white Americans. As David W. Orr describes in the introduction to The Third Teacher: 79 ways you can use design to transform teaching & learning, “We arrived at our present precarious situations as a result of flaws in our thinking, perception, and paradigm.” [1] To take a systems approach to this problem of racism is to see that bias and violence are not merely the fault of ignorant people. Racists are the product of a deliberate system to marginalize other experiences. It is simple and by design that white Americans can arrive in adulthood, educated and accomplished, without having any awareness of the inequitable experiences that People of Color often face as they navigate the same path to adulthood.[2]

The practice of design has unique ways of engaging people in information, and this course’s focus on how to thoughtfully create experiences that facilitate learning will help me identify more opportunities for design to support anti-racist work. My goal is to uncover opportunities where Design can bolster and amplify the great work of activists in this space.

[1] Furniture, V. S., and Bruce Mau Design. The third teacher: 79 ways you can use design to transform teaching & learning. Abrams, 2014. 15.

[2] DiAngelo, Robin. White fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Beacon Press, 2018.

Photograph of the entrance to The Legacy Museum from

Week 2: Breadth of Learning Experiences

13 Learning Experiences about racism in the United States (this not comprehensive at ALL, it’s an exercise to collect a wide range of methods to support learning)

  1. Museums: Equal Justice Initiative’s The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration & National Museum of African American History
  2. Public Art: How 17 Outsize Portraits Rattled a Small Southern Town (New York Times)
  3. Fine Art: Review: Betye Saar turns an ironing board into the story of American racism. LACMA shows how
  4. National advertising campaigns: Australia’s response to racism in sport
  5. Interactive Experiments: Jane Elliot’s Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes experiment
  6. Workshops and Training: AntiRacism or Diversity. Often associated with churches when offered publicly, or within corporations for workplace training.
  7. Classroom materials: Teaching Tolerance: Effective instruction about The New Jim Crow [book] GRADE LEVEL 9–12
  8. Self-guided curricula: Curriculum for White Americans to Educate Themselves on Race and Racism–from Ferguson to Charleston
  9. Books: How to be an AntiRacist by Imbram X. Kendi
  10. Documentaries: The Final Quarter
  11. Movies: Ava DuVernay’s When the See Us
  12. TED Talks: (Collection) Talks to help you understand racism in America
  13. Podcasts: Teaching Tolerance: Teaching Hard History

10 Questions about learner experiences

  1. Who is uninformed now, but open to learning?
  2. What are the aspects of teaching racial justice in an international classroom?
  3. Some research proposes that it is not our logic brains but our bodies that react to racial fears first. How do we teach in a way that reaches past our logical brains?
  4. What did the Black Lives Matter movement teach different communities of people about contemporary racism in the United States?
  5. What role does religion play in different people’s understanding of racial injustice?
  6. What aspects of racial injustice can connect to Republican values?
  7. If economic incentives re-enforced racial prejudice between whites and blacks after the Civil War, what are the incentives today for racism-deniers to change their minds and acknowledge that race matters in our current society?
  8. What role does contemporary entertainment play in different people’s understanding of racial injustice?
  9. How does the popularity of black musicians influence young people’s understanding of racial injustice? Why doesn’t admiration for musicians translate into more understanding of racism and injustice?
  10. When Colin Kaepernick peacefully protests police violence, how do so many people turn away and dig into their denial instead?

10 Hypotheses about white people and learning about racism

  1. The incentives for learning the truth of racism are not clear for many Americans.
  2. The incentives for valuing and embracing a diversity of cultures is not powerful enough to overcome the historical practice of excluding people.
  3. Our public schools do not have the motivation to overcome parental pushback to teach as complex and sensitive a topic of the U.S.’s problematic history of racial oppression.
  4. The people in power have a better chance of staying in power if voters believe they need to keep “others” down.
  5. When people learn about the history of racist policy in the U.S., they gain a better understanding of poverty in this country.
  6. When people develop a stronger racial fluency, they are able to connect with and feel comfortable in a wider range of spaces.
  7. Even white Americans who are Liberal and value justice are typically not informed enough to understand the full extent of racial harm that occurs everyday.
  8. People who hold conservative values are less likely to engage in understanding the role that racism plays in our present society.
  9. People who hold liberal values are more likely to see how broadening their understanding of racism can enhance their everyday experiences and role as a citizen.
  10. Increased awareness of racism will not come from the top. It is more likely to come through interpersonal connections.
The definition of consciousness raising, a screen shot from Google Search results
a screen shot from Google Search Results

Week 3: Theories about how to undo the racial ignorance that is structured into white society

  1. Education as a tool of colonization that served to teach students allegiance to the status quo has been so much the accepted norm that no blame can be attributed to the huge body of educators who simply taught as they were taught.” (bell hooks, Teaching Critical Thinking, 2010, p. 29)
  2. “Social movements often ask us to think in ways we are unaccustomed to, which can make it difficult to hear the critique.” (Prof. Lisa Tetrault, Carnegie Mellon Alumni webinar, 2018).
  3. Racist policy causes racist ideas (not the other way around) self interest causes racist policy (interpreted from How to Be an AntiRacist, Ibram X. Kendi, 2019)
  4. Discrimination benefits those in power. → they create racist policy. → racist policy creates disparities. → the public justifies the disparity by assigning blame to the disenfranchised. → Americans see things through the lens of individualism, rather that seeing the system. →. White Americans who benefit from racist policies attribute success to their culture and failures to black culture. (interpreted from Kendi, 2019)
  5. “Most folk would rather stay with the status quo even if to change would be an improvement…When we share knowledge the requires listeners to shift their paradigms there is almost always a letting go that is difficult and painful.” (hooks, 2010, p. 138)
  6. There are many white people who do not see that racism is still a problem. “A majority of Southern white respondents do not accept the idea that they have more economic opportunities than black respondents and Latino respondents, and they reject claims that systemic barriers, historical legacies, or discrimination impact black respondents’ and Latino respondents’ economic conditions today.” (Divided By Design, 2019, E. Pluribus Unum, p. 83)
  7. “Many attribute poverty to laziness or individual failings and decry those who receive government assistance, rather than asking why or taking to task the systems that perpetuate and benefit from poverty. Common narratives around race and class distract us from calling out the structural forces that serve as barriers to opportunity and intensify inequality.” (Divided By Design, p. 31)
  8. “Pain and trauma caused by racial inequities are mutually reinforcing, creating ripple effects across generations…The emotional and psychological toll of decades of exclusion, hatred, and violence experienced by communities of color and economically marginalized communities has long gone unacknowledged, and therefore unaddressed.” (Divided By Design, p. 32)
  9. “Racial reconciliation and progress will require education that brings people together around a shared understanding of our history and commitment to the values that will ultimately lead to policies that overcome today’s barriers…It is critical to correct false historical narratives designed to perpetuate an unequal status quo.” ” (Divided By Design, p. 83)
  10. Teaching racism as an idea — rather than as something essential about a person or even as a set of attitudes that a person carries — has a number of advantages. First, it is more accurate. For a number of years, I have taught about racism as both individual (how we individually treat other people) and institutional (how our policies differentially advantage white people over other races). This is not wrong, but the notion of racism as an idea is more elegant and allows for a tighter fit to the kinds of racism students are likely to see and learn about. It provides a simple, understandable principle that can then be applied to the different levels of racism: individual, institutional and cultural” (Cyndi Kernahan, 2019, Inside Higher Ed)
  11. “One of the best ways to change attitudes is through intergroup contact.” (Kim I. Mills, 2009, American Psychological Society. Race Relations in a New Age)
  12. Exposure to different cultures and ways of life helps people develop an awareness of others and of possibilities for the future, furthering their acceptance of differences and ability to pursue their full potential.” (Divided By Design, p. 34)
  13. “Where local political, community, and philanthropic leaders openly prioritize racial diversity and inclusion, there is more hope and optimism in their community’s future among residents.” (Divided By Design, p. 35)
  14. “There are people in American who overemphasize our unity yet fail to appreciate the importance of our diversity, just as there are those who emphasize our diversity yet fail to appreciate the importance of our unity. It is imperative that we honor both. It is our unity and our diversity that matter, and their relationship to each other reflects a philosophical and political truth outside of which we cannot thrive.” (Marianne Williamson, The Healing of America, 1997)
  15. “Opportunities for people to connect and find a common purpose across racial lines are often centered on cultural and sporting events.” (Divided By Design, p. 36)
  16. In order to support change in adult learners, we need to “build a bridge out of, and beyond the old ways and [not] expecting individuals to take up immediate residence in the new world.” (Love & Guthrie. “Kegan’s Orders of Consciousness.” 1999, p. 75)

Stakeholder Exercise: Teaching Racial Fluency to Collaborative Designers

Describe an overarching problem
White facilitators within design projects may unknowingly commit racial microaggressions that do harm to people of color, and alienate them as collaborators during projects.

Define stakeholders; different types of learners

  1. White progressive designers
  2. White conservative designers
  3. Non-American designers
  4. Designers of Color
Connecting the dots — where stakeholder goals align (green lines) and conflict (red lines)

Q: What have you discovered about your learners/stakeholders?

In doing the stakeholder mapping exercise, I thought about how sensitive a subject this is. Especially for an undefined, or diverse audience. I wonder if there is a layered set of learnings about racism that needs to be applied, when addressing an audience with varied levels of knowledge and contexts. There will be some people who have studied social justice and understand the basic tenets of contemporary anti-racism theories. But others will need a foundation in the basics. There will be some people who connect immediately to my position within the United States, but others who have experiences that cross national boundaries.

When I imagine a layered teaching experience that starts with the fundamentals and moves to a more nuanced understanding of racism, it might look like this:
[citations are coming, but there are too many to track down at this moment]

  • Yes, racism still exists today. We have not repaired the structural, purposeful racial inequality that has shaped the experience of life in America.
  • Racism is structural more than interpersonal. We have learned to think that racism is a white person saying something offensive to a black person, but more harm is done by racist policies.
  • “Colorblind” approaches that propose that we should ignore race, are harmful, because they deny the historic injustice expierenced by non-white people.
  • The American government has systematically kept Black Americans from accessing tools to build wealth, which has structurally caused pockets of poverty that shape many black experiences in the U.S.
  • We have internalized stories of racial inferiority that attribute flaws to individuals, rather than holding a critical consciousness about the structures that are the true root cause. (DiAngelo 2018, Kendi, 2019)
  • There is no such thing as “not racist.” Because of the inequity in our systems, we must actively work to be AntiRacist, otherwise we are upholding the unjust structures. (Kendi, 2019)
  • There is no such thing as “reverse racism” because racism is about institutional power. “Prejudice” is possible between many different types of people, but racism carries with it the weight of hundreds of years of institutional power of one race over another. (Daniel Tatum, 1992;)

Week 4: Learning Cycles

Based on McCarthy’s description of how people learn, strive to teach Collaborative Designers about Racial Fluency.

[Content Planning]


…is racial fluency important for collaborative designers?

  • As designers with blind spots shaped by structural racism, we miss out on the wisdom and strength in marginalized cultures and unwittingly perpetuate concepts of white supremacy.
  • Building trust and sharing power across difference, forms a better foundation for creativity and solution-finding
  • Microaggressions are unintentional, but do harm
  • Limited understandings of social history leave out important issues
  • We have to actively disrupt the stories we have learned that blame individuals for systemic problems
  • Traditional processes leave out marginalized voices, power dynamics are not inherently equal in shared spaces


…is racial fluency?

  • Understand your own positionality: know and reflect upon personal standpoints within systems of privilege and oppression
  • What are the characteristics? What does that look like?
  • Understanding the importance of avoiding microaggressions
  • Social Analysis: skills to look for the social, political, and economic forces that contribute to inequality and inequity. (Sneider & Graves, 2020)
  • “Be critical of how history is being taught and understood in school, the media, and by your community. Ask yourself and others, “Who wrote this narrative?” “What was its purpose?” “In what time context did this occur?”” (Equity-Centered Community Design Field Guide, Creative Reaction Lab, 2018, p. 23)
  • Challenging our own beliefs about why race and poverty show up in the world in certain ways today.
  • Skills to build space and structure activities that restore historic power imbalance and do not rely on traditional meritocratic approaches.


…does racial fluency work in collaborative projects?

  • Become comfortable with discomfort
  • Purposefully include people with different experiences
  • Value and accept individual stories
  • Define the problem-space together
  • Share power
  • Build trust. Understand and empathize with mistrust
  • See the entire system
  • Plan to continue

What if

…we applied it to other settings?

  • From your positionality, what does a collaborative setting look? what does collaborative leadership look like?
  • How does this apply to you when you aren’t the leader?
  • What might this look like beyond a U.S. context?

Week 5: Framing & Reframing

Overall goal: Increasing Awareness of Racism
Sorting and prioritizing 10 Hypotheses about learning about racism
Based on Bernice McCarthy’s 4mat system

Feedback from the class discussion

After presenting my progress to the class (framing my thinking), they asked a lot of great questions. Things for me to think about include:

  • Consider creating a small, one-off learning experience for this class, rather than the full-fledged course I had been aiming toward.
  • Learning about how we are the same can be just as important as learning about how we are different — how might I balance that?
  • Sometimes racism is presented too evocatively, as “trauma porn,” to build empathy in white people. This was a great comment because I’ve been thinking about the opposite — to me, racism is a very rational, evidence-based phenomenon. There is a balance for me to find between emotion and logic.
  • The National Museum of African American History in D.C. is a powerful example of delivering experiences of racism in an immersive way.
  • My research is centered in the United States because that’s where I am. Learning to bring these learnings into other contexts could be a powerful example of the “What if?” stage of McCarthy’s 4mat system.
  • That comment also caused me to think about the connection to a critical consciousness that I keep returning to. I hope that I will help foster deeper thinking about social problems by teaching about the specific issues of racism. I hope to hold both ideas as my goals.
  • From the learning sciences Ph.D. student in the room, what are the measures of learning? You can’t measure awareness. My original goal had been to develop the ability to facilitate across difference and to collaborate in ways that promote social justice. Now that I have narrowed my scope to be something more like a gallery visit, how might I measure a more profound empathy of students of color? Or an ability to recognize microaggressions and intervene when they happen?


For the purpose of this class I am interested in shifting my focus a bit, to create something that is a one-off teaching moment, rather than a full-fledged curriculum.

Overall my inquiry is around:

Other ways of engaging white people in learning experiences around racism.

Some of the materials from our participatory design workshop on racist microaggressions, with my fellow researcher in the background.

Currently, I am involved in a participatory design project with a Ph.D. student from HCI. We are examining how technology might help people cope after experiencing a racial microaggression. We have been talking with primarily college students about a fictional situation between a visiting professor and a lab group, where one of the students is singled out in the conversation for being different. The visiting professor says, “Wow, you are so articulate, where are you from?” The student replies that they are from California. The professor presses further, “No, where are your parents from?” “Also, California.” Two microaggressions are happening in the scene — describing an American of color as articulate, implies that you did not expect them to be skilled. Deliberately investigating the background of a Person of Color, in a public setting, shows that you do not see them as American. That there must be something more to their background. But this rarely happens to white Americans, because the assumption is that white Americans belong, or have always been here.

We have designed a series of participatory design workshops to discuss the fictional story, hear stories of personal experiences if the participants would like to disclose them, and imagine the ideal ways that technology could help intervene. The conversations and design sessions have been fruitful. I would love to find a way to share insights with others on campus.

So, for this LXD class, I would like to explore ways to create an immersive experience for professors (because they are readily available on campus) or design facilitators (because they are my target audience). To allow the audience to engage with the perspective of my research participants as they describe experiencing microaggressions and display their ideas on how to positively intervene in them.

Moving forward, I’ll explore ways for college professors to learn about microaggressions from the perspective of students.

Design → AntiRacism → Design | pursuing a PhD in #TransitionDesign @CarnegieMellonDesign