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Envisioning a World of Design without White Supremacy

Written by Elaine Zuniga, Lead Product Manager

PublishedJuly 22, 2021

That title... I know––cringy, right? It’s natural to question the existence of white supremacy in a space as progressive and modern as digital healthcare. It’s easy to detach ourselves from these words because it’s common to associate white supremacy with white dudes in pointy hats. The truth is, white supremacy doesn’t require white people to uphold its power. Today we often find white supremacy in action has a subtle tone, and its microaggressions and unchecked biases often go completely unnoticed in tech design. We live in a society that designs and innovates to solve problems for the affluent and able. Both the modernist movement and capitalism are rooted in the tenets of white supremacy and racism. It is so inconspicuous that we don’t even realize that we continue to uphold its power by simply following the model of successful design practice.

Elaine Zuniga participated in a panel on inclusivity and equity at this year's SXSW Festival. Image courtesy https://online.sxsw.com/event/sxsw-online/planning/UGxhbm5pbmdfMzM1NjQx

So, back to the title. It was actually the subject of a panel I was part of earlier this year at SXSW's virtual conference. I was surrounded by a few fascinating powerhouses, and together we dove deep into dissecting our worlds, past and present, while staying honest and open. And in the end, two key themes surfaced:

We need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Acknowledge that the issue of white supremacy still exists––and is thriving in the tech design space. Design Thinking is an effective model to discover unmet needs of your target audience––but the word target limits reach to the capable, the willing and the able. We are in a constant battle with our competitors to reach the same target audience so we keep solving the same problems for the same people...the capable, the willing, the able. We’ve continued to ignore an already marginalized group that represents real unmet needs, thereby repeating the cycle that is deeply rooted in Eurocentric ability.

Now is the time to ask ourselves, “Are we in the business of crushing the competition, or are we here to solve problems for real people?”

Let’s consider for a moment the impact we could make if we allowed ourselves to move in a more thoughtful and perhaps uncomfortable way. What if we built our products to include some of the traditional “nice to haves” on the requirements list in order to reach a broader audience? Starting with translation, localization and accessibility would be a huge leap forward.

Then, what if we shifted our research profiles to include a diverse set of variables in order to gain broader reach and richer insights––purposefully outside of the target audience? We could consider a requirement for multiple ethnicities, lower income thresholds, require the use of assistive technology––these small changes would naturally encourage us toward a more inclusive design practice. And while some of these demographics might not account for everyone’s target market, the opportunity to stretch a little, to represent a segment of an unfamiliar marginalized population, could uncover an unmet need your company could solve.

Representation matters. Diverse new hires in organizations are a great start, but take it a step further by instituting a plan and making a conscious effort to not only hire but also promote people of color to leadership positions. A few other suggestions from the discussion:

  • Create a space for allyship that amplifies the voice of the underrepresented on your teams.
  • Commit to pay equality.
  • Deeply examine your culture and understand what it takes to create a more inclusive working environment.
  • Choose experience over degrees.
  • Broaden the recruitment scope so that a four-year college degree is no longer a barrier of entry.
  • Recognize the fact that talent and innovation can come from anywhere.

The discussion was strong, compelling and balanced by factual insights and personal anecdotes. I was reminded how white privilege, when used responsibly, can effect positive change.

I have no college degree, and my education is capped with a GED. Many years ago, two white women took a chance, hired me, trained me and gave me the opportunity to chart my own path. I’m grateful that years later, I have the privilege of working at Buoy. From my first interview, Buoy’s commitment to equity and cultural diversity was clear – and I see that commitment played out each day in the products we create and the team that stands behind them.