The problem with “a commitment to diversity”: Alum Jacquie Shaw discusses designing with intentional intersectionality

After Jacquie Shaw (BDes 2014) left Emily Carr University, they eventually made their way to Tkronto (Toronto) to attend the Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCADU), situated on the ancestral and traditional territories of the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Haudenosaunee, the Anishinaabe and the Huron-Wendat. Jacquie’s thesis addresses moving towards an intersectional praxis in design. “Liin Nur did this research with me in the early stages,” they said during the presentation of their thesis. “I would be remiss not to mention her as too much work is built on the backs of black women and that is not recognized.”

So, what is intersectionality?

Intersectionality was a term first coined by American lawyer, civil rights advocate, philosopher, and leading scholar of critical race theory, Kimberlé Crenshaw, in 1989. Emerging from ideas based in critical race theory, intersectionality was once an obscure legal term. Two decades later in an interview with Columbia Law School, Crenshaw said, “Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times, that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.”

Instead of simply naming singular identities, intersectionality looks at the complex realities of existing in one or more of those identities. Jacquie points out that often we don’t examine or acknowledge our own internal bias, and during their thesis presentation, they walk the audience through an exercise of envisioning themselves in a park in order to first address the biases the audience may hold. Jacquie asks a series of questions about what the audience envisions when they picture a couple walking towards them or two people playing with a child. “We need to examine the biases that we bring to our work,” says Jacquie. “One way that we can examine this is through the sociological framework of intersectionality.”

DIY 'cootie catcher' from Shaw, Jacqueline (2019) Towards An Intersectional Praxis In Design. [MRP]

The analytical use of this framework is relatively new in design research, but there is growing interest shares Jacquie. “It requires a willingness to learn,” they said.

“As a person and designer, I create work from and with the intersections of privilege and oppression I experience, while engaging in my understanding through a critical lens,” said Jacquie. “In writing the proposal I was thinking ‘towards an intersectional praxis’ in which I was hoping to create a practice for designers to pick up. But really, what I wanted to ask or say was: how do we tell ‘white people’ they gotta stop, just stop designing?”

Jacquie elaborated on this. “To be honest though, I don’t trust white people to solve problems effectively, because so much of what has been created as a destructive force has expanded from whiteness, and white supremacy. Why would the people who benefit from an oppressive system ever want to change it?” they said. Jacquie explains that there are more than enough examples where design has acted as an agent for white supremacy, and in doing so, white supremacy has become unquestioned to the point where white supremacy in design has become the benchmark for work that is created for “the general public.”

“I am tired of hearing over and over again that design needs to be more inclusive and diverse, because that deeply erases all the marginalized folks who are working in the field,” said Jacquie. “I’m looking for leadership from everyone to understand their place in the work we do. To understand the values that are imbued either implicitly or explicitly in all the work that is put out.”

DIY 'cootie catcher' from Shaw, Jacqueline (2019) Towards An Intersectional Praxis In Design. [MRP]

Jacquie talks about the recent trend by brands, institutions and companies in general saying how they are committed to diversity. “There’s never a plan,” said Jacquie. “The academic equivalent of sending ‘thoughts and prayers’ is a generalized statement about having ‘a commitment to diversity’. Intersectionality is not a checklist.”

Part of Jacquie’s journey to intersectional design research was illustrated within their MRP through a zine (pictured below). “Growing up as mixed-raced and immigrating to Canada at a formative age was partially culture shock,” explained Jacquie. “As well as recognizing my queerness and existing as a non-binary person, I saw the complexities of my own existence and that led me to intersectionality.” Jacquie shares that they didn’t necessarily grow up politically aware and there was an inability to consolidate that experience until being introduced to intersectionality.

“I didn’t read about it in academic books,” said Jacquie. “I actually learned these ideas from Tumblr. That’s what prompted additional research.”

DIY zine from Shaw, Jacqueline (2019) Towards An Intersectional Praxis In Design. [MRP]

Jacquie shares that their grad project was on the legalization of marijuana, and that the conversation in their work has evolved drastically since then. The project looked at the system of communications design with the visual cultural and branding that the legalization debate was surrounded by. “Looking back, there is more I could have added to that conversation,” said Jacquie. “Ultimately I’ve learned five- or six-years’ worth of more information I could add. Coming from there to intersectional design is an organic process of – excuse my language – giving a shit.”

“It’s a long journey,” said Jacquie. “This isn’t a quick fix. You need to use this as a framework to create design that doesn’t perpetuate oppressive systems like white supremacy.”

Jacquie is currently available for design research with a particular interest in inclusivity, accessibility, decolonization and intersectionality in the civic and social sectors. Jacquie’s MRP is available to read here.

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