The Unbearable Whiteness of Being (a Graphic Designer)
This essay first appeared in shorter form in the 2018 GD Triennial catalogue.
Here’s something that I maybe want to say:
Relatively speaking, I’m in an extremely privileged position. I’m able-bodied, middle class, and proficient in English. I’m light-skinned and East Asian. All of this, combined with the fact of my U.S. citizenship, means that I am afforded certain protections in this country. I will most likely never be stopped at a border, never be unduly harassed during a traffic stop, never have to worry about the more explicit and direct versions of state violence. And the context in which I currently live my life is one of privilege. I study Graphic Design at a school with name recognition. I’m surrounded by well-meaning people.
Despite all that, what lingers is a nagging suspicion that there is something not quite right with the way that my body is perceived in space. A suspicion that asks: despite the privileges granted to East Asians in the U.S., why do I still feel like white America sees me as less than human? Like one face in an indistinguishable Asian hoard? This feeling is especially strong in the context of a university. The demographics of the undergraduate Graphic Design department at RISD skews heavily East Asian. And still, in almost all of the studio classes I have been in, the (white) professor has consistently mixed up the names of various East Asian (especially female) students. This confusion can last for weeks into the semester. I wonder if, in some twisted version of the politics of representation, white professors feel anything when they look at the students and don’t see themselves represented.
Maybe this is racially inflammatory language. I’m a bit wary even putting these words to paper. Because they might be read as overly resentful. Maybe these are thoughts that were never meant to be aired out, never meant to be shared unless I’m complaining to other people of color. I am obviously so much more conscious of the various facets of my identity than most white people are. But often this identity does not feel like something that is intrinsic to my body, and instead more like something that was ascribed to me.
I don’t want to be relegated to making work about my identity. My Asian-Americanness. My queerness. The mechanics of my marginalization. Topics like the model minority myth or the narrative of my parents immigration to the U.S. and their subsequent struggles have been so thoroughly fleshed out in collective consciousness, that the act of proliferating these stories has long ceased to be radical. Stories of immigration, and even stories of growing up gay and alienated feel, to a certain extent, like fodder for a liberal, white, heteronormative audience. Sometimes it’s exhausting, and sometimes it seems too easy, like a default pool of content that I can pull from to get an ‘A’ in the studio that’s (inevitably) being taught by a progressive white professor.
And sometimes it seems like no one would say anything helpful in a critique for fear of invalidating my very being. Although I’ll admit that I like wielding that power. It does make me feel smug that I don’t have to contend with white guilt in the way that all of these white designers have to.
So instead, I decided to focus on the other side of the muddied coin. Instead of making work about my own marginalized identity, I tried to pivot to making work that explores and critiques whiteness. I’m a bit obsessed with it. It’s everywhere and nowhere at the same time, it’s implicated in both history and the erasure of history, the creation and negation of nostalgia, the privilege and burden of subjectivity, the invisibility and hypervisibility of difference. It’s a field of contradictions.
But the work has started to get easy too. Easy, In the sense that complaining about white people comes so naturally to me. The simple fact of growing up in a country as anything other than white has made it incredibly easy to produce critiques against white supremacy. Lately, the work has felt just like that: easy to come by, except maybe dressed up in a few choice theoretical phrasings. I’m apprehensive that I’ve just assumed yet another predefined role. The critiques have began to feel rote again. Whereas before I would feel uneasy about my work because of how quickly it approached self-orientalizing myself, now I fear my work about whiteness is just indulging the already self-flagellating white Left.
This, I think, is where the true power of hegemony lies—in its ability to re-digest counter discourse. An eager but shallow acceptance of anti-hegemonic critique becomes yet another signal of white virtue. The inescapability of whiteness comes back to me, again and again. I barely even have to try. Whiteness feels like something I can pluck out of the air. It’s like I rub my hands together and the whiteness rubs off me in little flakes of dead skin and dirt.
So instead, I will let my dear white colleagues take up that mantle. It’s not their fault that they were born white, but it does mean that they were born with a certain responsibility to self-reflexively reconcile with the privilege that has been foisted upon them. Maybe I’ll focus on making entirely form-based work from now on. Or maybe I’ll start making work about like, surveillance dystopias or machine learning algorithms or meme culture or some shit. Work that suggests a criticality and an intellect without necessitating an understanding of race; work that suggests a future in which we are all equally fucked, regardless of sociological categories.
It delights me to hear white people critique white hegemony. Not that that’s happening that often during my studio classes, but it does seems to have a thicker presence in the air than before. Although the critique is often myopically focused on the current presidential administration, the reign of invisibility that whiteness has had in American culture seems to be slowly disintegrating. I’m optimistic about a future in which whiteness is not so blinding, in which white people can talk more critically and self-reflexively about their own whiteness.
I can see the spark of self-recognition in their eyes. It slowly renders a fire.