A 5by5 conversation with Raven Moore: Being a Black Designer in America

5by5 with Raven Moore, DesignOps Lead

Interview by Twisha Shah-Brandenburg & Thomas Brandenburg

“Trust yourself. Most often, we tend to dismiss our perspectives or undervalue our own experiences because the people in the room don’t understand it or have not “experienced” it.” —Raven Moore on advice for aspiring young Black/Brown designers

Question: What is your personal history in education, and how has that informed your practice as a designer today?

Raven: During the recession of 2008, I was unemployed for a miserable two years. I spent a lot of that time blogging about my career. The irony of that situation is not lost on me. However, the blog gained some popularity and the audience consisted of mostly designers, creatives, and freelancers.

I spent time studying other people’s careers and considered going to law school, along with business school and a few other graduate studies. These options slowly deflated when I realized three things:

  1. Massive debt
  2. Massive burnout
  3. Massive disillusionment

During this time, a designer who read my blog asked, “Have you ever thought about going into UX design? You’d be good at it.” I had never heard of it, much less thought there was such a thing as “User Experience Design.”

However, as I explored the world of design, it appealed to my core nature: a problem solver. I liked solving problems — and not just any kind of problem — hard problems. And while law, business, and a bunch of other disciplines are about solving problems, too — the context of technology appealed to me.

I interviewed graduates from DePaul University’s Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) program which further compelled me to apply.

Question: Who are Black designers or thought-leaders that you respect, and why?

Raven: Lisa Welchman’s work on digital governance, which, up until recently, is something I had never had to think about. As the web and internet become increasingly entrenched in our lives, how are we governing responsibilities? Relationships? Actions? The world is big — but digital seems even “bigger” when it comes to what is allowed (in some cases, everything) and how we govern ourselves within those elements.

I also keep tabs on Nancy Douyon and Dr. Theresa Johnson — they’re inspiring!

Question: What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced in the workplace?

Raven: Gaining trust and credibility inside organizations have continued to be the biggest challenges for me. In retrospect, I can also admit that I should have trusted myself more.

Organizations should consider going beyond training employees in both dealing with conflicts and recognizing bias. A Bloomberg study shows that training by itself doesn’t work. The main problem with stereotypes is not that people are unaware of them, but that they agree with them (even when they don’t admit it to others). In other words, most people have conscious biases.

Workplaces need to develop policies and cultures where employees that come from diverse perspectives feel safe and can engage in dialogue without the fear of consequences. In such environments, when bias does show up, it’s easier to identify it and have discussions around how behaviors can be addressed.

I’ve had colleagues openly use racial epithets in front of me.
I’ve been called aggressive while my (white) colleagues are considered passionate or strong.
Coworkers have questioned my education.
Coworkers have asked to touch my hair.
Many managers have complimented me on how “articulate” I am.
Colleagues have assumed I am not in a leadership position.
And…there are many more.

Each time incidents like these happen, I’ve questioned myself — should I react in this way or that?
Should I leave it alone?
If I don’t, will I get “in trouble”?
Did they mean it that way?
Oh my god — he said that, what should I say back?

Each time I questioned myself, I trusted myself a bit less. Each time I worried and quibbled myself into silence for fear of being seen as less “credible” (read: less professional, less of a team player, less of ladylike, less…anything). I mentally burdened myself in ways that not only damaged me but would only inflict more trauma because it was left unchecked.

Being labeled “angry” is a real thing.
Especially when you are a Black woman.
I am seen as distant.
Not relatable.

If you are curious about how systemic bias has affected you or your organization, just assume, it has.
Who is in a position of power or leadership?
Who influences decision-making?
Who do you consider a thought leader?
Why is that way?
If more diversity existed in those that lead and influence our thinking, would these biases still exist?

If you are uncomfortable — that is good. Growth requires discomfort, and now is the time to reflect and make changes. Growth is not pretty. But it’s worth it in the end.

Question: The Black perspective is overwhelmingly missing in design. How have you dealt with that bias in your career as a designer?

Raven: Black people love technology, and there is a growing number of them that are digital natives. The effects of technology on Black communities is often overlooked.

The negativity of bias can edge us towards dark places where folks thought technology could or should be “innocent” or “neutral,” but I know that it isn’t this way.

If you think about who designed it, how it was tested, and how it is being measured for improvement, then know that the rooms those decisions are being made in are not representative of the reality they serve.

Our inventions are only as innocent as the inventors. Our perspectives, when manifested through technology, are given the unfettered opportunity to reveal the bias (and systemic racism) so deeply ingrained in our world and the designs we create.

Bias is so commonplace and will always be around, but it’s hard to argue with facts (although some will still try!). As a design leader having a toolset of (persuasive) storytelling laced with facts and evidence can shrink bias. Facts are not nearly as impressive without a story providing context.
Stories provide a soul.
Stories are the soul.
They change people’s minds and create movements.

What has worked for me is to understand the intersectionality of those facts with stories of how they affect different groups of people. I work hard to bring these intersections to life so that decision-makers can hear and understand different perspectives.

Question: The social movement of Black Lives Matter has been picking up momentum. What would you like to see it accomplish?

Raven: One of the centerpieces of the Black Lives Matter movement I’m especially excited about is the 8 Can’t-Wait initiative, which I’d like to see elevated into the political discourse.

There is debate on whether the 8 Can’t Wait initiatives will work, but at a minimum, talking about alternatives to keeping our communities safe and bringing resources to underserved areas is a much better way to address the gaps within our societal institutions.

Focus on restoring and investing in Black communities is also an initiative I’d like to see more openly discussed and pursued.

Question: What advice would you give to aspiring young Black/Brown designers?

Raven: Trust yourself. Most often, we tend to dismiss our perspectives or undervalue our own experiences because the people in the room don’t understand it or have not “experienced” it. Somehow, people equate “well that didn’t happen to me” with the idea that it does not matter. Those (ignorant) dismissals can cause you to doubt your perspective or opinions — don’t let it!

I was taught not to offend white people. Fitting in was necessary, and over time the psychic scaring and burden that comes from carrying a very dual reality were a heavyweight to take.

In the context of all my life experiences and years of being a designer
What did silence get me?
What did smiling politely and saying thank you to strange comments about how “well I spoke” get me?
What did nervous laughter in the face of rude questions or outright hostile statements get me?
What did ignoring and avoiding the possible discomfort of my colleagues get me?

You begin to wonder when do you say something? What are the consequences of not being able to be vulnerable?

So, when I say trust yourself — I mean it. Trust that if you are offended, something isn’t right. Don’t worry about credibility because offenses and bias don’t need credibility to be corrected. If we are going to be part of the change, then we need to be brave enough to give voice and share perspectives that aren’t the norm.

Liked this article? You may be interested in our last series on Access and Algorithms.