When products are made for you, you never realize how their design can be exclusionary towards people of color.
The thing with privilege is often you only notice it when you don’t have it. Right-handed people use scissors and think nothing of it, it never even crosses their mind that it could be an issue. Women are more likely than men to suffer severe injury in a car accident when wearing seatbelts because they were made for the male anatomy. When things are made for you, you don’t even notice it. You don’t even imagine that other people don’t have the same experience. If oppression is invisible to you, it is because you are on the side of the oppressor.
As proof, here are eight examples of designs that are unwittingly racist.
Some people of color complain that sunglasses are designed for Caucasian faces, with narrow and high nasal bridges, and aren’t a good fit for them. This makes them slide off easily, or sit too tightly on the nose. Afropolitan eyewear brand REFRAMD is trying to change this, and develop “a new generation of sunglasses that consider Afropolitans and other overlooked communities.” They have already made $45 000 on Kickstarter.
Band-aids were designed to be “skin-coloured” to blend in and hide your injury. Except there is no such colour as “skin” or “flesh.” They are actually just the color of white skin. The eponym brand Band-Aid, part of Johnson and Johnson, announced last year on Instagram that they would be developing a range of different colored bandaids, from light to dark brown.
Screenshot by the author
3. Heart rate monitors
The majority of consumer devices that track your heart rate do so thanks to optical sensors that measure the volume of your blood. In between beats, there is a lower concentration of blood in the veins of your wrist, so more light is reflected back to the sensor, which allows it to distinguish between beats. The problem is that skin with more melanin blocks green light, making it harder to get a correct reading. The darker your skin, the less accurate the device will be.
4. Makeup Shades
I repeat, there is no such thing as “skin-coloured.” But make-up rarely reflects that. They lack foundations for people of color. When they do exist, some cosmetic stores “forget” to stock them. Journalist Tansy Breshears wrote in a piece in Racked about her time working in a drugstore:
At least twice monthly for the near-two years I was employed there, I would ask higher-ups (who, before you ask, yes, were all white) why we didn’t carry makeup meant for women of color. I was given the same answer every time: “We dealt with too much shoplifting when we carried those shades.”
This concern is clearly founded in racist stereotypes.
5. Skin colored crayons
In 2013, an Indian law student filed a complaint against one of the country’s largest stationery manufacturers over a wax crayon labelled ‘skin’, which was clearly representing white skin with a peachy pinky hue. He argued that the crayon would reinforce white supremacy, teaching kids subtly that skin is meant to be white. “What impact will it have on these young minds when they realise that their skin colour is not recognised? Won’t it reinforce the notions of beauty that fairness products or films seek to impose?” he asked.
6 Automatic Faucets
Automatic faucets and soap dispensers use near-infrared technology, sending out an invisible light which gets reflected back to a sensor when there is a hand present. But when these products aren’t tested on people of different skin variants, they often end up unable to detect hands that aren’t white.
Some of these might not seem to matter very much. They’re just kid’s wax crayons, after all. But in reality, they create a climate where people of color are the “other”, when a hundred times a day they get a message that the world is not built for them. That is not how anyone should live. And things should not be more difficult for large portions of the population, just because we are unaware and unaccustomed to thinking of people who aren’t like the dominating class.
Designers have an important role in fighting discrimination, and making products that work for everyone. This is just one of the reasons we need more diversity in the design world, as well as raising awareness in the field for issues such as racism and sexism.