Melanie G. S. Walby
Design Director, Pollen Midwest
I can see it coming before I click on the email. Hesitantly, I open yet another request for a list of creatives/artists of color. I don’t actually track how often this happens but on average, I’d say I’ve received about one every two months for the last five years. Since the murder of George Floyd, the uprisings, fires, and white supremacy groups keeping Minneapolis and St. Paul awake at night, these requests have escalated to a point of exhaustion. Between my friends and I, we have received dozens a day at a time when our community is trying to survive, not process. Survive.
From people wanting to finally address the long overdue racial disparities in their companies to flooding the inboxes of BIPOC artists so they can get a BLM design, we are currently overwhelmed and it is starting to feel insensitive. List requests are always a heavy burden that come with complicated feelings but at this time especially, I think folks really need to think about the toll these requests take on us.
On the surface, it seems like a well intended path to hiring BIPOC artists—looking deeper, it’s an unintentional way to perpetuate systemic racism.
Let me be clear, I think people who are willing to pay are trying to do the right thing. I’m just tired of seeing the conversation always revolve around how to get people of color into white spaces without any sort of requirement for those white people to go to Black/Brown spaces. I will admit that even I am in need of referrals at times, but it feels different when someone who isn’t willing to show up in the community suddenly requests a simple solution sent to them via email so they are not burdened with having to go anywhere.
List requests stem from the same old problematic ideology I’ve always heard: that people of color don’t work in the field (not true), that we’re all interns in need of training (not true), and that the only fix is for people who know some to help companies find people to interview, for free (definitely not true). Many agency owners have seen me speak about this over the years yet the staff page on their company website remains to be all white headshots. I’ve put it into writing and while people like it on social media, they respond to my posts about not asking for a list with a request for a list. And although I helped book speakers and featured artists for AIGA Minnesota events between 2011—2017, I still receive requests from people who were also involved in the organization at the time and they present it as their “new” idea.
I’ve been a designer in Minneapolis for almost ten years now. I care deeply about this creative community and am always fearful of burning a bridge, but to what extent do I need to keep doing something that doesn’t feel right to me to avoid ruffling feathers? Especially when those people clearly don’t care about ruffling mine. I’m at a point now where I believe it’s time to say no to these list requests. It’s more harmful than helpful.
People already made lists. Research before you ask.
This is not work that has to be done, it’s work that’s been ignored. During my time on the Board of AIGA Minnesota, a group of us put on poster shows, lectures, and panels featuring over 50+ designers, illustrators and photographers who are people of color. In 2017, I had two different people from AIGA email me for suggested speakers for Design Camp a few months later. As if I hadn’t just provided more than enough names to fill the entire lineup of the conference. Most of the creatives I know have an online presence. Many of our portfolios and instagrams are full of photos of BIPOC artists, and while many white designers like those posts, when I go to see who they’re following it’s other white designers. Is it really that difficult to click the tags? Pollen’s website has a contributor page. I repeat, Pollen’s website has a contributor page. Beyond our MSP design scene, there is a whole internet full of resources. If you Google “Black Designers” we come up. People make lists of us. It was through simple searches and very minimal effort that I was able to find resources like Revision Path, AIGA Design Journeys, blackswho.design, latinxwho.design, and 28 Blacks.
Saying there aren’t any people of color in the field makes it pretty obvious that you don’t care enough to look it up, you haven’t paid attention to any of the work that’s already been done, and your personal social media is a networking echo chamber providing daily confirmation of your existing worldview.
A list does not ensure retention.
While you may have success in hiring a person of color from a referral list, if the people making decisions on how to create an inclusive space for that new hire have never experienced what it’s like to be the only person who looks like them in a room, it results in expecting your whole staff to fit within a culture of whiteness. The informational interviews I do are often listening to people cry about how white people treated them at work (if you’re in MSP wondering if I’m talking about your agency or in-house design department, the answer is yes). The consequences of white spaces being oblivious to their impact on everyone else can be traumatic for anyone considered “other.” That doesn’t get solved with a list; it gets solved by looking in the mirror at what you need to do to keep different types of people on staff.
Why would anyone go to your stuff if you’re not going to their stuff?
I recently attended a Five Heartbeats screening with Robert Townsend at SPNN. I’m a huge fan and hung on his every word about being Black in Hollywood finding so many similarities to my own experiences in design. My favorite thing he said was, “If you don’t move, you can’t stumble.” This is applicable here if you think about who it is that asks for these lists. Most people higher up at agencies only go to Diversity & Inclusion events when they’re the ones speaking. That means they’ve only heard white-led narratives about what companies are doing to try and attract Black/Brown people rather than hearing from a Black/Brown person about why they quit. Going to a space where we’re the ones speaking won’t just teach you our names but our perspectives as well. And when you don’t show up, we notice and take that as a sign of your disinterest in who we are as people. If you don’t care about what we’re doing in the community and just want us to show up to your events, then you’ll get no list from me. That is the heart of everything I have ever done in the Minneapolis design community so it really bothers me when it gets oversimplified into a list of names. People need to show up for us before they have the audacity to ask us to show up for them.
If you lead a creative agency, require your entire staff to regularly attend events outside of AIGA, AdFed, and MIMA (the predominantly white trifecta of professional development). There are multiple creative communities in MSP; requiring your staff to follow Juxtaposition Arts, Pollen, Black Table Arts, Public Functionary, and Art in Many Forms on social media would make a huge difference. I have been saying this for years so each new list request is another painful reminder that I’ve been silenced and ignored by my own peers. No matter how direct I am, people change the narrative to a more elementary level sanitized version that requires less effort from people in power.
Most list requesters use “Diversity” to describe us; we don’t.
An old coworker of mine once said, “It’s weird when you realize you’re someone else’s idea of diversity.” The emails I get often use “diversity” synonymous with Black/Brown like it doesn’t also apply to many other types of people. The definition of the word “diversity” is variety, meaning it can’t be used to describe one person. Folks seem to use it as if it were a less taboo replacement for ethnicity and the deeper message behind that is very disturbing. It was my friend and talented artist, Donald Thomas who I first heard explain how using “diverse” to describe people perpetuates white supremacy by insinuating that white is the default and that everything else is “diverse/different.” It can be used to talk about groups (diverse teams, diverse communities) but NOT for individuals (diverse talent, diverse candidate). That same night we hosted an AIGA Minnesota panel at MIA, he also spoke to the difference between Diversity & Inclusion and Diversity & Illusion. You’ll encounter folks who aren’t offended by the word diversity. But when you’re emailing for a “diverse list”, you have no way of knowing if the person on the other end has already told over a dozen people what I just described above.
The issue isn’t the word in of itself, it’s the implications when it gets used as code speech for “not white.”
The difference is understanding the definition as variety, not “POC.” While I cannot speak for all creatives of color in MSP, I will say my friends and I often vent about how tired we are of being called that word and how sick to our stomachs it makes us when “I am looking for Diverse talent” emails hit our inbox.
Social Capital is not free.
There is a monetary value on the relationships that we build, that’s why recruiting agencies charge a fee. I have invested almost ten years into showing up in spaces that the majority of white creative professionals in the Twin Cities have never and will never be in. You don’t get to jump on my back and skip the work to check a box and you don’t get to ask a Black woman for free labor. Go to other organizations in other parts of the city to make your own connections outside of your regular routine. If you’re not willing to do that work, you could certainly hire a recruiter. You can also post your opportunity to Pollen’s job board because BIPOC artists get our newsletter, they’ll see it. But again, that doesn’t ensure retention.
What are you willing to actually invest your time, your convenience, and your money into? Because clearly it’s not us.
Asking for a list undermines the friendships and trust I have with these people.
Where I work, we talk about this often. Long before I joined the team, Pollen worked to ensure the people photographing, illustrating, designing, and writing have the same lived experiences as the stories being told. When predominantly white organizations come to us to work with artists of color, we’re hyper-aware of the vulnerable position we’re putting them in. It is our responsibility and our role to make sure they’re not taken advantage of, that they’re not tokenized, that they’re not asked to do something against their morals, that they’re not being asked to perpetuate harmful stereotypes, and that their creative recommendation is heard and respected. I don’t trust people emailing me for a list to advocate for my friends in that way because I highly doubt they have the cultural competency to even know that’s part of the job. You have to have relationships to know that — people who ask for a list don’t, otherwise they wouldn’t be asking.
Giving people who believe Minnesota is all white a short list of people of color allows them to assume that list is all there is.
Those of us who are invested in creating representation need to resist the pressures from what white folks think we need to do for them. A list is a band-aid solution. It is not good enough and unless we want to do Diversity & Inclusion work for the rest of our careers; I say we take alternative approaches that will resolve this problem as soon as possible. I want every person who says, “Well it IS Minnesota” to experience what it’s like to be the only white body at an event so they understand the reality and possibilities of our amazing, talented, brilliant community. I want them to hear my friends speak about justice and liberation and to recognize us for our expertise, not reduce us down to “Diversity + Inclusion” as if that’s all we are. In order for that to happen, we have to stop enabling white folks by handing over BIPOC directories and force them to actually move around the city. Look at the demographic maps of the Twin Cities and you’ll notice the predominantly white areas are also the neighborhoods where most ad agencies are, where design firms are, and where professional development organizations host events. They also don’t have to leave predominantly white neighborhoods for anything else if they don’t want to. Their grocery store, their bank, their yoga studio and their breweries are all right there for them.
Representation must sound ridiculous to someone whose perception of our city is white, just like predominantly white spaces sound ridiculous to those of us who know it’s not.
I think it’s an easy fix that we are resisting by being complicit in referring BIPOC artists via email rather than demanding that white people go make their own Black friends. Forcing people into a new routine is a long time solution, emailing a list perpetuates the problem.
It’s time for folks to dig deep and ask why they need a list of BIPOC when there are SO many of us here, working in every single field. In a time where Black people are suddenly on everyone’s mind, I encourage everyone to pause. A lot of you are late to this conversation and repeating the same harmful patterns we’ve been trying to dismantle. If you’re ready to start cultivating new relationships, then don’t ask for lists. Go outside of your regular routine to make new connections. You should already know how, we’ve been saying it for years.