Navigating Cross-Cultures, Curriculum and Confrontation: Addressing Ethics and Stereotypes in Design Education
Buck-Coleman, Audra, Visible Language
Graphic design's messages can reach across streets and across the globe; they can bring together countries, communities and strangers for a common cause; they can also serve to divide otherwise amenable neighbors. Design students must fully understand this potential reach and thus the responsibility they have to create tolerant, informed messages. The need to understand how personal beliefs of race, religion, socio-economic class and other differences influence visual messages is an ethical component of the graphic designer's professional duties. For if these differences and the potentially skewed perspectives are not recognized, then slippage between accurate and faulty messages will seep into graphic compositions. Sticks+Stones deliberately composes a highly diverse "classroom" of students in an effort for students to learn from each other as well as the curriculum. Studies show that students who learn in a diverse curriculum not only gain a broader perspective and appreciation for other cultures, but they also develop better thinking skills. Sticks+Stones collaborators aim to propagate knowledgeable, culture-savvy future designers who have learned first-hand from an extraordinarily diverse group of peers about the insulting and potentially harmful effects of image misuse. The innovative curriculum requires ethnic profiling and stereotyping as well as reflection, conversation and collaborative design on the way to multicultural understanding.
As the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles makes visitors pointedly aware, we are all prejudiced, no matter how much we might deny it. Using stereotypes and categorizing others is our natural tendency, although not always to a negative effect. For example, we use stereotyping to help in understanding the known and unknown. Stereotypes also help connect us to others and foster a sense of instant community with strangers. However, a problem lies in situations when we are not aware of our prejudices or when we allow those prejudices to prevent us from seeing characterizations of a person or group that do not fit into our preconceived notions of who they are. Moreover, when the cultural norms of one community are used to compare that of another, the gap between accurate and inaccurate interpretations of the other widens (Hofstede and Pedersen, 2002, 20).
Perhaps it is easy to dismiss the need to educate students about racism, diversity and stereotypes as redundant or unnecessary. After all, we entered a new millennium with a climate of ultra political correctness; the United States elected a black President, and today's Internet has given us the ability to communicate with our world neighbors in real time. Many whites believed Barack Obama's successful election signaled a post-racism era. Unfortunately, Blacks, Asians, Hispanics and other US minorities report that although Barack Obama's current job title is a step in the right direction, racism is far from over in the United States and around the world. Further, expectations of mended- if not healed- racial wounds and renewed tolerant outlooks are dashed yet again with activities in 2009: the U.S. Holocaust Museum shooting in Washington, DC by a White Supremacist; China's riots and nearly two-hundred deaths as a result of the Han Chinese and Uighur ethnic conflict; the increased abuse, racial profiling and mistreatment of Latino workers in the US South; and according to the Southern Poverty Law Center's report, the increase in US domestic terrorism and hate groups since the Obama election. Unfortunately, the conversation about stereotypes and racism is not over. We have begun to breakdown the prominent racial and prejudicial forces, but there is still much work to be done.
One solution to reduce the violence and hatred associated with prejudice is to begin an open dialogue and confront the issue directly. In February last year, US Attorney General Eric Holder incited much debate and criticism about his effort to raise awareness about the lack of discussion regarding race when he said that the United States, despite its claim to being a welcoming, inclusive melting pot, is instead a "nation of cowards" (US Department of Justice, 2009). …