Question: how do we create visuals for our businesses that are aligned with our social justice values, and don’t perpetuate racist, sexist and other oppressive visual languages, when so much of it is unconscious and unaware?
(I wrote the following in response to a similar question on a Facebook group recently).
One way to answer this question is with visual culture education and strategy suggestions and how-tos. But underneath those is a bigger issue, which has to do with why we are vulnerable to confusion about how to do this (beyond the obvious: that we are breathing it in all the time and cant see the forest for the trees). Until we untangle that and find sure footing, our efforts will simply be another well-intentioned attempt to follow the rules correctly, which doesn't leave a lot of room for any of us to actually be our most genius selves, or create meaningful new culture to replace that which we oppose. It just puts us into hiding in a new way: hiding behind the appearance of change, without the real creativity it takes to make change effective, compelling and real.
It starts with a very basic thing that any of us discover when we bring anything big and new into the world, like a work of art, a new story, or a business. Especially if we carry any kind of internalized messages about our own self worth or value as people targeted by oppression in any way. To bring something new and truly meaningful into the world, we need to trust that our own experience of reality is valid and our voice is significant. Most new business owners realize that this whole endeavor is as much a personal development issue - or a liberation issue - as anything else, in the face of that question.
When we dont have that basic degree of confidence in who we are, on our worth in the world and on our value to others, there is a vaccuum that is easily filled by external forces: specifically, the larger trends, norms, and ideologies of the dominant cultures we are surrounded by.
(This is one of the reasons we are conditioned not to see and trust our own genius: it makes us fertile ground for the oppressive propaganda of an exploitative economic system - it has us seeking outside influence, and erodes our judgement. It prepares us to either internalize oppressive messages, or act them out against others, usually unawarely.)
-- Thats why we make images that look pretty but dont align with our values in some core way; we feel it but we dont know how to not do it.
-- Thats why we make images that approximate what we think and feel but blend into a sea of trends.
-- Thats why we fight so hard to know what authenticity really means.--That’s why we arent sure what the difference is between being influenced by another genius mind, and coopting their work.
-- Thats why our work doesnt stand out.
-- Thats why we we have trouble, when we see other people’s work, distinguishing between the appearance of social justice, or spirituality, or other important values, and the ACTUALITY of those values in action.
-- Thats why people of dominant cultures are irresistibly drawn to use the cultural forms of other cultures which appear to communicate something that we cant figure out how to communicate ourselves (this is cultural appropriation - much more to say about this) - doing much harm under the confused and well-intended feelings (this is why we need to examine what our intentions are made of).
So to repeat the point:
The places where we don't have confidence in our own true genius and value are where we are drawn to repeat cultural tropes that enact oppression and leverage privilege.
Intersectionality acknowledges the tangles we get in: for example, as a woman, I was trained in countless was to invalidate and trivialize my own perception of the reality I saw in my family and life growing up, and that is reinforced by sexist culture around me at all times. This leaves a vaccum in me, which erodes my judgement and leaves me desperate for a feeling of centrality and authority in the world to cover over that old trauma of lies and invalidation (and all girl children are lied to, trivialized and invalidated.) Into that vacuum of frozen needs rushes the cultural wind of white supremacy, which convinces me of its logic, entirely unawarely, and leaves me unable to create things free from it. Unable to hear and see outside of the position of racial centrality I am occupying, and unable to envision - literally, with images - the world outside of a racialized culture. I am oppressed, and an oppressor.
Again: when we don't trust our own minds and value, we co-opt, we copy, we reproduce whats already been done or whats become trendy (which often has oppressive cultural norms in it).
To change our own oppressive biases, patterns, attitudes (and this is true for everyone) we must do not only the work of learning and listening to those in targeted or marginalized positions - we must prepare the ground of our own being for change. And that is our liberation work to do.
As a woman I need to actually claim my genius, my value, my worth - INSIDE OF MYSELF - in my heart and mind and soul, so that I may be open to learning, change and true creativity - the creativity that culturemaking and world changing takes. So that I can hear the voices of people of color, for example, and not have the challenges they offer me land as a threat to my very existence, which is how many white people react (this is white fragility) in the face of true learning here. So that uncovering the places where I perpetuate racism is something I eagerly seek - because it is abhorrent to me that these patterns were installed in me, because I am deeply connected to all people, including people of color, and their oppression hurts my soul and is wrong, and because I want more and know that my participation in this oppression was installed in me and I dont want it. Because I am am active world-builder, and the world I want does not exploit, murder, harm, abandon, neglect and abuse - and I am able to see how racism is at the heart of an ethos of abuse that is destroying people and the planet as a whole. The world I want nourishes, celebrates, protects, loves, regenerates, creates, sings, sustains, survives, thives, is eternal.
I have worked with and collaborated with many folks of color around these issues, both inside my business and in my peer counseling and activism work elsewhere, and of course the process looks different for everyone -- but I feel confident to say that wherever we are in the complex matrixes of oppression and identity that this strange society has mapped out for us, internal healing around our own inherent goodness and worth is where it all starts. I would love to hear where it starts for you, in your own position in the matrix of oppression, and what that looks like.
So back to making images.
A lot of what I do in my work is help people find what is truly unique and liberating powerful at the very heart of our work, and then we work (and play) to translate that into visual imagery.
So my question for you would be: what is deeply true about who you are and the work you do? What does that look like? If you strip away the trends, the "shoulds," and really look at the genius at the heart of your work, what do you see? What is the genius at the heart of YOU? What have you always known, what is your perspective on reality that got squished or trivialized as a child, what is your greatest vision, who are you?
Who are you?
Oppressive norms are rigid - they are repetitive - they are stupid, in the sense that they don't evolve. But we do. So when we harness creative confidence, and confidence in our true work, we are able to communicate it - through words and images - in a way that is less likely to repeat the default cultural norms we oppose.
This is where a “branding process” is actually the work of your liberation in the world. Its finding your ground and standing there. Reclaiming your brilliance and goodness, and being willing to then be stripped bare and relearn the world and reimagine the world. Because you are safe and free on that holy ground of YOU.
Then the vision comes. And the images.
Thats a start.