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The power of design to change “black” perception

In July 1860, Clotilda was the last slave ship to reach the continental United States from Africa. Among the 120 slaves or ‘human cargo’ was19 years old Cudjo Lewis, one of the only 2 survivors of the ship who were later interviewed and their accounts captured. Anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston captured Lewis’s story in The Barracoon: the Story of the Last “Black Cargo”. [1]

Crammed in rooms as low as 4 1/2 ft in height, the imprisoned were often forced to exercise and dance for the enjoyment of the crew. [2] As much as I would like to cushion you from these unpleasant details, dear reader, It is important to not brush over them so as to acknowledge that ill-treatment of the black skinned was quite staunchly embedded in the ‘white’ psyche as far back as in the 16th century, when organised slave trade began.

In contrast to this grim reality of racial discrimination, in a parallel glamorous world, the dark suit had come to define the mainstream of the menswear. Created between the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth century, this ‘black’ designer wear had also come to influence women’s apparels, especially for those rich women who went horseback riding for sport. And even as shipping of “black cargo” was officially made illegal in 1865, that year marked the use of Jet, a variant of dark coal and zinc, as adornment in combination with black attire, a trend that was influenced by Queen Victoria after the death of her husband, Prince Albert. [3]

After World War I, as women’s social independence continued to evolve, Chanel introduced the iconic Little Black Dress, a fashion statement that still occupies space in women’s wardrobes.

Beyond fashion, the colour black continues to be used to communicate prestige and power in the form of logos for brands like Apple, Nike and Chanel. Dark themes are now a prerequisite to deliver a complete user experience and this has further opened up opportunities to connect emotionally with users – think, the recently introduced ‘night’ theme by Facebook.

If black and dark themes are regarded with such high esteem in the world of art and design, why then the hypocrisy in shunning and not accepting the colour black in human skin?

Albert Bushnell Hart writes in Chapter 8-The Negro Character in The Southern South, ‘Many arguments as to the negro character are based upon the supposed profound barbarism and cannibalism of all Africa. The truth is that the African tribes, with all their ferocity and immorality, had advanced farther in the path of civilization previous to their first contact with the Europeans than the North American Indians of the Atlantic and Mississippi regions; they had gone farther in the arts, had built up more numerous communities, and established a more complex society.’ [4] You see, our bias against black skin is perhaps a remnant of conditioned, mindless thinking, rather than it being based on any reason or logic. This bias is so deeply ingrained that on the Netflix show 100 Humans, when the humans underwent an experiment to test unconscious bias against black skin, most humans, including those with black skin shot at a black-skinned man over a white-skinned man in a situation of threat and high adrenaline.

Research shows that babies become biased toward faces of their own race when the exposure to own-race faces is greater than the exposure to other-race faces in their infancy, evident even at 3 months of age. This visual preference does not imply racial bias but in fact, is an outcome of familiarity. [5]

This experiment gives us hope. By changing the environment, the perception and deeply ingrained societal prejudice can be changed. The design has the power to do that, albeit slowly but assuredly. Zara has consistently showcased black models on its website. Can we continue bringing out the best of black with its creative use in our work?


[1] – https://www.vulture.com/2018/04/zora-neale-hurston-barracoon-excerpt.html

[2] – https://www.history.com/news/zora-neale-hurston-barracoon-slave-clotilda-survivor

[3] – https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/fashion-in-colors-black/VwLim1aKX3avKw

[4] – https://www.questia.com/read/11370868/the-southern-south

[5] – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5523824/


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