weekly feature | Nov 25, 2020 |
6 months into a reckoning with race, has the design industry changed?

Six months ago today, George Floyd was killed in police custody in Minneapolis. In the days that followed, witness videos circulated widely, sparking protests across the country and open conversations about race in America.

As hundreds of thousands of Americans rushed to donate to the cause and buy books about anti-racism, the design industry’s response has in many ways mirrored that of the world at large. Across the industry, designers, influencers, home furnishings brands and the shelter media all grappled with what came next after posting #BlackoutTuesday’s black square on Instagram.

At the epicenter of the industry response has been the Black Interior Designers Network, founded in 2011 to bring attention to the work of Black designers and provide resources to help them grow their businesses. In early June, the organization launched a fundraising campaign that outlined 10 steps to becoming an ally for Black designers (we broke them down here), and raised nearly a quarter of a million dollars to fund its initiatives and endeavors. A membership-based BIDN Ally program followed for design firms and brands looking to make a lasting financial commitment.

Last week, the BIDN partnered with Architectural Digest to debut The Iconic Home, an immersive, entirely virtual showhouse that spotlights the work of 16 member designers. An accompanying weeklong series of Instagram Live conversations among AD editors and the featured designers concluded yesterday. What comes next is more complicated: turning this six-month flurry of attention into lasting, meaningful change.

Business of Home caught up with BIDN president Keia McSwain and director of business development Alison Harold to talk about authentic allies, investing in the next design generation, and why there must be racial equity before there can be true equality.

When we spoke in June, you were establishing the BIDN Ally campaign and providing a road map for the design industry to engage in conversations about race and racism following the killing of George Floyd. What’s changed for you since then?

McSwain: For me, George Floyd’s murder was no more clarification than Ahmaud Arbery’s murder [in Georgia in February]. I knew what America was. I know what America is. I know what this industry is. So for me, the goal was to find those people who are for the cause and who want to make a change. It was not to focus energy on those people who didn’t want to be a part, or people finding a way not to be a part. They’ll weed themselves out.

What’s changed is that now we’re looking at this from a totally different standpoint. Now it’s more, “This is who we are, this is what we’ve been doing, this is how long we’ve been doing it, and if you’re going to get on board, you’re going to do this—we’re not taking less.”

6 months into a reckoning with race, has the design industry changed?
Keia McSwainCourtesy of BIDN

What was your approach before?

McSwain: We got in where we fit in, because that is what we had been acclimated to do. So there was a light bulb where we were like, “OK, no more.” They say that from death comes life. From that death came courage and stability.

Harold: Honestly, as you talk about coming up on the anniversary of [George Floyd’s death], there’s not enough that could be done to right that. That loss, it was just on so many levels. There was just so much. And as we come up on the anniversaries of that, what we should be doing is continuing to hold people accountable and be accountable ourselves. If we were actively engaged in protests and things of that nature, we should continue to ask ourselves, How are we staying focused and continuing to chip away at this?

What kind of response have you seen from the design community?

McSwain: We’ve had a significant response. I didn’t expect for there to be as much of a response as there was. But that said, you have those people who are just doing their job—they’re reaching out to Black organizations to partner, to sponsor, to donate, and it’s a tax write-off, right? They couldn’t care less about what the journey is or what the community is going through. We’ve experienced those people, but we’ve also experienced others who have come on board and expressed how much they want to be a part of the change, and they’re still here. Those people are the people that we focus on. Those people are the people that we give our energy to.

What do those conversations look like when they’re working, or when they’re not working?

Harold: I think after the first few contacts and calls or engagement, you start to get a sense. There’s a different tone in the conversations. There are different thoughts and ideas in the level of dialogue and conversation among those who are really interested in investing and doing the work versus those who are checking the box—they don’t want to get left behind and they have to be visible in some way, so because of the growing exposure and visibility of this organization, they want to align themselves in some way.

We have to continue to have dialogue around and remind ourselves to call those things out—and to be honest with ourselves about that, as well, about whether or not to walk away from some opportunities and partnerships if they don’t truly resonate and help move our cause forward.

That has to be hard to navigate.

Harold: Those are challenging conversations, but they’re conversations that need to be had. Things will stay the same if nothing changes. Most of the conversations about improving and increasing equity and inclusivity that I have had with other Black people—whether it’s in design or any other industry—is that we’re not necessarily as focused on the past as we are on the future. Like, “We’ve gotten to this place now—what are we going to do to go forward? Are you going to show up in the right way?”

What does a really good partnership look like?

McSwain: For me, I’m most excited about those partnerships that are not new to us—partnerships that have grown and aged, where we’ve been able to grow together. When we have new vendors or new partners coming on, it’s like, “Where’d you come from? What’s your endgame?”

Harold: I think one of the things Keia is touching upon is authenticity. Everybody needs that in their life—especially if you’re growing and building, and you start experiencing success. People talk about having their old crew; they keep their core group around them because it helps keep them grounded and it helps them recognize what’s real. So I think in that sense, having those early allies and real authentic relationships really means something.

I’ve been watching the programming around The Iconic Home, and the house was truly extraordinary. The programs have closed, but the house is still online for viewing. What happens next?

McSwain: I expect this to sit with people after the doors have closed. What’s happening can’t be unseen. The most beautiful things, we can’t expect them to resonate with us immediately. Some things have to sit. So that is what we expect from the showhouse.

Harold: As I listen to the [Instagram Live sessions on the showhouse], I just imagine what other people are experiencing. You saw all of the love shared through some of the comments, but for some [people], it will be this immediate shift in perception about what you could expect to see from Black designers.

McSwain: But as I said on one of my Lives, when you think about it, the reality is that it shouldn’t take partnering with Architectural Digest—or anyone else for that matter—to create the visibility that we deserve. It almost seems like Christmas, where you’ve been waiting for the holiday all year, and then when it comes, you’re like, “Oh, it’s here. Oh, it’s gone.” And also, “I don’t have to deal with that for another 12 months.” That’s another thing—why is that?

Does it feel fleeting?

McSwain: Absolutely. Continuously. That’s the way it’s always been.

Does it make you worried about this visibility going away?

McSwain: No, not worried, because I almost expected that. It’s like, “OK, we’ll be back around. We’re going to come back with something even bigger to catch your attention for the next 30 minutes.”

The pressure is always on to create something new.

McSwain: It’s always having to put your best foot forward. Always having to try to find relevance outside of being Black. Why is my Blackness the only thing that makes me relevant? It can’t be.

6 months into a reckoning with race, has the design industry changed?
The exterior of The Iconic Home, the all-virtual showhouse presented by Architectural Digest and the Black Interior Designers NetworkImage by The Boundary

As you’re planning ahead, what comes next? Where does the network go from here, long-term?

McSwain: Coming up, we’ve got our African-American Top 10 and our [first-ever] African-American Hall of Fame inductions in 2021. We are really looking forward to building the network so that we can bring in more students—so that we can really be there for the younger design community. And then long-term, it’s growth. We’re looking to really plant our feet into this community—to be able to teach, show and guide this community. We don’t expect things to change overnight, and we damn sure don’t expect anything to change without us educating, being patient and giving guidance. So, that’s what’s next for us.

Harold: We also are looking forward to continuing to drive the conversation around the things that need to happen—cultural shifts around diversity and equity. Whether it is training or leadership development, that’s also at the forefront.

What does meaningful engagement look like? How do you hope to see members of the design community take action moving forward?

Harold: I think one is to engage, period. And to think about sustainability—it should be enduring and lasting. It shouldn’t be this pop in and pop out type of thing where you do it, you check off the box, and you feel good because you went to something and supported. Figure out ways that you can continue to support, engage and really embrace [this change].

McSwain: I don’t think anybody can tell you what you lack, right? Nobody can tell me what I don’t know—I have to figure out what I don’t know. I have to figure out where I need help. I have to figure out what I would like to learn. So we don’t want this to be about [only] guiding, because we want you to develop. We cannot teach you what it is to be a Black person, and we cannot teach you what it is to be a Black designer, but you can do the most you can, and that is to learn. Open your eyes, open your heart and open your ears. It’s just one of those things where people have to decide where they want to start.

Harold: I think the biggest change—the most meaningful thing—would be for people to embrace and value [awareness of racial injustice] to the point that it shifts who they are and it helps them in their own personal growth. I know it’s hard, but I’ve seen it—I’ve seen people begin to better understand and connect communities, not as just their [individual] culture, but as American culture. Stop separating us as if what we’ve done hasn’t influenced and impacted our larger society. Incorporating us isn’t dismissing the contributions of others—it’s making sure that we’re not treated as something separate, but as part of American culture and history.

How does that thinking shape some of the trainings that you are developing to bring to design industry workplaces?

Harold: I think it lends a level of introspection—bringing experiences to light, but really being focused on questioning why you’ve had a certain perspective or viewpoint and what impact that may have. There are instances where people literally just don’t even see—it’s like a blind spot. So how do you start shifting that, so that you’ve opened up your eyes and expanded your world such that you can begin to accept—and even embrace—and be an active part of this cultural shift?

McSwain: I’m not into trying to change the white man’s thoughts about the Black man or the Black woman—that is not my place. My goal is to change how you fear the consequences of not hiring, or firing, or of just being racist. If you call the police on somebody, and you have no business calling the police on them—there needs to be some sort of fear [of that], but [there isn’t] yet.

It’s just Black people fearing losing their jobs, Black people fearing being the angry Black woman, Black people fearing someone killing them because they’re trying to break up a fight, Black people fearing walking to the store because they may be stopped. But let’s shift this view of fear. Privilege has for too long sat at the top of the totem pole. Let’s put fear up there and see what that does.

How does that shape the way you approach the design industry?

McSwain: If I walk into your showroom, I need everybody there to know that you don’t have to do anything different than you’re doing for [everyone else]. If they greet everyone with a smile when they come in, greet me [that way, too]. Don’t jump up and say, “How are you today? How can I help you? Oh, my God, I love your hair. Did you get that from Indonesia or did you get it from China?” No. It’s just the smile—that’s all I’m asking for, is to be treated with the same respect that [a white person] would get.

In some of the conversations you’ve been having with brands, what is their response?

McSwain: A lot of the time, it’s not about race, it’s about money. It’s about, “You’re not spending money with me. That’s why I don't jump up and grin at you—I do this to everybody [I don’t know], and you’re not familiar to me.” But when you think about it, many Black designers can’t really afford these $5,000 to $10,000 order minimums. You should be looking for ways to assist.

Affirmative action gets you in the door, but talent keeps you in the building—if you are for affirmative action only up to some point, what is that point? Are you willing to change your minimum? Are you willing to say, “There’s a $5,000 buy-in minimum, but if you buy in at $2,500 and you [spend] the remaining $2,500 by the end of the year, we’re good.” Manipulate what you’ve set in stone so that there’s equity. We need there to be equity before there’s equality.

But to do that, you have to figure out within your own businesses what you can do. We’re not saying go into the red for us; we’re saying: Look at your books—what you need and what you can shift around to really help out designers who do not want to shop Wayfair. They know luxury, but because the money’s not there [all at once], how can they succeed?

That’s a really different way to get involved—it’s not sponsoring, it’s about soul-searching.

McSwain: It’s not all about writing checks. We really want to figure out how to change the business aspect of what’s going on. Because like I said, it’s not always about the color of your skin. It’s really about whether you’re spending money with them or not. Me being Black just happens to [exacerbate] the situation even more if you don’t think I’m going to spend money.

Harold: What’s going on in the design industry is just a microcosm of the larger issues within the world. Some of it is policy, but some of it is also practice. If you see [the behavior] and you ignore it, you’re effectively saying that you’re OK with it. For some, the implicit bias is there because it’s within our culture. It exists [within] people that work at those showrooms and shops. [That requires] the company or the showrooms to take a very intentional approach—to have an aggressive position around what they want the customer experience to be, and to call themselves out and bring some level of awareness to the implicit bias.

Even with the election [in Georgia] and all of the celebration around Stacey Abrams, what really drove her efforts and activism is that she got mad. She was like, “You know what? You’re not going to count me out. You stole that [election], but guess what? I’m going to allow myself 10 days—I’m going to give myself that time, and then I’m going to come back out and show you better than I can tell you.” But the impact of that and what it meant—it isn’t just about what it meant for this election, it’s about what it meant for our country, the level of engagement and driving the change that’s needed instead of expecting it to come from the top. That’s why it is so important.

We want corporations to engage, but it also comes down to the people every day who are part of this industry—the designers and those that help them, and how they interact, engage and show up to help make those changes. What [Abrams] inspired in me is that it shouldn’t be, “This is right here in front of me, and here are all of the opportunities and ways I engage.” No, I need to be intentional. So what’s my plan for the next six months, or year, to stay really vocal? If it’s around social justice, or if it’s voter rights and registration—wherever it is that you want to focus your energy and your interests to help make a change—it’s about being intentional about that.

Homepage image: Shutterstock

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