Last week a friend told me the story of a well-intentioned nonprofit that designed teaching materials for Native American populations, in which they unintentionally perpetuated inequality. He described one piece that included a picture of the scales of justice. I didn’t get the significance, so he explained that while most white people see the scales of justice as a symbol of fairness, the scales were used historically to rob Native Americans of their assets because white pioneers would use empty or extra heavy weights to tip the scales in their favor.

This white girl never knew about that symbolism. And I’d love to learn more. My Google searching isn’t turning up much (no surprise) so if you know of more reading I can do on this subject, please post about it in the comments.

The larger point here is that visuals matter to people. Visuals can carry deep cultural associations that many well-intentioned white people can miss. And we use them all the time in our reports and slides, even paired with a single large number as a way to visualize data. Crap! Wake up, Stephanie! This is a space where it hadn’t occurred to me the extent to which I need to listen to people of color and teach other white people how to be more thoughtful. So here are two stories that can educate us.

My colleague Beth was working on a report template for a client that would ultimately hold data-driven findings for Tribal grantees. She went to Shutterstock for some images. She said she searched that site using these search terms: Native American, American Indian, Tribal Nation, and Indian. Beth said, “I would not use the term ‘Indian’ to identify myself but it was a word used to describe the first people of this land.”

Her search results were not acceptable. These are what came up when she searched on “Native American.”

And these are what came back when she searched for “American Indian.” Beth put a blue slash through the ones she found offensive.

Beth said, “I wanted images of American Indian or Alaska Native people being physically active and I eventually found a few on Shutterstock after scrolling through many offensive images.”

My colleague Vidhya explains another example from an infographic on poverty:

“One bullet was about the extent to which people of color are more likely to experience poverty and beside that factoid, they inserted a photo of a smiling African American family as Exhibit A.” 

I don’t have the exact image Vidhya saw, but I’m sure you can imagine it, since that sort of imagery is everywhere.

Vidhya continues: “It was obvious that the audience in their mind’s eye is white—and that African American families (rather than inequitable systems) are the emblem of poverty. People of color are not necessarily African American, and the smiling faces smacks of minstrel imagery in which African Americans are either ignorant of or happy to be in the position they’re in. I imagine they were deliberate about choosing a happy, heteronormative family (man, woman, and child) rather than a sad or angry one, or an image of a single African American or a woman and child alone. I recognize that those would have probably been problematic in their own right, but that is part of the problem with a mindset in which African Americans are the image associated with a point that was really about racial disparities. For there to be a disparity, there has to be more than people of color involved. Whites get to be associated with regular old people, though they are just as implicated in the problem as people of color are IF we see the problem as inequity. If we insist on seeing the people of color experiencing poverty as the problem, no matter how sympathetic we may be to their plight, we face the conundrum of ‘the single story’ as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it.”

White people, we’d better put some more thought into this. Can you do your homework? Can you take the risk of running your imagery by a trusted friend or colleague and getting some feedback? Can you put yourself out there and test your work with some sample audience members? Can you ask your favorite stockphoto sites for more accurate and less offensive imagery? In a new/revived era where putting people of color and women into their “proper place” has become acceptable, we who are well-intentioned are going to have to work harder to make sure we are not unintentionally perpetuating inequality.

Vidhya helped me with parts 1 and 2 of this blog series, so read those too.