How We Unintentionally Perpetuate Inequality Part 3

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.


  1. “I need to listen to people of color and teach other white people how to be more thoughtful” – This statement assumes that all “colored” people do not need to be more thoughtful. As a person of color who was raised in North America, I do not know too much about the culture of the country in which I was born. I also don’t know too much about other non-American cultures. So not being culturally aware or sensitive is not only a “white” person’s issue. “Colored” people are not a homogeneous group of people.

    1. You are absolutely correct. I just don’t feel that, as a white person, I’m in a place to tell people of color what to do here.

  2. Hi Stephanie! Here are my thoughts on the issue. While I think that this series has highlighted some important ideas, I think it is also important to note that in recent public discourse, the fear of causing offense has caused significant problems of its own. I don’t want to start a debate over the value of identity politics or anything, but I think that it can be easy to go overboard in the search for non-offensive pictures (or the criticism of such pictures), especially once you begin focusing on individual preference instead of more uniformly accepted cultural imagery.

    Here is an alternative to consider. My first thought, after reading the article, was that you could avoid the whole question of whether a picture was offensive or not by asking for photos/self-portratits from the relevant communities/stakeholders. That way you are getting something that is authentically representative of the community in question. Beyond that, you are tapping into the power of personal stories and building stakeholder buy-in and participation. It seems to me that this approach neatly sidesteps a lot of the problems raised in this article. Thoughts?

    1. I totally advocate for the use of actual pictures of actual program participants. Nothing will be more relevant or meaningful. But that isn’t always possible. Confidentiality is the first issue that comes to mind.

  3. Thanks so much for this post!
    I feel like I am constantly on the phone with friends of mine to complain about the lack of quality and appropriateness of photos of people of color on stock photo sites in general. If anyone knows of a more diverse and inclusive stock photo site, that would be very helpful.

  4. Great post! I really think asking the people you are working with what appeals to them is the way to go if that is a possibility. We did some focus groups once to design culturally appropriate materials and were surprised to find that many of the participants were less concerned about skin color as they were about other features of the pictures, like facial expressions.

  5. Great article.

    Want some more? Ever done a google image search for African American people having sex? Not stylised, gangsta, promiscuous, sexually objectified sex, just normal, run of the mill, everyday sex. Also not American African Americans, but African African Americans, if you know what I mean?

    Why would I want these? Well I work with low literate audiences, and I used to do a lot of work in the field of HIV. How else do you show that sexual activity is normal and talking about it is normal, and prevention of diseases is normal, if you can show “normal” pics?

    And that got me thinking. Want pics of AAA (that’s African African Americans) doing exercise? Think again. Want AAA kids in various poses where they are not depicted as starving orphans? Dig deep into Google image.

  6. The situation is interesting. However, I believe verbal language can be even harder do deal with, when compared to ‘visual language’. For example, I would never use the expression ‘people of color’ (it sounds to me like ‘color’ is some place) to describe a ‘group’ because everybody would have to necessarily be included. In fact, as ‘white’ people are not really ‘white’ colored, ‘black’ people aren’t really ‘black’ – so, if assuming that ‘black’ is a color, shouldn’t ‘white’ be as well? Well… it seems that ‘people of color’ stands for all ‘non-whites’? (and not only ‘black’, of course)… I would use ‘non-white’ to include all the other (would this be a ‘white-centred’ speech…?- I don’t know!). I believe the most direct language is the less harmful and the only way to erase discrimination as an issue. By the way, why are ‘blacks’ in America called ‘African Americans’ and ‘whites’ called ‘Americans’? (instead of ‘Euro Americans’?) Isn’t this the biggest source of discrimination about who has the ‘power’ and who has the ‘legitimacy’ in America??

    1. You are correct to point out that there are many ways in which issues of inequality are institutionalized and systemic, like in our language. Thanks!

    2. I agree that non-whites defines racialized groups in relation to whites, placing them in the position of standard-bearer yet again. I have resorted to using “racialized other” although it is a mouthful. Whites are also racialized–but as the standard-bearers, not the “other”. Racially marked is an alternative that may get around the racialization of whites–it’s our phenotypic variation from whiteness that marks us as “other” (racially, anyway; it may also be our names, accents, etc.).

  7. If you are looking for design elements for data points, I would recommend “Sun Circles and Human Hands” by Funderburk and Forman. This book covers the culture of southeastern North America indigenous nations. It provides examples of our ancient design elements that work very well with western ideas of data points.

  8. I wanted to make a comment about reaching out to the graphic supply companies themselves to get them to change their products with an anecdote of my own. I have been trying, quite unsuccessfully, to get most of the major graphic/vector and icon companies to include more diversity (ethnic, gender, etc) in their ‘business’ graphics for the last year and it’s been like hearing crickets. I have to assume that since they manage – and not create – the graphics, they feel that they have no responsibility to make any changes, and that it’s up to the individual contributing artists that license their stuff to the major companies. But if anybody has any additional suggestions on how to pursue this, I am all ears.
    Great post!

  9. Thanks for these reminders. This post got me thinking about the book “A Manufactured Wilderness: Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth, 1890–1960,” which highlighted how summer camps appropriated imagery of Indigenous people. A very visual and historical account of how middle class, urban, white, masculine ideals of wilderness showed up in summer camps and fed into generations-worth of negative imagery of Native people. I also like the blog Native Appropriations.

  10. There’s been a really rich dialogue for a few years in the international development space around how we represent those who we collaborate with or support through our projects that may be of interest to those looking to dive into these issues in more depth.

    Lots of well-intentioned groups used what we would now call “poverty porn” in their reports and materials, which has, to some degree, perpetuated the idea that all of Africa (sometimes quite mistakenly referred to as a country…) is starving and poor, rather than recognizing the amazing culture, technology innovation, and other joys you find when you work across the continent.

    One of the best “gut checks” I was advised a long time ago was, “Would the person pictured here be proud of being in my report / slide deck / scrolling story?” even if it’s a stock photo or one where you have permission to use the image. ICTWorks had a nice dialogue around photo use a while back that may be worth a read if you’re digging into how images are used – Now if only Pexels and other stock photo sites would start adding more images of people that don’t make me think of Brooklyn hipsters.

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