Playing with biases
The Spanish Post Office wanted to make a point about racism and developed Equality Stamps to show both the skin colours and values assigned to them. White is explicitly more valuable than Black on the stamps. The point they are making is that this is a bias and it is wrong.
However, without supporting material, using just colour and stamp value, this message gets lost. It can be read as confirming the correctness not the wrongness of the current situation. It can be used to show that the status quo exists in a structure that the system, of which the Post Office is part, approves of.
This is an example of the problem of playing with biases. It may be done with good intentions but it can go terribly wrong. I also need to state clearly here that I am a middle aged white man so all of this (like the Spanish Post Office’s position) is framed by privileged authority and power that I possess. Some of these issues could change radically if presented by people without such privileges.
Let me show you a couple of examples from work I do or have encountered. They show the two issues: play and bias.
I once spoke to some bank researchers who were working on helping people with fragile and chaotic finance patterns (poor people as most people call them). They were doing research and codesign sessions – which is a good thing.
However, they were using toy money to talk about serious issues of budgeting. Money with fictional values way above what the participants encountered or could hope to encounter.
Things went wrong.
This is the problem of being playful when other people are deadly serious. Often we try to lighten the mood using play as an abstraction when participants want someone with authority to respect them and take them seriously.
Play is good but games develop thru mutual power and development of ‘fair’ rules between groups and individuals. Arriving in a room where one group have set a session which is horrible to you is not playful.
I continue to think about this point when designing materials and workshop exercises that use play. Play is dangerously easy to go wrong with.
The Post Office stamps are playful in sense they play with simple colours and expectations about colour value. This can go wrong.
Lately I’ve been reading the book Design Justice and within it is the concept of the Matrix Of Domination. This was developed by Patricia Hill Collins in the 1990’s to discuss intersections of identities that privilege or oppress individuals at personal, communal and institutional level. I find it very interesting.
As I mostly communicate thru workshops, I looked at designing exercises that use the matrix to make such ideas of identity and privilege explicit to participants.
However, it went wrong. The designs (which are prototypes that have never been used in public) do not help. They combine the problem of Play (using Lego to make elements of privilege or oppression into physical pieces) with the problem of bias.
The second problem is about losing control of hard discussions because the framing is not loudly explicit about what is being communicated as good or bad.
The exercise pictured above makes identity and identification with elements of privilege or oppression into physical representations but it fails horribly because it abstracts them into identical blocks.
One element of privilege = one block of oppression.
That is terrible.
If this exercise was run with table groups that are generally biased to people who have privilege (from my experience), it would rush towards confirming bias rather than critiquing it. People with privilege would sense all the blocks that build it up gif them. People living with oppression would gain confirmation of that daily sense of being excluded that is being shown as similar to the privilege. The simple forms (that are so appealing in the design) abstract and disrespect at the exact moment they need to be concrete and respectful.
This is the problem of Bias that the Spanish stamps encounter. They are trying to comment on the unfair value placed upon skin colour but, without loud and explicit framing, the message is lost.
When talking about bias and using playful ideas (like confirming them ironically or inverting them sarcastically) you need to be very clear what you are doing and need to back off completely if you perceive that the work is confirming bias with one group (“White Privilege is great”) or further crushing another (“My sense of oppression is real and the system doesn’t take it seriously and approves of it”).
Playing with bias
This is only a short post because the Spanish stamps reminded me of a couple of problems I’ve encountered where good intentions executed thoughtlessly have bad results.
- Who you are matters with play and bias. As a facilitator, you are not neutral.
- Play is powerful but use it carefully. How rules are set and fairness enabled is tricky
- Bias is powerful but only talk about it with very explicit framing. Systemic bias will easily get re-confirmed as both true and necessary unless you are clear that it is not.