In early October, I spent a weekend in Boston at a conference centered around Black Futurism . It was three intense days of “grappling with questions of equity and possibility,” and grapple we did.
We listened to panels of speakers talk about everything from de-carceration to wellness to biomimicry. We got into impassioned debates about whether we have the responsibility to educate the non-Black population on the contributions of Black people. Snaps and claps echoed all around. There were multiple standing ovations when something really resonated with the crowd. One thing that struck me in those moments when we were all standing was how I could look around and see all of the variation in people’s hair styles. It was a reminder that Black doesn’t look one way, and neither does anything else.
For three days, I got to sit in a tall auditorium in Harvard’s Graduate School of Design building with nearly 300 other black designers. And I have never felt so out of place. Or empowered. Or challenged. Or understood. Or privileged.
The entire weekend was way more emotional than I expected it to be. Half of the time I sat in that auditorium with a lump in my throat, trying to decide if I wanted to slowly slink out of the tight rows of people or stay stationed in my plastic chair. The other half of the time I was snapping, clapping, and “hm-mm”ing with everyone else.
I felt in between in so many ways. Everyone else seemed to see things in such a cut-and-dried way. It was either literally black or white. At one point, an architect mentioned that she didn’t view herself as a Black Designer, and the crowd audibly gasped. They couldn’t fathom why anyone wouldn’t want to claim their blackness in such a forward way. Maybe it’s the Gemini in me — or the experience of growing up not-quite-black-enough and not-quite-white-enough — but I see all of the shades of gray. I’ve never seen things as just This Way or That.
When it comes to how we talk about people in business, though, it usually is This Way or That. We place people in buckets and have them tick boxes. And it’s just human nature. We organize to understand. And it’s hard to understand people when they’re all over the place, even though that’s what makes humans human. When we search out people for user testing, we strive to make organization out of the chaos that is individuality. We group people according to their age or how much money they make. We ask if they have children or if they have a college degree. It’s just easier to generalize. To group and to bucket.
The keynote speaker at the conference, North Carolina-born Pierce Freelon, who is running for Senate in his home state, was talking about a TV project he’s working on called “The History of White People in America.” When describing the attitude of early settlers in America, he said something that I now think about almost daily: “Whiteness was used as a straightening device.” Settlers sailed into the East Coast, to a place wrought with mystery and unusualness, and needed a way to make themselves feel powerful. The New World was tilted to them and they used racial and class constructs to make order from the chaos they perceived. They needed structure and got it by arranging themselves and others in a way that was ideal to them. And created their own world, their own freedom, from there.
Subconsciously, I had always known this was true, even though they don’t teach us about this history in school. I have seen it in action in my own life as a biracial woman. People ask me questions that are pointed in such a way that I can tell they’re trying to figure out which bucket in their head to put me in.
My friends and I code-switch based on who else we’re around, a device many oppressed populations use to “right themselves” to straight white people in situations where their true self might not be accepted.
Obviously this straightening device created some devastating results that we’re still living and reliving the consequences of. But what if we came up with a new “straightening” device? A new framework to build our worlds around? And we used it to embrace the nuance of every individual in order to create businesses and products that consumers actually thought reflected who they are. Or who they aspire to be. Or how they see the world.
The Business Case
Businesses that are thriving right now embrace the fact that their audience is made up of nuanced individuals. And that they’re going to change. Glossier started their brand with skincare first, because that’s what their ever-growing audience told them they needed. As younger people joined the brand’s loyal group of followers and commenters (read: super-rich-data inputters), Glossier added makeup made for every situation their customer might find themselves in. The brand changes their visual look a bit each time they pop up in a new city so they resonate better with the context and customer they’re encountering.
Lifestyle hub Man Repeller went from being an influencer blog based on one woman’s personal style to an “expansive constellation of things women care about.” Their about page even states that they know different people come to their site to get different things and feel different ways. These businesses are based on the ways in which we are different as individuals. Businesses like these are built on flexibility and use it as a core operating value.
But the strategic frameworks we use to look at people right now are pretty static. They view people in a way that’s too flat. And they only work when people check a single box per category. These models break when people need to check several — which we all do. I still think about the fact that picking an Ethnicity box on my SAT test six years ago was the most stressful part. And I’m not alone.
You’ve heard it before, but I’ll say it again: Gen Z is the most diverse generation ever. Almost half of them are people of color. They come from multiple backgrounds and must check many boxes. In coming years, they’ll tip the scale and make minorities the majority. People born from 1997 to 2011 already account for more than 25% of the U.S. population. Sixty-one million Gen Zers will be in the work force by 2029. They will have twice the spending power of Millennials, at $143 billion. And we’re still treating them like we did their grandparents when it comes to marketing and brand building.
Gen Z is self-reliant and self-aware. They view their identity and their values as amorphous things that are one hundred percent open to changing and flexing as life goes on. Gen Zers adapt their selfhood for all sorts of situations and are content in the fluidity of it all. And perhaps most importantly, they know marketing bullshit when they see it because they’ve grown up surrounded by it in both physical and digital forms.
People have 3D lives that are filled with thoughts, dreams, complexities, and contradictions.
So in order to build next-gen brands that truly cater to the next generation of consumers, we’ve got to change how we look at people. We’ve got to create new tools that are radically inclusive and measure people with all of their depth. And we can’t keep looking at people as a set of 2D checked boxes. People have 3D lives that are filled with thoughts, dreams, complexities, and contradictions. If that sounds like a business and strategic nightmare, you’re right. One thing isn’t going to work for everyone. And we’ve got to embrace that, because it’s also the business opportunity. Pierce said in his opening keynote that “all organizing is science fiction.” We’re just trying our best to build out our fantasies when we try to plan and configure.
Another conference speaker said this, though: “The tools for designing futures are not a monolith.” And it couldn’t be more true. We’re not going to land on a single framework that works for every project or every business or every set of consumers. And it’s going to take a lot of nuance and perspective to make sure we’re not just building new boxes for people to check, but getting rid of the boxes altogether. And we have to give it a shot, as ambitious as it may seem. We’ve got to be in the business of organizing for individuality.