Design Archive of John Maeda
25 February 2017

I’ve passed the two-year mark in Silicon Valley, and I feel lucky to be in the middle of what has clearly been a unique period of growth in the tech sector for the creative class. The rise in the importance of design for the tech industry has been documented by myself and countless others. And whether you call them “product designers” or “UX designers” or “UI designers” or “user researchers” or “information architects” or “content managers” or “customer experience professionals” or “social media managers” or really any people-facing role, I think the idea that technology isn’t the reason to buy anymore is now universally understood. We’re no longer attracted to shiny metallic foil stickers that tout “more RAM” or “faster CPU” or “bigger screen” the way we used to, and we care more about how it makes us feel as people living our daily lives, trying to get stuff done, and always just trying to fit in.

It’s this last superbly human desire of not just designing products, but designing oneself to just try to fit in that has caught my attention hard for a variety of reasons. Throughout my career, I’ve been fairly consistent in my practice to look closely at the younger generation for cues on what to do and how to behave. My desire to connect with the designers and engineers who do the actual work of making things happen in tech goes back to the 90s when I tried to keep up with my graduate research team at MIT. Staying close to the next generation might explain why I still spend many of my discretionary hours still coding, compiling, and desperately trying to keep up with every topic that is distilled into A Book Apart’s magnificent collection. All of those efforts are going fairly well as I have recently posted that I’ve started to come back to designing products. But there’s been something bothering me. Truly bothering me. And not just as a designer, developer, doer, thinker. I’ve been bothered knowing that my desire to just stay focused on “fitting in” has conditioned me to ignore a lot of my responsibilities as an Asian American leader. I’ve kept quiet, while the younger generation has done remarkable service to highlight matters that haven’t bothered me — because I’ve desired to just fit in — that are really too hard to ignore.

To sum up my concern, it is embodied in this comment from my former boss and mentor at MIT, Nicholas Negroponte:

“Where do new ideas come from? The answer is simple: differences. Creativity comes from unlikely juxtapositions.”

It’s a simple idea really. Yet it embodies everything that I believe — that when you have people who come from different backgrounds together, then the outcome is something that is difficult to expect. By all parties involved. And an unexpected outcome lies at the basis of what creativity is all about.

The phrase “unconscious bias” wasn’t new to me when it hit the tech industry. I had the accidental opportunity as a senior professor to lead MIT’s “Committee on Campus Race Relations” where I was able to come into contact with many issues that frankly shocked me could still happen in the 21st century. I noticed that although a large percentage of students at MIT were Asian, the issues being reported to the committee were primarily around non-Asian students of color. Hearing these experiences made me newly aware of the many gradations of racism, and how the terrible hurt we can carry in ourselves as humans, as inflicted by other humans, could be debilitating and have unfortunate consequences.

RISDiversity

This work made such a deep impression on me that when I became president of RISD, diversity and inclusion became a major focus of my tenure there. I was particularly proud of this nationally-acclaimed project led by my VP of HR that helped folks in our community see that no matter how we might represent or present ourselves, we’re all different in some way. And we can be proud of those differences. Frankly, it opened my own eyes for the first time to how our LGBTQ members on campus felt, and how any underrepresented minority felt, and also how the majority felt too. I was especially proud that only a few years after I shared with the Providence community my own gratitude for being the beneficiary of the Civil Rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work, that at RISD we would launch an annual speaker series in Dr. King’s honor that continues today.

In the tech industry, and catching up on what has happened on this coast—or maybe what has not happened on this coast—I’ve been excited to see little moments of agency that have multiplier effects. If you haven’t read UX designer Diogenes Brito’s post entitled “Just a Brown Hand” I recommend that you stop reading this right now, and read it instead. It stuck with me when it came out, and I’ve shared it with many people ever since. It caught my attention, Dio knows this, but I don’t think he knows exactly why. I wasn’t certain myself. And now I know.

It’s because I wonder. Am I the yellow hand?

Am I the yellow hand? I know that seems a bit out of context. For people in the future who read this, it won’t make a lot of sense. But it has to do with how in mid-2015, there was a major change in how Apple distributed its emoji-based keyboard as enabling different skin tone options for the first time where there was only one choice before.

My first reaction was annoyance (grounded in ignorance), because it meant that I would have to navigate another submenu. But as I watched the intense debate around this announcement occur online — I could start to see that aside from whether this was good or bad as a move by Apple, that their original emoji icons for people were “flesh colored,” which meant for a Caucasian person. It had never really occurred to me, really. And thank goodness Apple did something about it — even if as an imperfect solution.

So Dio’s post and action over at Slack at the end of 2015 was significant for me because: 1/ I knew him, and 2/ I could see how important this was to him and to a lot of other folks. It meant a lot to me because, as I wrote above, it was consistent to me as another way to grow greater awareness of matters on diversity and inclusion.

Granted, everything I’ve done in my life hasn’t been perfect with respect to diversity and inclusion—I’ve hosted panels with only white men, and in the opposite direction I recall at RISD how I made the mistake of hosting a few events featuring only women (with male students in the minority there, and feeling left out). But generally each time, I’ve fortunately been able to later “get conscious” of the biases that have resulted in outcomes that missed the opportunity to maximize the moment. And I’ve hoped to improve, and have tried to be the best cheerleader of all actions to improve the position of people of color, for women, and for really anyone that feels excluded who need to be included as first-class members of whatever is happening of material concern. I’ve taken the pledge to not appear in non-inclusive panels that don’t include women or people of color, and have seen where that can make a difference as it gets organizers to change their direction.

Yet when it comes to Asian Americans, their concerns have been kept invisible to me, and by me. When I noticed back at MIT that there were much fewer incidents reported by Asian students even though the probability was that there should have been more reports, did it bother me? Or even today, am I bothered when I am the only Asian American representing at a thought leadership event? No. It doesn’t end up really mattering to me. Because I’m not fighting for them. Us. Me. I really wish I had something more grand to share in this post besides this moment of realization just before I turn 50, but I don’t. It’s a process that I have just started to understand how to make sense of, and move to action.

I’ve been fascinated by all the posts on diversity that are surfaced by Tracy Chou (@triketora) on her Twitter feed. I read a post once on Tracy’s feed that spoke to the damaging effect of Asian Americans being thought of as the “model minority” that I had never considered. It led to a variety of searches that led to more articles on the topic that surprised me. I’d briefly considered the position of being an Asian American leader for the Asia Society a few years back, and had thought I’d done my duty. Maybe for perpetuity. Maybe to uphold the model minority.

But Tracy’s bold personal post on “The uncomfortable state of being Asian in tech” and her call to action, however, lodged in my brain in an indelible way. And Dio’s post coming two months after, and recognizing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and events surrounding the Oscars this year in overlooking African American cinematic talents, and everything I see and watch daily on Twitter makes me realize that Tracy’s right. As she wrote in her October post:

“In tech, we get grouped together with White people as the ‘non-diverse’ majority, but we don’t draw any of the same ire against white supremacy and white privilege. We are the ‘model minority’ — quiet, hardworking, well-educated, successful in a middle class sort of way. It’s not as ‘good’ as being White, but it’s certainly ‘better’ than being Black or Latina, and it’s good enough that we don’t complain about the erasure of our individual identities and work ethic and personal successes, we don’t complain about the bamboo ceiling, we stay quiet on issues of race.” —@triketora

Although we (especially me) tend to stay quiet on issues involving Asian Americans, we do notice what is happening in ways that others may not take note in the mainstream news. Like when George Takei recently commented regarding Japanese internment camps in the face of a mayor in Roanoke’s insensitive remarks. Or when a brilliant show like Master of None isn’t nominated for a Golden Globe. Or when Jeremy Lin presents a different, darker view of the model minority’s pressure to achieve success. Or when Eric Liu talks about what it means to be an American citizen in ways that brilliantly speak to those of all colors and creed with undoubtedly universal appeal, but aren’t delivered with the stereotypical face or packaging of what we think of when we Google “American patriot.” I reveal my own unconscious biases when I tell you how I was running on a treadmill somewhere on the road listening to TEDx talks … and then looked at the video feed to almost trip off the track when I realized it was a guy that looked just like me.

Eric Liu: Hybrid and our civic life

Eric’s work has made me feel more comfortable knowing, feeling, acknowledging that I’m truly American. I like how he points out that he’s not “Chinese-American” with a hyphen but “Chinese American”—“American is the noun,” he says, “and Chinese is an adjective.” He’s a visible example of a patriot, who makes me more comfortable letting that feeling in. And I know that Eric’s one of the many folks who look like me that gets asked all the time, “Where are you from?” And when I respond, “Seattle,” the next question is always, “No. Where are you really from?” I’ve been asked that at least a few hundred times, and knew that I was not alone when this video viewed 8.5 million times made the rounds.

Does it bother me when I’m asked this? Yes. Do I tell anybody that? No. I do know that the next time it happens, I will. And maybe I’ll use the disarming script from the woman runner in the above video.

Me?

Which is a long, long-winded way back to the original title of this post, “Did I Grow Up And Become The Yellow Hand?” It’s a reference to the fact that when I was in 1st grade in the early 70s at Graham Hill Elementary School in Seattle, we had this class activity where little beads were passed out: one black, one white, one brown, one yellow, one red. Each color was to represent different races and “colors of the rainbow” and we were to bead a red string and wear the necklaces for a week. Naturally, there were complaints in class as these colored, plastic beads didn’t at all correspond to actual colors of people’s skin. I was a quiet, shy, and fairly rational kid who could see the good points being made by the students. The Native American kid’s skin wasn’t lipstick red. The African American kid’s skin wasn’t solid black. The Latin American kid’s skin wasn’t chocolate brown. And the Caucasian kid’s skin wasn’t ghost white. Certainly the banana yellow bead didn’t represent me or the other Asian American kids. But we didn’t say anything. Why bother? After all, at home that was how I was trained to behave. Don’t complain. Withstand. Don’t cause problems.

Dio’s post made me realize how maybe he had unearthed the need to represent folks of color within Slack, and all apps/services for that matter, but for me he had made me think about the yellow hand. You know. The one that means “generic” hand. The one on the furthest left. That hand is supposed to be a wildcard—capable of assuming any color on earth. And it silently sits in a conciliatory fashion. Not complaining. Withstanding. Not causing any problems. It made me wonder, am I the yellow hand? Quietly assimilating, and not asserting a position around being Asian American?

As a kind of “Type O” minority that can blend with all causes, I can see the disservice that this kind of neutrality has caused. I can see it in what Tracy Chou writes and speaks about. I’ve experienced my share of racism, largely behind closed doors and in past lives. For example, as a kid in middle school my Caucasian teacher pulled me aside to helpfully tell me (she really meant it in that spirit) there was no way I could get into MIT because I was “Oriental.” Or, when I lived in Texas as an engineering intern in the 80s, I’d been called “Chink,” “Jap,” and all those other terms of Asian un-endearment. On the East Coast, as a mature professional adult I’d been unkindly referred to as “your kind” on more than one occasion. But after coming to Silicon Valley—which has many Asian people—made me feel comfortable in a way I didn’t know how eager I was to feel. It felt like home.

Until I began to take note of how many young Asian Americans in this region have come up to me in the last few years and shared with me how few leaders there were in the technology industry. They asked me why? My first reaction was to list the ones I knew about: Jerry Yang, Om Malik, Steve Chen, Semil Shah, Gideon Yu, DJ Patil, and could keep going for ten or so more names — I felt there were quite a few. But their point was that it was easy to list hundreds of other tech leaders who were not Asian. It reminded me of how I knew that when it came to university presidents back when I was one, I noticed how I was among maybe three other Asian American presidents in an industry where the large percentage of students and faculty of Asian descent didn’t jive with the tiny few like us who were in leadership positions. But I could hear in my mind saying to myself, “This is the way that it is.”

When I think back to my experiences back at MIT—as an analogue to Silicon Valley in also having a large population of Asian folks—and how my committee on race relations didn’t see what should have been statistically a much higher number of issues reported … I can now, a decade later, remember how much I simply tuned it all out. I thought back then as well, “This is the way that it is.” And rely on what I had learned to be right. A simple algorithm. Don’t complain. Withstand. Don’t cause problems.

Photos: Takei via TED, Ansari via Wikipedia, Chou via Twitter, Kaling via Wikipedia, Liu via Twitter, Chokshi via Twitter

But my recent data, gathered from surveying the landscape of voices that are emerging in popular culture and in tech, indicates that there is another way forward. Another voice says in my head, “This is the new way that it could be.” For instance, in the entertainment world, Mindy Kaling is doing phenomenal work in changing stereotypes and Aziz Ansari is my new hero. I’m deeply inspired by Tracy Chou’s voice in the tech community, Eric Liu in the government arena, and George Takei across all spectrums. And I’m waiting for the day when Sonal Chokshi is recognized as one of the best writers in tech. I realize that this list can get quite long if I keep going, and so I acquired asianidentity.tech (nothing’s there yet but a redirect) and have a signup form if you are interested in knowing when that all gets fully going.

I wonder how many other people are curious as I am … [signup]

I’m feeling that in America we believe in equality in voice as being fundamental and earned — which means that the quiet voice is deservedly to-be-ignored. And that especially now when we all can be heard so loud and clear, neutrality is oh-so-two-centuries-ago. I can now see that being the yellow hand was the quiet, universal solution in the US and was blissful and noble. But there is room to change, if we choose to change ourselves. So I’m just starting to say goodbye to my old self right now …