Blog – Participatory Design to Check & Balance: Privilege, Perspective-taking and Power

By Mashal Khan
May 28, 2020

Once in New York I met with privileged Mashal. I was naively working on my thesis project wishing to design a more moral community for the invisible residents. Call it bravery or stupidity, I wished to create a more participatory design practice — for that I needed to overcome my social inhibitions and meet the ‘Homeless’ of New York City. I can’t tell you how nerve wrecking the experience was for the old me to go out alone and say hello to strangers; people who my parents had strictly warned against interacting with. I suppose I wanted to debunk those class and race stereotypes for myself. So, having arrived at 125th street subway station I slowly approached a grunge debonair guy with cool dreadlocks sporting a p-cap with glittering words that spelt Harlem. His cool penetrating gaze made me awkwardly blurt out “why do you think you are homeless?” The response was a curt “why are you assuming I’m homeless?” He had just shown me a mirror of my own unexamined preconceptions and prejudices.

I changed and became much more mindful of the power and privilege of words and images. As designers, writers and creatives I do not think we are fully aware of how much impact each image, each post, each tweet — sets the perspective, attitude and behavior we later reenact in life. Words like “the poor,” “beggars,” “underprivileged,” “transgender,” or the classic myth of “education makes women outspoken and out of control” reoccurring on media seeps into our individual thinking. No matter who you are — you unconsciously accept the hierarchy of society. Rather than just being and celebrating differences. We add tags of rich and poor. This creates an obvious rift between us and them. It’s painful to watch because despite the outward appearances and bank balance — each one of us is striving for love, belonging and community.

I urge my fellow creatives to practice more participatory methods and shed the savior mentality. Forgo sympathy and take ownership of our collective history, our shared story that has brought us to where we are today. Our collective story is a story of colonization, partition and genderization; that the truth about where we come from and what we’ve done is to dehumanize women and different sects in Pakistan. During the Partition this polarization — this ripping of humanity out of people in order to see them less than human fueled by hurt, confusion and loss – was a dark period. Taking ownership of this past is painful but we need to get past it in order to move forward and write a different more inclusive future.

We can do this by acknowledging and understanding our privilege, power and take perspective. Perspective-taking is difficult because each of us sees the world differently due to our experiences, upbringing and unique lens. While we cannot put down our lens of seeing the world in a certain way, we can try by believing people’s stories and experiences as they tell them to us. Avoid cross examining these experiences through our individual lens. This is why participatory design or dialogue is needed to let people tell their own stories as they see it. Being a designer doesn’t give me the right to paint a bleak picture of an embellisher in Bahawalpur. When we focus solely on the surface reality of mangy clothes and financial struggles — we overlook the full integrity of the individual that encompasses not only the physical but also the intellectual, spiritual, sensorial, and aesthetic qualities of life.

We should share our creative skills with a community and let them represent themselves. That is the sharing of power! In creating and defining reality how people see it and how they would like to see it — the mechanics change from “powerlessness” to action. Of course, this is hard. Digging deep, confronting my privilege, what it will take for me to perspective-take with people I strongly disagree with, and what it will feel like to more regularly talk about these issues despite how uncomfortable they make others (and myself) feel. This is really hard.

I shall leave you with PhD Brené Brown words that no matter how daunting the task might look; we should always try. “To opt out of this conversation because you can’t do it perfectly, is the definition of privilege.”

So, to the creatives who like myself are privileged, this is a call to have braver conversations and to listen and design with community.