Unlearning as a key step in allyship

Illustration of a blue key on a yellow background.

Image credit Tridib Das.

Today, learning about race and addressing inequality is a core commitment for many, with would-be allies, advocates, and accomplices on a mission to do their part. Are you doing yours?

As designers, we’ve learned the power of symbols that spread hate and the power of putting simple words like Black Lives Matter on the back of a t-shirt to let people know where you stand. A renewed discourse on decolonizing design pushes us to consider the rules we design by and question why the design methods, ideas, and thoughts of the majority of people around the world are not actively present in the various intersections of designing as a whole.

Organizations and companies around the world have created diversity, equity, and inclusion budgets at a scale we have never seen before. All over the world, organizations are attempting to become more culturally competent. Workshops are scheduled, and consultants are called upon to teach and speak. In turn, they are reached a more attentive audience, ready to understand racism as a complex system, but according to JUST Capital’s recent polling, 81 percent of Black Americans and 64 percent of Americans overall say companies have more work to do to achieve racial equity in America.

Shortcomings in companies’ current diversity and inclusion efforts

Studies show despite a $160 billion spend on employee training and education each year, up to 75 percent of information is forgotten. Another study of over 700 U.S. companies found that most diversity and inclusion programs fail to deliver actionable change and have little positive effect.

As a result, individuals quickly forget what they have learned and regress to previous behaviors and mindsets.

Why this dance of one step forward, and two steps back?

We are missing an integral part of the learning process — the act of unlearning. And while we don't have as many resources on unlearning as we do on learning, this article is an introduction to unlearning, what it is, why it is so important in the journey of inclusion, and how to begin your unlearning journey.

What is unlearning?

Unlearning is a process that takes an in-depth look at what we know about ourselves and our place in the world. It is defined as a “discovering of the inadequacy of and ‘discarding’ existing ideas.”

Unlearning does not happen in a one-time workshop or by the end of your next anti-racism read. It happens within, in between, and after all of these things. It happens as you choose inclusion, diversify your teams, rethink your creative inspirations and create a rigorous practice of listening and amplifying the voices of the historically excluded. It is essential in overcoming both conscious and unconscious bias. There is no doubt in my mind that the act of unlearning is critical to building not just an inclusive society but an actively anti-racist, anti-discriminatory society.

Are you living a life of new ideas along with the same mental models you have always had? If yes, you are not alone.

This is why we are seeing a rise in the kind of change that only lasts as long as the newest tragedy on the news cycle.

It is only through using the process of unlearning that we let go of old mental models and free our minds to pick new ones.

It would be dishonest of me to talk about learning and unlearning without acknowledging the complex web of self-identity underneath it all.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the act of unlearning is critical to building not just an inclusive society but an actively anti-racist, anti-discriminatory society.”

The growing field of cultural neuroscience is uncovering how deeply the media, our environments, cultural norms, and expectations affect the millions of brains of neural networks in our models are complex webs of conscious and unconscious behaviors. That not only shapes our identities but the literal shape of our brain. On this sticky web, our identity lives, causing conversations around these tense, defensive, and heated topics.

Undo your mental models to think differently

If the benefits of privilege and white supremacy are intertwined with your self-identity, and you are not willing to deconstruct that, you cannot become an ally. And as designers who bring a piece of ourselves or at least our worldview into what we create, this step is imperative.

But what does the beginning of that deconstruction even look like?

Start with asking yourself, ‘What do I need to unlearn about myself? What do I need to unlearn about how I view and live in the world? What does this mean for how I choose to advocate for inclusion in every area of my life?’

It is an uncomfortable question. It is enough to trigger the fight or flight instinct I see flare-up in the eyes of my white peers and friends when we move past the surface conversations towards more complex questions like, ‘How do I and others perceive my design work? How is racial content in design addressed?’

And unlearning is not only for the typically empowered and included. Oh no.

If unlearning is an in-depth look at what we know about ourselves and our place in the world, many of us have been shown that there is no place in the world for us.

For the historically excluded, unlearning is how we can seek to define and understand liberation and equity in the many areas and intersections of our lives and identity.

As a thirty-year-old Black woman living in 2022, my journey of unlearning is discovering all of the ways I have internalized my own disempowerment and learning how to undo those mental models in every area of my life.

The process of unlearning

Unlearning requires mechanisms of behavior change. A process that hits our basic psychological processes (cognition, affect, learning, perception), social processes (persuasion, interaction, context, social control), and neurophysiologic processes (neurotransmitters/receptors, second messengers, neural networks).

With a quick search, you will find a few models of unlearning but Geraldine Macdonald's transformative process of unlearning hits all the notes needed for actual behavior change. In her model, unlearning is broken down into three steps: the act of accepting, recognition, and grieving.

How to create a culture of unlearning and safe spaces

To start, we need to normalize a few things.

First is the ability to learn in public. We often talk about building in public or working in the open but not as much about learning in public. Permitting yourself to unlearn out loud and building “communities of learning.”

Part of creating communities of learning is the importance of providing a safe space for dialogue in our homes and the businesses and organizations we are a part of. A culture of silence is a culture of oppression. And shutting down opportunities to unlearn in work environments will never achieve a culture of inclusion and belonging.

We need to unlearn that these conversations are “unprofessional” and learn that empathy and accountability can be some of the most excellent tools to build safe environments that birth opportunities for inclusion.

Embark on a journey to enact real change

The more an individual can engage with the process of unlearning, the less the moral imperative to teach or do extra work falls on the already exhausted, underheard individuals in your life.

We can minimize the harm, lessen the overt and microaggressions as we build relationships, work in organizations, and learn to share power.

We can move beyond remedial diversity programs and collectively begin the fascinating work of making room for a future where the rules are constantly being rewritten. We get to enact innovative and creative solutions for radical change — and use learning to fuel our imaginations.

Our goal should be to encourage many means of thinking, feeling, and creating, including methods developed via diverse worldviews, to meet as many different wants and desires as possible. I think of design movements like Afrofuturism where the creation of art, technology, and literature looks at the past, and present, while imagining a future in which Black people are completely liberated, the ornate maximalism found across the globe from India to Russia, and the move away from minimalism.

Now I am asking allies, advocates, and accomplices to partake in their journey of unlearning, which is in and of itself a sort of privilege — the ability to choose to take on this journey.

Are you ready to unlearn?