In the immortal words of Erykah Badu, “Get woke, stay woke”.
Although we’re not really acquainted, I have a lot of respect for Erykah, and consider her to be a life mentor of sorts. After all, we’re both from East Dallas, went to the same high school, though she’s ten years older than me, I feel like we come from the same context.
Over the years, I have come to admire Erykah for a number of reasons: her immense musical talent, her style, her sharp wit, her advocacy for social justice, her passion for supporting mothers in childbirth. But most of all I admire her ability to continue doing interesting work and to be successful with it, her ability to be very visible as a mother and as a working musician, and of course, her commitment to getting woke and staying woke.
Another figure who loomed heavily over my childhood and adolescence in Dallas was Dale Hansen, the local sportscaster, telling us what to think about the victories and disappointments of our city’s sports teams. I disliked most sports coverage as a kid because I did not like being told how to feel, and I put Dale Hansen in the category of blowhard men I did not need to listen to.
Life is long, my friends, and it often surprises you. Over the past few years, I’ve come to feel more respect and admiration for Dale Hansen than I would have ever imagined. Even though I moved away from Dallas two decades ago, I’ve seen Dale’s local sports commentary pick up steam across social media, when he gave his support to Michael Sam, or recently, when he gave his enthusiastic solidarity with NFL players taking the knee:
“The young black athletes are not disrespecting America or the military by taking a knee during the anthem... they are respecting the best thing about America. It’s a dog whistle to the racist among us to say otherwise. They—and all of us–should protest how black Americans are treated in this country, and if you don’t think white privilege is a fact, you don’t understand America.”
Dale Hansen got woke, and seems admirably committed to staying woke. Let him be an inspiration to us all.
I get anxious when I think about getting older. I’ve reached the age where women’s gradual disappearance from the tech industry becomes obvious. I scramble to think of women who have been in this field longer than me whose career trajectories I would like to emulate - there are a few, but I had to search to find them!
But here’s the thing no one tells you- you can mix and match who you look up to, and often times, the people who give you strength won’t be doing the exact same thing as you. Hence, my hometown heroes are helpful here. Both are well into their careers in industries full of ageist, racist, sexist political bias. Both got woke, and continue to stay woke, and continue to be relevant and respected. And it’s to their, and our, advantage.
After all, I think to myself, if 70-something Dale Hansen can challenge the sports fans of Dallas, and Erykah can challenge, well, us all, I can challenge my peers. UX and Design Research are not value-neutral. They are not apolitical or inherently good. Anyone who tries to tell me this is suspect, and usually sent to the island of blowhard men that I do not need to listen to.
Contrary to what you might hear - just doing your job isn’t enough to make a difference, or clear your conscience. There are very real implications for design research: just ask Facebook, ask Uber, ask Palantir. Ask Air BnB, whose research team quite proudly shares their interest in social psychology and behavioral economics, yet somehow has not expressed such enthusiasm in designing equitable housing or eliminating ethnic and racial bias.
Design research means being aware of tradeoffs, being aware of workarounds. Whenever I get worried about what I’ve given up, passed by or been turned down for, I remind myself that life, and careers, are long. “I’m gonna work until I’m 80”, I tell myself. “I’ve gotta play the long game.” And that means being committed to being woke, and being relevant.
Being relevant isn’t easy, but it’s the one thing that future proofs your career. If you worry about not being respected for the caring person you are, stop. It’s far better to be on the right side of history than to compromise what you believe in. And in the end, it’s what will help you build a better career.