Mukhtara Yusuf | Terms of Service

Terms of Service: December Edition

Photo Credit: Hassan Hajjaj

On October 29th of this year, I gave my first public talk on decolonial design methodology. In the lecture, I discuss some of the colonial assumptions and epistemological flaws of design that my work seeks to address. (You can watch that talk here.) The reception of the lecture was more positive than I could have hoped for, but along with the joy of its positive reception came an unexpected feeling: grief.

This moment gave new meaning to the the harms I have experienced thus far in my design career by putting into focus how unnecessary they were.

Like many black designers, I experienced racism while pursuing my MFA in design. Administrative bullying, gaslighting, the works. These stories and experiences are not uncommon for black people in design. Given the many, often hidden, racist-eurocentric practices in contemporary design, these experiences are especially common for those challenging existing design paradigms. But we share our stories about these harms in safe spaces amongst ourselves, not in public.

In public it is safer to discuss structural racism in abstract and impersonal ways. Structural racism is perpetuated by the notion that naming our experiences is unprofessional and will garner backlash. And yet, we can’t talk about the changes needed in the field of design without acknowledging the personal and embodied wounds racism creates. Because racism is carried across institutions through interpersonal interactions, the wounds racism inflicts are always political and personal.

In my lecture this past fall, I spoke about the need to shift beyond the concept of the “individual” in design because it is an artifact of western imperialist epistemology. Not only does approaching people as individuals neglect and erase non-European ideas of self, but it also erases an understanding of subjects as relational, interconnected systems. We are less individuals than we are ecosystems. We are ecosystems that are apart of still larger ecosystems. Understanding ourselves in this way makes it possible to consider our roles in the personal and political aspects of racism simultaneously.

Approaching ourselves as ecosystems, instead of individuals, also opens up new possibilities for change within the design field. An ecosystemic approach presents the opportunity for designers to consider more deeply their entanglements with racism in design. Done in a compassion-centered way, this approach can resolve obstacles like guilt and defensiveness that often stop white designers from moving towards anti-racist design practices.

One alternative to seeing ourselves as individuals is IFS (Internal Family Systems). IFS conceives of internal ecosystems wherein human beings are a collection of parts. In these systems each part fits into one of three categories each describing its role. Some parts are in charge of emergency crisis protection, others of preemptive protection, management, while others—parts often hidden to us—are “exiled” parts. Exiled parts represent our most wounded selves, the parts of us that protectors have been created to guard, parts whose wounds feel too overwhelming for us to carry in our daily lives. In IFS, at the core of this system is our essential and wise ‘Self’. ‘Self’ is not a part, but instead carries our healing capacity— our compassion; our curiosity, creativity, and connectedness. IFS promotes the use of compassion to integrate exiled parts by helping protectors and managers to be more led by ‘Self’.

Unlike most forms of Western-born psychotherapy, IFS does not pathologize the existence of multiplicity within the internal system. The modality importantly also acknowledges the influence that external societal conditions have on our internal systems.
“Legacy burden” in IFS is a term used to describe inherited pain or harm, aspects that keep the system from being able to attain more harmony. Legacy burdens often come into our systems because of the environments we are exposed to at a young age. Both the pain that black people carry within a racist society and the unconscious biases and forms of anti blackness non-black people carry in a racist society are considered legacy burdens.

Recent IFS discussions have expanded on the concept of burdens our ecosystems inherit by examining how internal systems are reflected externally in society. This is perhaps where IFS has the most to offer, the parallels it suggests between ecosystemic healing and social change. Each society has its own ecosystem designations, groups of people designated into manager, and firefighter roles and most importantly the marginalized, those who are made society’s exiles. The hope lies in this: as people heal their own internal ecosystems and address their legacy burdens with self-compassion, they gain more tolerance for their own exiles. Their internal ecosystems can work better without the weight of legacy burdens and this creates greater capacity to integrate more deeply value-based practices, like anti-racism. Ultimately, this means people can heal their way into becoming better allies and accomplices for those who society has deemed exiles.

A core value in IFS is “don't think of an answer, wait for an answer”. Here is an implied trust beyond our thinking minds, that something greater than us, within or outside of us can be trusted to illuminate the answer. As designers, integrating these principles into our  practice takes immense self-compassion and a willingness to relinquish capitalistic ideas about productivity and scarcity. If we approach the healing of our personal internal systems with relentless patience and self-compassion, we gain true capacity to change the flaws of the external system. Cultivating this approach within makes it possible to release our assumptions about how and where design should happen. In turn, we are invited to make design work that prioritizes marginalized voices. Work that is therefore more relevant and meaningful, work that serves ecosystems rather than individuals.


Podcast: A Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies with Resmaa Menakem 

My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem 

Internal Family Systems Comic by Sacha Mardou

Parts Work: An Illustrated Guide to Your Inner Life by Tom Holmes

Mukhtara Yusuf (they/she) is a Yoruba person from what is now southwestern Nigeria. Yusuf is a decolonial designer and scholar, a member of CLEAR an anti-colonial feminist science lab and an Enterprise Communities Rose Fellow. Mukhtara holds a degree from Dartmouth College, an MFA in Design and a MA in Communications and Media. Their current work focuses on trauma-informed anti-racist equitable design for affordable housing development.

Jobs | July 19