‘The Whitemosphere’: Unsettling Western design epistemes through Indigenous sovereignty and the racialized logics of whiteness

Peter West (RMIT)
2019 Conference

Design disciplines are being challenged through a particular critical examination as prominent theorists such as Escobar, Fry and Tonkinwise focus on the social and environmental impacts of designs production based, business as usual approach. The Western, Eurocentric nature of the design epistemes are further interrogated by the Decolonizing Design discourse seen in works from both local and International Indigenous researchers and doctoral students. This paper responds to these scholarly works by drawing upon the experiences of facilitating a series of pilot workshops within RMIT University’s School of Design, Media and Urban Planning, in which Indigenous sovereignty and by extension Indigenous knowledge systems are posed as a challenge to Western design epistemes. The objective of these workshops was to challenge the foundation of the disciplines as the site of what has sought to invalidate and exclude Indigenous knowledges. The paper proposes the need for frameworks which support non-Indigenous scholars into moving beyond objectives of ‘Indigenizing curriculum’ which risk consuming Indigenous knowledges and shift into a critical awareness of their own knowledge systems as a practice of itself. Issues such as cultural appropriation, and the colonial systems of power and privilege are discussed as part of the necessary ‘unsettling’ of the Western design epistemes. This paper does not propose solutions to these complex issues but instead discusses the particular ‘gaps’ exposed in Western design practices, particularly when situated in relation to Indigenous sovereign knowledges.

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About the author


Peter West is a non-Indigenous lecturer in RMIT’s Communication Design program and co-lead of RMIT’s Indigenous engagement initiative; Bundyi Girri.

West’s doctoral thesis proposes design practice models that are situated in response to Indigenous sovereignty. West sees the Welcome from Kulin as an offer and obligation to respond to the conditions of being in a sovereign relationship. This is an ongoing practice and challenge to Western design epistemes and the racialised logics of whiteness.

West has been part of an 2013-16 ARC linkage focused on Indigenous Nation Building and is winner of the 2018 Good Design Award for Social Impact.