Some people tend to look back longingly at the “good old days,” back when America was, they say, “great,” with a romantic, revisionist, and white gaze.
It hasn’t been great for everyone, and clearly still isn’t, as made evident by months of protests in 2020 declaring that Black lives matter. For Black people in America, the law of the land still remains oppressive.
Around June, employees of the Dallas-based Hawkeye advertising agency put together their creative minds to contribute to the cause with a project independent of the agency. Creative directors Alex Pierce, Roneka Patterson and a few others came up with an initiative titled “Unwritten Rules,” a list of societal rules for Black people that they’d like to see erased.
Pierce refers to the time of unrest as the “triggering effect of George Floyd.”
“I think all of us were trying to figure out how we can contribute in a way that we're comfortable and also feel like we're kind of expressing our frustration in a very meaningful way,” Pierce says.
“Obviously, there was a lot of energy last summer to kind of do things and that there's a lot of different groups in our agency that kind of like doing a similar thing,” Patterson adds. “And I think a bunch of us just really wanted to do a personal project that kind of was an outlet for that energy and as a method to, you know, create some change.”
The project, unwrittenrulesproject.com, consists of a list of rules Black people have to live by, such as “Don’t play with toy guns” and “Don’t knock on a stranger’s door.” Some are inspired by real-life events that have resulted in death, while some, like No. 2, "Make sure your hair always looks professional," denounce the double-standards imposed daily on Black people.
Visitors to the site can find more context by clicking on each rule, along with shared stories and information about organizations — such as the American Civil Liberties Union as well as local nonprofits — where they can make donations and take other actions to help erase the rule.
The team consists of around 20 volunteers, some from different agencies, who contributed their time and skills in graphic design, project management and development to put together the website and social media pages. A smaller team of Black creatives came up with the rules by considering their own life experiences.
“We kind of came together to start a baseline for rules,” Pierce says, “things that we felt that were common between us.”
“It was really the Black folks of the group that we kind of did some deep dives with each other to kind of see if we have some common ones that we knew of and just things that, individually, that we had kind of encountered,” Patterson adds. “And we were able to kind of compare notes and start to compile the list that way.”
The idea for a list of rules was centered on the concept of the “Green Books” that originated in the mid-1930s and were published for three decades. The books were traveler guides for Black people that designated sundown towns and other inhospitable areas, as well as businesses that served Black people.
The project’s main purpose is to educate people about the struggle of Black Americans and to offer information on actions allies can take to effect change, such as signing petitions or managing their own biases.
“You don't have to be a person marching in the streets or protesting or being the most literally vocal person about it,” Pierce says. “I think there's a range of things you can do and wanted to make it clear it doesn't have to be all or nothing.
“You can do simple things in your everyday life," he continues. “Between just managing your behaviors or your actions or just getting a little bit more empathy or understanding about a different perspective and how you can adjust that.”
2020 saw a surge of viral videos of white women in particular calling the police on Black families and individuals for participating in innocuous public activities like barbecuing, walking in the park or painting their own properties.
The project exposes the daily restrictions on Black people and privileges others take for granted — such as the ability to call the police to report a crime without fear of being mistaken for a criminal.
The Unwritten Rules website defines the primer as “A set of social rules that control Black lives.” Each concept alludes to examples of common occurrences particular to the Black experience. The description for the rule “Don’t be too loud in public places,” for example, reads: “The sound of loud laughter, talking, revelry or music is usually an indication of something fun, friendly and celebratory. However, for Black Americans, being loud in any public context can bring unwanted attention in the form of noise complaints, physical confrontations and, ultimately, racial profiling.”
“One of the big things is … well, it's indirectly implied, is this idea of what is the inverse of privilege and we want to demonstrate that in a very clear and concise way for non-Black audiences while empathizing with the Black audiences as well,” Pierce says.
“The goal of the site is education, for sure,” he continues. “And I think one of the things that we keep saying is, we didn't want it to just be performative in terms of just saying racism is bad; we wanted to kind of explicitly outline the ways that we're affected by this and try some empathy for that. And we do that — not only kind of explain the rule, the description of it, and how it comes to life and in our reality.”
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