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Can a font be Racist?


Greg Yerbury

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Ralf Herrmann
6 hours ago, Greg Yerbury said:

So can a font be racist?  

No. It’s just a typical press headline meant to provoke discussions and sharing – and it works. 😉 

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  • 4 weeks later...
misemefein

Tecnhnically no, a font is just a set of abstract shapes, which objectively cannot be racist, masculine, aggressive, sexy or any other human trait. However that said, this personification exists because there are acquired cultural values often associated with a particular style of letterform. The user of the font—typographer—would do well to pay attention to the contexts in which words are read.
Quite often these associated values are based on a lack of awareness or empathy towards other societys and cultures, and can be deemed to be essentially wrong. In the case of Chet Hanks's branded merchandise, it was foolish to present a blackletter style font in the words "White Boy" and not expect some comment from the depths of Twitterland.

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Riccardo Sartori
On 4/1/2021 at 1:12 AM, Greg Yerbury said:

So can a font be racist?  

Of course yes.

Not in the context of the linked article, that conflates a font with its use (and even so, in that case I think cultural appropriation, mockery, and inappropriateness would be better terms of discussion than racism, but, as Ralf noted, they would make a weaker headline).

A font can be intentionally racist (think, just as an example, of a picture alphabet that uses racial stereotypes as imagery) or unintentionally so.

Months ago someone on Twitter posted a demo of an animated variable font. It was a sort of smiley with somewhat exaggerated expressions (not unlike the reactions’ animations under Facebook’s posts). When I saw it, I thought it was cute and technically clever, and probably liked the tweet.

Then the comments accusing it of being racist started to appear, and it took me a while to understand why.

It was because it used a black dot as the main shape, with white strokes for the features. It was literally a black face.

Typographically it made sense, and of course technically black and white have different meanings depending on context. But there are reasons why the first character I linked to hasn’t been included in emoji.

Fonts are part of language, language is part of culture, and both language and culture are ever-evolving agreements.

Thus a typeface can carry (intentional or unintentional) meanings other than the literal words for which is used. If and how these meaning will be picked up and interpreted, will depend on the knowledge and sensibilities of those involved.

To make a real world example, depending on one’s knowledge, finding out that Gill Sans Infant is Save the Children’s corporate typeface can be meaningless, or just have a technical meaning, or a puzzling one. Depending on one’s sensibility, it could be seen as indifferent, or troubling.

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Ralf Herrmann
25 minutes ago, Riccardo Sartori said:

A font can be intentionally racist (think, just as an example, of a picture alphabet that uses racial stereotypes as imagery)…

Yeah, that’s basically the only way to clearly get ideology into a font. You have a visualize concepts or symbols as pictures. But I think that’s a special category. The debate around fonts and ideology is usually about what regular letterforms can or cannot express. 

An interesting and probably more suitable example would be “anthroposophical fonts”, designed expressly for a use in connection with the ideology Anthroposophy. There is intent there without question and also an at least somewhat unique style. But I would still argue that it’s essentially a learned connotation. The design in and of itself and removed from its context wouldn’t be able to communicate anything about the ideology. What is that wonky “organic” look supposed to tell us? It can’t really communicate ideas. 

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  • very interesting! 2
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Riccardo Sartori
1 hour ago, Ralf Herrmann said:

But I would still argue that it’s essentially a learned connotation. The design in and of itself and removed from its context wouldn’t be able to communicate anything about the ideology.

That’s true for any mean of communication: one needs knowledge and context (and then a moral compass) to extrapolate any implication from a message (or action, for that matter).

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