Babbel: Perspectives Vol. 2 Tackles White Space in the Virtual and the Real

The second edition of Babbel’s Perspectives lecture series features cognitive scientist Josephine Apraku on Whiteness in urban and technological design.

Joshua works in Babbel’s Communications team, identifying and developing strategic storytelling in various mediums. As part of that work, he co-curates the Babbel: Perspectives lecture series, putting critical scholars on stage with voices inside Babbel. The aim is to invite the Berlin community into discussions that begin from provocative and even unsettling reference points, and put those things in conversation with language-learning, technology, and our lives more broadly.

The second edition, White Space in the Virtual and the Real, featured an American cognitive scientist and an African studies scholar from Berlin, tackling how attention is socialized around whiteness at multiple levels — from visual design, to urban geography. They were joined by Babbel’s VP of Product and UX, Scott Weiss.

How We See What We See

“In visual design, white space is empty,” argues Prof. Bryce Huebner, a cognitive scientist in Georgetown University’s Philosophy Department. “It’s blank, it’s unmarked. It makes particular things stand out. For example, Google’s white background focuses our attention on the search box and the logo. It keeps the design simple, usable, and content-focused.” It’s not, of course, that there’s any objective similarity between the white background of a visual design and what we conventionally think of as white skin. Rather, Bryce argues, how both are presented to us shapes what we notice. It centers particular objectives, priorities, and experiences within a space, often without us noticing. In the physical world, the one we inhabit, the fact that white people tend to circulate in spaces constructed around white people and white ideologies can have the same effect. The whiteness of one’s neighbors, for example, becomes unremarkable, easy to ignore. In turn, the flattening or even invisibility of whiteness draws what is not white into relief, marking it.

Bryce walked us through several examples of how this works, from strictly visual, virtual examples, on up to recent controversies around Confederate monuments in the US.

The German Mile

In Berlin’s “African Quarter”, Josephine Apraku, a founding coordinator with the Institut für diskriminierungsfreie Bildung, leads walking tours highlighting (among other things) Petersallee — a street named by the Nazis after one of Germany’s chief colonial criminals, Carl Peters. Then, onto streets named after other colonial figures, Lüderitz and Nachtigal. These celebratory street names are legacies of German colonialiasm and a central Nazi priority: Reversing decolonization — a project similar to the erection of Confederate Statues in the US. When whiteness is unmarked, so are its histories of violence, past and present. They become, quite literally, unremarkable.

Having been part of a recent successful campaign to rename those streets, Josephine offered a window into not just how these patterns play out in a physical space and what their implications are, but how we can challenge them, and envision new possibilities together.

“Spaces are always shaped by power relations.”

A rather vibrant discussion resulted, shepherded initially by Babbel’s own Scott Weiss, bringing into the fold insights from design and how user experience is analyzed in virtual environments. At the intersection of cognitive science, history, and design several questions repeated across the evening: Who sets the terms of a space? Whose interests drive how community life is organized — virtually and physically? And to the extent we lose things in that process, to what extent have we given consent?