In May 2020, Americans experienced a reckoning in their understanding of race relations, and Kate McCarthy was among them. The historic moment inspired in her a desire to actively protest racial inequality. She marched in Black Lives Matter protests, read Black literature and educated herself about Black Wall Street. It only led to more introspection.
“Reading about Black history caused me to consider factors that have influenced me,” she says. “Growing up, I had two advantages — being White and living in Southeast Asia at a time when Americans were liked and respected.”
Born in Thailand and raised in Southeast Asia, McCarthy, the daughter of U.S. citizens, moved to the U.S. at 18. As a student at California College of the Arts, McCarthy’s social consciousness was awakened, and she became aware of systemic racism. It wasn’t until President Obama was elected in 2008 that McCarthy fully embraced her American heritage. Rectifying the diversity of her upbringing with the racial tensions of today hasn’t been easy.
McCarthy is principal and creative director at Studio M Visual Design, a San Diego-based studio that exists to inform, inspire and advance social equity. Marching in this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests heightened for McCarthy her own responsibility in creating a more equitable world. Protesting with thousands of others during a pandemic was a risk. But it was one McCarthy was willing to take.
“I wanted to show up. I wanted to be present, to be part of a movement that is all for transformative change,” she says. “I wanted people to see how many of us were marching. I felt that, collectively, we were exercising our right to protest and make our voices heard. And I felt like ‘OK, I’m doing something here.’”
It’s not the first time McCarthy has rallied for change. In 2017, after President Trump’s election, she launched an advocacy group called Democracy Defenders. The group has met with state and city representatives to discuss policies on social justice, civil rights, healthcare and climate change.
Since this summer’s reckoning, McCarthy has volunteered for Black initiatives, including a creative sprint facilitated by pop-up creative agency Good Measure and creative studio Raygun. The team partnered with a Black women’s group to refresh their brand. Around the same time, McCarthy donated clothes to House of Resilience SD, a community housing program for transgender women of color.
“Groups need our help,” McCarthy says. “It might necessitate getting out of your comfort zone to take a harder look at where you’re coming from. It might require challenging your prejudices. If that’s what it takes, I encourage you to do it. Because change isn’t going to happen on its own.”
While McCarthy enjoys marching, she sees value in listening and learning, in introspection and self-assessment. Outward change begins with inward examination, she says. McCarthy’s self-examination caused her to read How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and attend webinars on race relations. These and other resources have made her more aware of implicit biases within herself.
The United States long has espoused the idea of individualism, she says, but by now we’ve become too self-focused. “It’s time we start thinking as a collective community. It’s time we start speaking up — and doing — for one another.”