Racial Discrimination and Architecture: Student Experiences

POC= Person/ People of Colour BAME= Black and Minority Ethnic

The recent developments with the Black lives matter protests has highlighted how racism and discrimination, for many, still persists under similar conditions as it was several decades ago. The conditions following the UK’s colonial legacy and an increasingly interconnected world has created multicultural landscapes populated by people from different racial and cultural backgrounds. The wellbeing of POC unfortunately continues to be hindered by the presence of systemic racism and discrimination. A lack of education on racial prejudice and discriminatory practices has resulted in the insidiousness of racism, whilst overt practices of racism that are easily spotted, are still in place as little is done by majority and controlling groups to hinder such acts. The systemic nature of racism means that it manifests in a variety of ways and can affect BAME people differently.

It is a very profound truth that architecture is a tool that triggers memories, emotions and thoughts- and it is therefore important for us to understand the significance that comes with educating on and creating spaces that shape other people’s experiences of the world. The design and creation of built environments is a social and cultural responsibility and it is necessary for us as architects and designers to understand what role we play in serving the people that will ultimately inhabit and interact with the discourse we engage with and the buildings we make.

Being a minority within a predominantly white environment can be incredibly daunting. BAME students within architecture are faced with a lack of representation in the content they receive and the people they are taught by. Those who come from non-western regions including those with an interest in learning and writing extensively about architecture from nonwestern regions- are often disappointed as architectural discourse continues to be focused on western hegemony. Often, BAME students must rely on their own knowledge and a lack of additional support from tutors and other staff when it comes to researching and discussing topics outside of western hegemonical discourse.

Racism is imbued in the consistent denial to allow other architectural truths and discourses to flourish. The refusal to include non-western architectural discourse within education and practice continues to support the colonial legacy and erasure of other cultures from the global consciousness. Despite this, memories, stories and accounts of forgotten histories and alternative narratives live within many individuals. Through preventing people of BAME backgrounds the ability to fully participate within academia, such knowledge remains disconnected- and often POC end up working in isolation- because they are not given the space and opportunities to fully engage others with the content they are interested in. Tackling the insidiousness of the way architectural education is structured means by dignifying ‘alternative’ architectural discourse, people are able to access stories that are alternative to the prevalent idea that western practices of building and making are the only and most successful and “advanced” way of learning to create built environments. Social and cultural values are drawn from the historical and cultural practices because, architecture, at its root is designated towards imbuing itself with an understanding of the direct geographical, social and cultural environments it serves. What messages then, are governing bodies and educational facilities trying to make through their refusal to extend the content they deliver past western discourse?

Seeing as our institutions continually claim to be diverse but more often than not are merely statements to attract more POC without supporting them with the relevant resources, it seems beyond logical to cater towards non-western discourse and give it a primary role within courses such as architectural history rather than being entertained as footnotes. Small changes such as these as well as the addition of a wider range of books and resources all contribute towards reversing the marginalization of BAME issues within architecture.

A lack of diversity and representation through the employment of staff can instill a lack of confidence to engage in discussions, participate in activities and approach certain fields. Subtle forms of racial discrimination- whether consciously or subconsciously- such as the failure to promote, mentor or simply engage with a POC all contribute towards the continued marginalization of people of BAME backgrounds within architecture including other fields. Finding the courage to speak within a room where you are a minority is no easy feat. When a POC does try to speak up, they are othered because they’ve made the majority group “uncomfortable” by voicing out the many ways in which they are oppressed and marginalized. Examples include the continual propagation of imagery that negatively stereotypes them, or the use of racist language. It is thus the responsibility of everyone to ensure they are aware of what role they play in either dismantling or upholding racist and discriminatory practices through ensuring they are aware of how their behavior affects the continued marginalization of people from BAME backgrounds.

Dismantling racism and discrimination within architectural practice doesn’t solely rest on hiring more black people and enrolling more students from BAME backgrounds but also through ensuring that the more insidious acts of discrimination are mitigated. The microaggressions faced by BAME students and employees are endless. This article gives a very small example of a variety of issues and concerns faced by students and employees.

Imogen Philips: “My experience in architectural education has been an overwhelmingly white one. From the architects we study to the lecturers themselves, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to picture myself (a mixed-race female) in the professional world. Throughout my time at university I’ve written essays reflecting on the homogeneity and inaccessibility of the architectural profession to minority races. It made me consider how the architectural profession favors those with plentiful time for education and abundant money, which is resulting in architecture designed primarily by and for white people. A change in this homogenous field would allow people of colour to feel represented and catered to in the architecture surrounding us.”

Aisha Janki Akinola: “Being a Black student in architecture is having to write essays on colonial urbanism. It is having to constantly explain your existence. It’s not seeing a single Black tutor at university because after all we are minorities. It is tough being the only Black African student in a classroom. It is even harder being the only Black Muslim student in the classroom. Nevertheless, I will not exchange my identity for anything. For every single facet of me has shaped the way I see the world. Every single negative experience has taught me resilience, courage and determination. When I was told ‘architecture is not really the best course for you to study,’ I was bent on proving them wrong. When I was looked down upon by my peers, I smiled because clearly, they wouldn’t understand where I’m coming from, and most importantly where I envisage to be.”

Zubaydah Jibrilu: “My experiences within university have seen me be profiled and “mistaken” for other students simply because I wear a hijab; ignoring the fact that the other students wearing hijabs within my course are Asian whilst I’m mixed race Black. In other instances, I’ve had lecturers make remarks about racism ‘saying it’s all over now, we’ve apologized for this,’ showing us images of human zoos with black people in cages whilst maintaining direct eye contact with me. When applying for jobs, I have always made it a priority to look at whether offices have employed Black or any other POC for that matter. I don’t want to be put in the position where I am alienated and dismissed for being the only ‘other’ person in a room. In previous situations where I had tried to address issues I or other POC people faced, my concerns were dismissed, and it destroyed my confidence. It took me a while to build it up and it’s not coming back down.”

Anonymous: “On beginning my Architecture studies at the University of Edinburgh in 2016, I found architectural history to be one of the most interesting and more enjoyable courses. However, I was surprised that a course intended to provide an in-depth history of world architecture, had such a limited range of African architectural history beyond the Ancient Egyptians.

This was extremely disappointing for several reasons. Firstly, having felt unrepresented in my history studies in every syllabus throughout my primary and secondary education, I was optimistic that University academia would provide a more unbiased and balanced view of history.

Furthermore, this blatant omission reinforced antiquated ideas about African architecture and the continent in general. Not only to a new crop of architecture students, but to a cohort of art history students also.

Lastly, upon exploring books such as Manuel Herz’ “African Modernism” and similar literature, it became evident that the Continent has more than sufficient works of architectural and engineering significance to be relevant and included in our learning. As the history we learn largely determines the precedents we use in our design. It is easy to see then understand the subsequent omission of black architects in our design discourse. This is something that desperately needs to change.”

Anonymous: “The racism experienced in the British architectural experience is very subtle and quiet, yet, still very real. You constantly feel like you have to inconvenience yourself to suit the general community. The most obvious and clear experience I’ve had was on my job experience during my third year (a semester out in practice). Before the day I was meant to start working, I met with someone from the company to discuss my plan of work. After discussing the business-related side, he started hinting at the ‘look’ of my hair and ‘advised’ me to cut it or make it look ‘neater’ in order to have a more ‘acceptable’ work look. This was wild to me because that was just how African natural hair grew, nonetheless I inconvenienced myself and conformed. On getting to the job the next day I literally saw a white man with hair to the length of his back, unpacked and loose to let fly and that really got me shook and kind of annoyed because the only difference between me and him, I guess, was just the colour of our skin. I never really brought it up and it just got swept under the rug just like every other subtle forms of racism experienced by numerous people of colour.”

Such detailed accounts given by students serve as a poignant reminder of the way systemic racist structures and discrimination has seeped into every fibre of our lives. The racism faced by people within architecture highlights how the architectural education system needs to be reconfigured to dignify the various non-western architectural histories with the truths they deserve. For centuries non- European practices of living have been painted as uncivilized and backward. White supremacist conceptions of BAME cultures have been embedded in the behaviour and language employed by people on a daily basis. Whether they are aware of it or not- it is the responsibility of those who benefit from the marginalization of any group to unlearn how behaviours they have been taught alienate the minorities around them. An openness towards engaging with conversations on race and discrimination is one step in the right direction. Read, learn and discuss with your friends and family members. Question why you’ve ‘somehow’ all grouped the BAME students in one group whilst the white ones are in another group during tutorials. Scrutinise every aspect of your existence and ask yourself how you can make yourself conscious of the biases that have been engrained through centuries. This is an open call for everyone to give accounts of how the current organization of the architectural discipline upholds discriminatory practices and asks for concerns and thoughts on future of architectural education and practice.

Article and illustration by Zubaydah Jibrilu. (Twitter @WainarIngila ) Statements from Aisha Janki Akinola and Imogen Philips . All Rights Reserved.

This statement was featured on Thoughts with Crumble as part of Architecture Fringe’s Fortnightly Fringe Summer 2020.