Black Lives Matter
Space is political. As architecture students we read into and design spaces dependent on their experiential implications. It’s subjective; how we experience space will depend on our bodies and our histories. The history that informs the spaces we inhabit in a white supremacist society thus creates racialised spaces.
Navigating the University of Cambridge as a Black, Asian or other Minority Ethnicity student is a complex process. Celebration from families accompany righteous feelings of taking up space and narratives of having transcended the racist systems of oppression that work to keep us away from such places. But this is coupled with the arrival into a traumatic landscape of memorials and colleges dedicated to and enabled by colonial projects; a place of hoarded resources where the bursaries bestowed on some of us to enable access to it are derived from ongoing racialised exploitations elsewhere. The celebration is soured. Not just by an attendance of a college dedicated to the remarkably racist Winston Churchill, or sightings of the Benin Bronze Okukor inexplicably displayed in Jesus College’s dining hall until recently, but by the constant expected attitude of silent gratitude from BME students. You are here, you have made it. Shut up.
Black students specifically, are exhausted. Exhausted of being told things ‘aren’t about race.’ Exhausted by having to consider the counter-arguments to our own lived experiences, both when reporting the still common racist experiences we encounter (being denied access to our own colleges, getting yelled slurs at in the street or clubs, having our hair fondled), and when documenting them academically. This perpetual gaslighting precipitates a realisation that this initial celebration of reaching the space likely delved from the hundreds of years of colonialism and white supremacy that have devalued our own cultures and set up Cambridge, a western institution, as an idol of elite success.
Within the Architecture department, imbalances and systemic racism are institutionalised in the methods of teaching. Lectures prioritise Eurocentric ideas, with non-western architectures remaining grouped or referred to in an afterthought of optional lectures. In this the idea of a breadth of Western architectures to study and learn from are juxtaposed with non-Western ‘others’ which might only be referred to as vernacular. Indeed this mirrors the groupings of BME people into a group of ‘other’ against the default of whiteness. In doing so, the multiplicity of individual and varied black, Asian and other ethnicity experiences becomes neutered. Indeed anti-blackness exists within all ethnicities, such is the conditioning of white supremacy in its creation of a diametrically opposed black other.
Even apparently ‘depoliticised’ technical lectures don’t fully acknowledge their limitations, for example with environmental lectures neglecting to note the disproportionate impact of the climate crisis on poorer, less-white communities across the world, or sustainable design accepting the neoliberal/capitalist model of continued growth to the detriment of those oppressed by it.
This approach to teaching, as such produces architects guided by these principles, something particularly important when considering how our education may make us complicit in designing racialised spaces. We might posit ourselves as conscious and virtuous creatives against the evils of corporate professions, but many of us will soon find ourselves employed by practices as agents of gentrification, aiding in the same processes of spatial redecoration and overhaul, for private benefit (and social detriment), that contribute to crises such as the Grenfell Tower fire.
Cambridge’s focus on context-specific architecture can only go so far when explored unilaterally in Western settings. Movements to decolonise the curriculum focus on attempting to diversify the geography of the architectures covered, and understand the influence of colonialism on ‘post’-colonial architectures. Resistance to this often formulates in the form of a need to ‘teach the basics first,’ despite the determination of which knowledge is considered fundamental being a subjective process informed by historic white supremacy. And yet we are left with a situation where individual research theses are left to fill the gaps of topics that ought to be covered in lectures. This becomes uncomfortable as these dissertations can begin to occupy a status of commodifying or exploiting the traumas of racism, colonialism and patriarchy in the name of presenting an ‘original’ thought that will be bestowed by praise and accolades from this elite white institution.
Decolonisation is complex. We might have a desire to feel represented, but simultaneously we recognise that decolonising the curriculum of a western institution serves to reinforce the validity of Cambridge’s colonial pedagogy. Decolonise movements question the university’s lack of ‘universality’ in its course content, but in responding through diversification, the university seeks to re-assert itself as a valid body for universal study. This study itself is colonial, with the systems of classification and knowledge production often behaving as civilising missions, as much as a celebration of non-Western architectures, urbanisms and other phenomena. Thus an impassive issue is noted with asking institutions formed around white supremacy to destroy their own foundations and return value and autonomy to non-Western pedagogies.
More broadly the architecture profession is dogged by inequality and inaccessibility. RIBA identify that 19% of architecture students are from BME backgrounds, but this reduces to 6% of qualified architects in the UK. Indeed, roughly half of the Cambridge Architecture Graduating Year of 2020 are from BME backgrounds. Unpacking what facilitates this phenomena points towards the exclusive nature of its representation. The image of the architect as a middle-class white man is self-fulfilling; many of those who do not fit feel disengaged, and those of us who choose to study it despite this are met with endless lectures about the aforementioned middle-class white men. The mental health issues deriving from architecture’s studio culture for black students are poorly understood by counsellors and staff who cannot empathise with their racialised experiences. Those such as Elsie Owusu, who criticise the lack of diversity in the field, are met with the fierce hostility that many from black backgrounds unsurprisingly anticipate. Hence amongst all of these factors, the mere presence of non-white and non-male architects becomes a protest in its own form.
However, representational politics are greatly limiting; existence is political, but is not the extent of activism. Measures of access however cannot stop at visible diversity; Cambridge’s Architecture cohort may be diverse, but when investigating the low number of black students from comprehensive state school backgrounds, a clearer and more holistic view of race- and class- based exclusivity can be painted.
The complex intersections of race and class (class cannot be discussed without race), are such that it is often the wealthier black students (such as myself) who, whilst equally subject to the racial traumas and hostilities, are given the opportunity to ‘transcend’ race and access these institutions. A tamed respectability is applied to those who are present but quiet. Thus the neoliberal myth of equitability is perpetuated without challenging the underlying systems of discrimination and patriarchal white supremacy inherent in the selection process, which are inextricable from the experienced racism.
The course remains exclusive in a multitude of ways; the opacity to the application process (common to most Cambridge courses) that leaves prospective students not operating in particular circles without some of the simple tips that would greatly improve their chances; the cost of materials and the under-discussed cost of the lifestyle of architecture students; the expected ~£50,000 of debt, from tuition alone, that a student might expect to inherit upon fully qualifying; and the low starting salaries that might render architecture an unviable career for lower-income students who bear the weight of social ‘mobility’ on their shoulders.
Those of us leaving Cambridge this year graduate unceremoniously. This interrupted conclusion ironically mirrors the remarkably abrupt social awakening to a continuous malaise.
2020 has been a strange year. The insufficiencies of grouping ethnic minorities into a unified other has been exemplified in the focused anti-East Asian racism heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial wealth and health gaps that have exacerbated death rates amongst black communities. The resurgent Black Lives Matter protests fit into a long line of civil rights actions that have sought to destroy the underlying systems of white supremacy and capitalism, whilst also highlighting how different minorities have a role to play in the specific anti-blackness that fundamentally comes from colonialism.
For black students this time of protest has been met with a multitude of emotions. The small strength and opportunity for change derived from these protests accompanies questions of why only now, several hundred years after sustained anti-racist campaigning, other people are taking notice. The ephemerality of the movement is not feared, but known. Yet to make the most of this moment demands an urgent navigation and reliving of traumatic experiences and images. This is an immediate emotional toll unfairly demanded of by black students to the time signature of white awakening.
These protests are about anti-racist action and redistributions of wealth and power.
These protests are not an opportunity to virtue signal, nor a chance to solely initiate a self-serving academic discourse that forms part of one’s personal growth and development. These protests are not about black squares. For black students, and black people at large, this protest is a constant truth; those who choose not to engage for their own well-being are fatigued from the battle that they have been fighting for much longer. Yet for those who are not black, this silence is violent in its acceptance of the destructive systems of racial oppression that disadvantage and murder black people every day.
These protests are angry. Peace is for a peaceful society; any protest must disrupt in some form. Now is not the time to rest and passively envisage a utopia of holding hands across the hill. These images tame the frustration of the protest, posing simple kindness as a solution to hundreds of years of systemic violence. Solidarity is better expressed in joining the active fight to expose and address the existing and specific inequalities facing black people.
These protests are permanent. Committing to activism for a convenient moment in time makes for less a movement than a useless flash.
Yet amongst all this systemic oppression, amongst spaces marked out by gradually toppling symbols of exclusion, black students have found and made places to thrive. These celebratory spaces make enclaves from the hostility. These social groups, cultural festivities and organising collectives form a unified community in Cambridge, providing the support, respite and understanding not found elsewhere. This reflects the experience of black communities around the world who, despite being told how little we matter, have formed networks and cultures of commonality and value anyway.
In this final way, these protests are a celebration. Black people are hurting but in the protest of our self-affirming continued existence, we are thriving. We know we matter, we’re just telling you.