By Jared W. Smith, AIA, NOMA
I was on a trip to China, studying abroad with my college classmates. Being a 6'-4" African American in China, I expected to stand out. One day while in Shanghai, I ventured out on my own close to the university dorms. There was an indoor market with vendors selling various small items. I walked the floor glancing at the goods. At one vendor's station, I found something of interest. They seemed very hesitant as I approached. Having been in the country for a couple weeks I was aware that I'd attract some attention but this was like no other. As I continued to peruse, I could feel their discomfort growing. It escalated to a point where they did not want me to remain at their table to purchase anything. I was shocked to be "shooed" away. A bit of calm rather than anger came over me. It was best that I hadn't made a scene in a foreign country. Later on it hit me what had occurred.
Yes, I stand out.
Architecture has historically been a white male dominated profession. According to the Directory of African American Architects, African Americans make up less than 2% of registered architects. Does that put me at a disadvantage? Could others act bias towards me? Possibly. That does not mean I should agree to it or remain without changes for better equality. This is not to discredit anyone of any other nationality that has put in hard work and dedication to become successful in the profession. However with similar education, abilities and a creative prowess for quality design, we all deserve to be at that table. Why is this not the norm?
How can we achieve that norm? Or could it be an advantage? Coming from a background of two working class parents whose own parents were low income, I had little to be considered privileged. My family was blessed to never be without the necessities. My parents both sacrificed to attain their Masters’ degrees while raising my brother and me. Privilege doesn't start at adulthood but from the influence enumerated at birth through adolescence to adulthood. What is allotted and taught to our children as they develop is what they will become and feel as adults. This article by Toby Morris illustrates this principle of the effects of our upbringing.
Where have things gone astray? For one, African Americans are not shown in a good light in our society. This affects how we are perceived no matter what profession. The negative display exasperates a bias nature. Bias and privilege affect Architecture as a profession today by creating a sense of entitlement. African Americans may think "I am not good enough," or "I cannot attain that," or "I'm not qualified to enter that competition," Negative thoughts bring upon negative actions. If you believe you can't, then you are halfway toward failure.
Possible solutions - A showcase of senior and highly experienced African American architects in the profession. Not only is it a benefit but also a motivation to aspiring architects. A coinciding article entitled "Why the Lack of Black Students" touches on this need. These future architects get a confidence boost seeing those they can relate to in positions they hope to hold one day. In a recent article by Entrepreneur.com, building individual confidence plays a major role in a successful business and improved perception by others.
I am grateful to have had a rather diverse schooling environment as well as a diverse workplace. New York City is known for being America's Melting Pot full of determined individuals striving for their dreams no matter the obstacles. As a whole, more change is necessary.
Years ago while surveying at a housing authority complex I came across a 30-something African American man confined to a wheelchair. He observed me as I used my binoculars and camera. I was documenting facade deterioration. He proceeded to ask, "Hey where do you work and are they hiring?" I proceeded to tell him I worked for an architecture & engineering firm. He then said "That looks easy. I can do that." Continuing the conversation, I went on to explain briefly the profession and what I was doing. He said "So.. you're an architect" and I replied yes, as soon as I pass all my exams. He asked "Are there many of us?" By the skepticism in his voice and bewildered look, I know he figured there were not many. I said No. He ended the conversation in a way to respectfully leave me to my surveying. His last comment as he wheeled away was "oh.. I did not know."
Architects are known by the general public as intellectuals who design buildings, homes and interiors. However, why is it without any knowledge of the profession's statistics is it known to be limiting to people of color? Is this due to societal influence? We all deserve to be at the table to showcase our talents.
This post is contributed by Jared W. Smith from his new website.
Toby Morris Illustration
Why the Lack of Black Students Article
Entrepreneur Article "6 Actions You Can Take Every Day to Build Your Self-Confidence"
Travel Channel Article "American's Melting Pot"
The Directory of African American Architects
EQxD Get Real Series Posts
If you liked reading this feature, you may want to explore these other posts.
2. EQxD Get Real: Being the Only One in the Room, by Mark Gardner, AIA
3. EQxD Get Real: Be Willing to Listen | Recognize our Privilege and Bias, by Katherine Williams, AIA