By Christopher Locke
The prevalence of white space is a suffocating phenomenon. Omnipresent and ominous, in many circumstances the trauma it inflicts will leave its victims at the mercy of gasping for air. I’ve had to evade it during my time in school — yes, including Taubman College — and in my professional career. In architecture, the arrangements of its spatial hierarchies, formal languages, ignorance, and consistent pressures of cultural erasure, for and sustained by white people and contrary to the belief of some designers, is not just an issue dependent on the configurations of poorly designed modernist buildings. Instead, it explicitly relies on the preservation of white supremacy and complicity of reinforcing racist policy found in racialized space. White space is characterized by its consistent exclusion and harm of minoritized identities. As of October 2020, black people have accounted for 28 percent of those killed by police despite being only 13 percent of the population in the United States. Quite frankly, for me, white space is terrifying. Weaponized as a tool to suppress and violently erect experiences that dehumanize black people, architecture is an apparatus of brutality.
The tools of this trade have existed for centuries and have continued to participate in the building of racism. While the patriarchal whiteness of the profession will likely remain an overwhelming presence in my life, I will never submit to it or become a scapegoat for black tokenism to make anyone feel comfortable. That is a necessary, vulnerable work of an Afrofuturist design-activist.
I have decided to write this piece not to address the sensitivity of white fragility. Nor fulfill the need of approval for white allies seeking the praise of white saviorism. The reality is black people are not in need of saving. In fact, we have been conditioned to consistently be in a state of survival to protect the growth of black excellence. This fight-or-flight awareness is well described by W.E.B. Du Bois as living in a double consciousness.
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife — this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost.”
— W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
(Dover Publications, 1903)
Living with the burden of a double consciousness is exhausting. It requires the self-preservation of one's identity and the survival of your humanity in white space. It is Black America’s coping mechanism for the constant feeling of living in fear of racism.
This awareness has been ingrained into the African diaspora since the inception of some of the first racialized spaces aboard the ships of the Middle Passage. For those unaware, this was the fatal and excruciating journey enslaved Africans had to endure on their unwilling path to the Americas. If you survived the consistent brutality of white tradesmen and handlers, you were stripped of your native tongue, separated from your tribe, and sold as a tool who would be forced to build the racist structures that centuries later would continue to dehumanize your existence and ability to simply ... breathe.
In 2020 we find ourselves in a place where white space needs to be deconstructed, decolonized, and dismantled in order to obtain any progression for liberation of black and brown people. White allies and co-conspirators must prioritize the work of unbuilding the racism that has existed in academia, the practice, and historically silenced communities. It is as much a spatial issue as it is policy reconstruction, and the reason why my organization Designing in Color exists today.
Abolitionist Designers of Culture
Designing in Color (DCo) is an Afrofuturists’ manifestation. As a black-centered and led organization, we emulate the innovations of liberation as realized by the virtuous ambitions of Harriet Tubman. As one of the greatest Afrofuturist and spatial justice designers within the African diaspora, Harriet Tubman not only imagined a world in which blacks would be freed, she created it. Constructed via a network of safe spaces, the Underground Railroad enabled the possibility of freedom for hundreds of enslaved blacks. It is in many ways a foundational project for understanding what designers, planners, and policymakers can achieve in endless pursuit of unbuilding racism in a built environment. This is the root in which DCo anchors its growth.
Assembled in the fall of 2016, months after my graduating from Taubman College, DCo launched on a mission unpopular to architecture. As an award-winning collective of Abolitionist Designers of Culture, our mission is to diversify the way architecture is taught and practiced to amplify marginalized communities who’ve been historically silenced and erased throughout the design process, all while dismantling the systemic racism built into the education and practice of architecture. Our work prioritizes the redevelopment of design pedagogy that positions the realization of decolonizing Eurocentric critical thinking through the liberation and distribution of power to those excluded from the public process of building space. Performed through organizing workshops, educational programming, digital initiatives, and community responsive projects, our platform is intrigued by the intersectionality of diverse processes that result in spatial justice that changes lives. We do not subscribe to the endless exercises of form making or design explorations embedded within the irresponsibility of modernism. Practiced by the likes of Le Corbusier and the controversial architect and author of the essay “Architecture of the Third Reich,” Philip Johnson, modernism was one of the first translations of building white supremacy into U.S. cities in the early 20th century.
As Michael Ford, aka the Hip-Hop Architect, has vividly stated, “Hip-Hop is the post-occupancy evaluation of Modernism.” The resilience of impoverished black and brown neighborhoods are the conditions that Hip-Hop culture has rhymed about in an effort to narrate the trauma, neglect, and brutality of racialized spaces. The cadences and rhythmic hooks are the architectures of a spatial language that details the inequities that lie present at the feet of Eurocentric design ideologies created by white men in power. It is this same foundation of ideologies that are responsible for the pedagogies of design education till this day in academia. The reverence for white male architects has continued to dominate how the curriculum is constructed to teach students how to rationalize and decide who can contribute to the theory of space. This endless cycle often results in unconscious exclusion. This is one inequity DCo is fighting to decolonize.
The vision and goals of the organization were the culmination of my negative experiences of living a double consciousness in the predominantly white design curriculum of the architecture design education. In my case, this revolved around my time at the University of Michigan and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. As one of about six black students in a class of about 140 students who graduated from Taubman College’s Master of Architecture program in 2016, there was always a crude reminder of the white space that dominated the school.
I had two roles to play: assimilate to be embraced by the likes of my white colleagues or stand out as one of a few black students who stood for justice and liberation. Traversing dual roles proved to be an impossible task in a school of very few black professors. It is why I was one of two co-leaders of ARC, a predominantly white student space, and involved in NOMAS, a predominantly student-of-color space. The same divide in students was present in the faculty, where the critique of the contributions of black-centered work was scrutinized as not being foundational to historical architecture methodologies. The practice of disregarding the contributions of black educators to the profession is present in the studio and classrooms, where the multicultural identities of students are suppressed at the expense of preserving the rhetoric of white educators. In my case, this resulted in my ideas and concepts of dismantling the politicized space of architecture being misunderstood or stricken down. This was true of my thesis, final reviews, theory courses, or even in my interactions outside of the rigors of studio.
Positioning the powers and privileges of white educators as the center of design education and the outcome of student work devalues the development liberation of marginalized identities and cultures of non-white space that exist in the country. Currently, to solve this issue, the response of the institutions and organizations in practice is to move swiftly to Band-Aid decades of unjust decisions. My associates and I at Designing in Color think this process is neither sustainable nor yields measurable results.
Channeling the wisdom of the Afrofuturist Harriet Tubman, DCo developed the Designing with Action (DwA) program, a series of workshops that prioritize the implementation of design justice at firms, community organizations, and universities. It begins by using DCo’s three-step core process of challenge, collaboration, and create. Community organizing and capacity building at any scale involve a critical understanding of the systems that need to be challenged, the people who are often excluded from collaborations, and innovative processes of creating content or space for quieted voices.
We center the program on the question, What does it mean to practice as an anti-racist or a complicit racist designer? We believe a critical component of design activism involves the accountability of understanding how individuals play a role in sustaining injustices. This includes white firm owners and tenured members of faculty who have the privilege of ignoring the results of the racist policy at the expense of perpetuating a cycle of exclusion. By unpacking the history of racialized space and the exploitative practices of European imperialism and colonization, architects and educators can understand how the profession has played a pivotal role in building white supremacy in America. Through the understanding of this research, we work with our partners in developing and implementing key strategies that put liberation and justice at the forefront of their practices. One of those strategies starts at the scale of an individual's responsibility to enact safe space around themselves.
Inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois, we call this building a spatial consciousness. On a daily basis, racism systematically operates similar to the structure of an iceberg. Imagine this as a section-cut: the most heinous and egregious crimes are visible above the surface; however, beneath the white thin layer lies an endless abyss of microaggressions that reinforce racist policy. Building a spatial consciousness begins to dissolve the impact of how individuals who harness power and privilege can impact the space and people around them. When thinking about this strategy, consider four key items.
When Designing and Organizing Space I Should …
Actively Practice a Double Consciousness
How do I live in fear of the impacts of my power, positions, and privilege as it relates to social and racial injustices? White people must continuously build an awareness of their presence in space and its impact on others. Black people have done this to survive. White people must do this to disarm racism.
Identify Racialized and Discriminatory Space
How do the spaces I inhabit and design create racialized space? How are people around me oppressed as a result? Identifying possible exclusion is a key step at undoing harm to silenced voices.
What Are My Ability Biases?
An ability bias is a tendency to solve a problem while using your own abilities as a baseline. Identify your biases and actively understand how they can be an asset or detriment to those around you. By doing this, it will be possible to undo the colonization process of building white supremacy and Eurocentric ideals into space or curricula.
Interdependence is the matching of complementary skills and mutual contributions. It is often a key component of disability justice. Identifying and integrating key systems of projects and staff that are dependent on each other can increase the likelihood of success for everyone. It is a village mentality.
Examples of these four key strategies only begin to build the accountability and responsibility of one's self in space and the process of creating just environments with communities.
Commodifying hostile spaces is engraved into the historical injustices of this country. How do we dismantle them? Like a fish out of water that is unaware of its environment for the entirety of its existence, white people are conditioned to benefit from racism, whether it is realized or not. For decades, black people have had to fight for space equity at the risk of their lives, jobs, or sense of security. The 1965 Watts Riots, the 1919 Chicago Race Riots, the murder of George Floyd, the assassination of Breonna Taylor, or the thousands dead from COVID-19 are all occurrences that weaken the collective body of Black America. No matter the circumstance, there is always a feeling of loss.
To my former white professors, colleagues, allies, and conspirators, unbuild your own racism. This requires relinquishing some of the power and privileges you’ve been awarded since birth. Be an agent of change who raises the bottom line of equity for the humanity of all spectrums of life. Blacks have always led civil rights movements in this country. We have made progress, but yet we sit here traumatized by the blatant disregard this country has for our lives. We are said to be liberated but yet are still treated like three-fifths of a person. We are thought of as having contributed to the architectural profession but have not received any of the 41 Pritzker Prize awards. While many of us remain stuck at home, the time for change is now and white leaders are needed to not only support the movement, but help lead it. Not as saviors of the system but people who have power and influence to make generational change. Again, black people are not in need of saving. But damn, would we sure like to breathe peacefully at night, ‘cause navigating white space while black sure ain’t easy.