Prejudice is pernicious. If you have been on the receiving end of it, then you know how true this can be. If you have sailed through your life so far, then you know how lucky you are based on prejudice’s ubiquity.
Bias, as a noun, is a form of prejudice that you will hear a lot about this fall from the AIA. What you’ll also hear about are the dimensions of bias that make it not only pernicious and ubiquitous but also consequential—and it’s those consequences that create and sustain the very systems that perpetuate prejudice in society, in the workplace, and in spaces and places we design for all people.
I’m comfortable enough being uncomfortable to say that many of us in power and of privilege who wish to see positive change are hypocrites. We all want change, but we are all complicit in a system that disenfranchises tens of thousands of students and architects each year. We are complicit in a system that has disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of students and architects since 1857, never mind the untold numbers who never had the chance to matriculate in schools or gain admission to the profession in the first place.
As the AIA’s current president, I represent a continuum of leaders who are united in their volunteerism, often over many years and decades, to represent the interests of architects. I have also had the chance to speak to dozens and dozens of different kinds of architects, and often I have spoken about a “continuum of agency.” A continuum of agency is when there is no material difference in our vocations, in our stations of life, in our professional outlooks, or even in the titles we give ourselves, whether it’s principal or president, co-founder or intern, student or dean, or board member or member.
This continuum means that it’s incumbent upon all of us to champion fairness, understand the dimensions of privilege, extend equitability from the scale of our compensation to the scale of our environment, and use our training as architects to lead by example.
Someone asked me recently if it was hard to be in a leadership position last year in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. The truth is I didn’t know what to do or what to say. So, I started to listen and listen more carefully than I ever had before to anyone else. But, this time, I was listening to everyone else—everyone who had been pulled over in their cars because of the color of their skin, everyone who had been threatened with a gun stuck in their ribs when they were teenagers, everyone who had been graded lower in architecture school than a white peer for no apparent reason.
Prejudice (and its subordinate concept of bias) is at the heart of all of this. But, if we can start to make our way back from complicity and hypocritical behavior, and especially if we can start to listen as urgently as we vow to act to gain real understanding, then our actions will be far more effective in ending systemic injustice.