What do I know about discrimination? My upbringing was about as Wonder Bread as imaginable: prosperous, suburban, Midwestern, conservative, Christian, and Caucasian. The stuff of John Hughes movies, really. You’d probably think I had it made, and in many ways you’d be right.
But for all my privileges, I grew up gay in the 1980s, which was a frightening and lonesome reality, with the AIDS crisis raging and attitudes toward LGBT people going from bad to worse. All that homophobia—yep, I internalized it, and I’ll never completely shake it, even though public opinion lately has started to turn.
Feeling the need to hide your love life from the world is bad enough. Imagine walking into a room every day where no one else looks like you, losing a job opportunity just because your name fits a minority stereotype, or getting arrested when you ask to use the restroom in a Starbucks. For folks who aren’t white, cisgender, and male, that’s too often what it’s like to live and work in our purportedly meritocratic United States of America. And, it follows, that’s too often what it’s like to be an architect.
Civil rights legislation offers an important course of redress, but it hasn’t stopped prejudicial behavior in the office. According to a 2016 American Psychological Association report on the relationship between stress and discrimination [PDF], “For all groups surveyed, the most commonly reported experiences of major discrimination relate to employment.”
The report concludes that people of color, women, people with disabilities, LGBT people, the young, and the poor all experience inordinately high levels of stress—not only at work, but in general. And it is well-documented that stress has direct, deleterious effects on health, career, and family life.
The demographic with the least stress? Straight white male baby boomers.
Most practice leaders and professors are straight white male baby boomers. And despite decades of well-meaning diversity initiatives, other groups remain underrepresented on every step of the ladder. Architecture culture doesn’t help the situation, with its cults of hero-worship and tacit permissiveness toward bullying.
I’d like to think that architecture harbors few overt bigots, especially given increasingly progressive standards for workplace behavior. But then overt bigotry, while reprehensible, doesn’t strike me as the core problem. More likely, the culprit is institutional oppression—those innumerable barriers of law, custom, and practice that produce inequity. For white-collar white guys like me, who hold most of the plum jobs, power, money, and influence, it’s shamefully easy to accept the lie that the system and our own actions are faultless. The delusional narrative of a color-blind, classless, equal-opportunity America can only seem real when civilization has been designed in your image.
Discrimination is tragically prevalent in our society, but that’s no reason to settle. Architects rightly believe that their work can change the world for the better. It’s time to put that belief back into everyday practice, by designing more equitable communities and reforming professional culture. Architecture should be a paragon of inclusivity, but it will take a profound effort, soul-searching, and change from the top.
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