Monday, October 17, 2011

Lulu's Mailbag: Racism in architecture?

Recently, I got the following email from B, who was concerned about:

Lately I've been having a really hard time trying to find internships because of my race. I'm a minority and everywhere I go I have to face racial comments and criticisms. I'm starting to get really discouraged. Do you think that this profession is open to minorites, such as Latinos, Asians, and African Americans? And should I continue to try and find an internship or just give up?

It's a fair question, B, and one that's admittedly a little hard for me to answer.  I'm a white woman in Colorado (where the racial makeup is only about 10% African-American and about 30% Hispanic), and before that I was a white woman in the South (where black and white were about 50-50 when I left in 2000, though Hispanics had been moving into the South for the ten years before I moved out), so my race has never been an issue (and my gender only rarely has been an issue).  

But  that leads me to my first question: where are you looking for jobs?  Are you in Yazoo County, Mississippi, or in the greater Los Angeles area?  I'm only half kidding.  I don't know what is your country of origin (I've withheld your name in this post), so I can't imagine what you look like or what your accent sounds like or any other factors that might lead someone to be biased against you and not hire you.  But I can imagine that if you're looking for a job in a smaller market (say, Witchita KS versus Philadelphia PA), and you're competing for jobs with a bunch of people who look exactly like the people running the firm, and people in that smaller market aren't used to seeing people like you on a regular basis, then I imagine you're going to have a harder time getting a job.  

I'm also trying to imagine where you are that you're actively hearing racist comments and criticisms on a regular basis, even in 2011.  Even in the small town in Georgia where I was raised, people say rude and ignorant things under their breath, but they at least have the good sense not to say them out loud where everyone can hear.  I'm also going to ask a possibly sensitive/emotionally- and politically-charged question:  How's your English?  Do you have a solid grasp of not just vocabulary but also grammar and even slang phrases?  Do you speak with much of an accent?  Accents can be off-putting to some firms, especially if they're in small markets, because they're concerned that you don't know English well enough to understand what a client or consultant (or even your boss) is asking of you.  

The reason I'm asking these questions is that architecture can be very accepting of different minorities, but it can depend on where you are in the country when you're looking for a job.  Hell, it even varies from firm to firm--I know of firms full of white guys in Manhattan, and I know of a small firm in Cody, Wyoming that has people from Colombia and Trinidad working on hospitals all over the West. Even when people aren't actively being racist (i.e., thinking "Man, I would never hire him/her because s/he's black/Asian/Hispanic"), people can be subtly, almost subconsciously or unintentionally racist.  You just don't look like everyone else at the firm or in the area, and something in their head says "no."  Or, they may see and/or hear you and think, "Well, s/he looks perfect for the job, but I don't think my clients will warm to him/her."

I found a great report on interns in architecture that included a dissection of how welcome minorities felt in the profession.  (To find your own copy, Google "AIA Demographic Diversity Final Report".  For some reason, no longer has it posted easily on their website, not that I can find anyway.)  The report, compiled in 2005, indicated that of its respondents, about a third of women and minorities reported having experienced some kind of harassment or bias while working, and about a third of respondents felt that there were not equal opportunities for women and minorities.  Having spoken with people from other professions, it would seem that architecture is no better or worse for minorities than any other white collar profession (though architecture school seems to do a better job of leveling the playing field for genders and races). The AIA has initiatives regarding diversity, but your best bet might be the National Organization of Minority Architects.  Your question might be better directed to them, and they may have better resources regarding support for minority architects.

So B., the short answer is this: yes, there is a place for everyone in architecture; sometimes it's a matter of looking for the right fit (and in the right places).

Got a question you'd like answered or a topic you'd like to see discussed here?  Drop me a line in the comments or via email in the sidebar.  Thanks!


  1. Wow try living in Texas...there are some designers that will help you. and there are those who say if you dont look the part...don't bother

  2. I would say Los Angeles is one of the most racially diverse cities. However, it does not mean there is not racism here. As an Asian American certified female architect I am always hired as a low wage worker in larger architectural firms. I have not see any discrimination against white female architects. In fact they seem to flourish in corporate offices. However, I do believe it's harder for them to maintain their clout if they were to open their own office as an independent architect. Racism is psychologically debilitating, no doubt and it's hard to maintain confidence no matter how qualified you are. My only advise is to not try to find validation from other architects. Always maintain a logical evaluation of your strengths devoid prejudicial valuation from others. It's hard to do but a must in order to live by the truth of your own worth.

  3. gosh, same here, I'm asian in england and I have found so hard recently to find a job. I'm pretty sure there is some prejudice because people keep saying I'm talented but they won't give me a job or an interview at least. How can a rejection letter say you're talented but we're not giving you the job. I've sent out 200 cvs so far, and only had 2 interviews.