About the Archivist Architecture | Design Culture

Hot Stuff

How do you navigate the minefield of culture, politics, and collard greens when you're the only POC in the room?

Should I say something or just walk away and leave it alone?

I ask myself that question at least three times a day at work. Sometimes I do speak up, other times I don’t. Either way I am always left wondering if I did the right thing.

A few weeks ago it was announced that our staff is 60% female and the room filled with loud cheers. Then it was announced that our staff is 20% minority- the highest in any architecture firm in the city. The loud cheers turned into an uncomfortable silence.

I am the only black interior designer in my office. I realize what that means and I try not to make a big deal about it but it’s got some people in the industry SHOOK.

I am often greeted with looks of pure shock when people realize the Norell they have been emailing or talking to on the phone is a short black girl with an afro. Most people manage to hide their surprise after a few moments, but there are a few who struggle to do so. Most days I laugh it off but other days I really want to…well cuss.

In my first year of grad school, one of my professors told me I’d be “hot stuff” after graduation. “Black and female? They’ll be all over you!” she said.

I was stunned. I knew she didn’t mean any harm and probably meant it as a compliment but I was not sure how to feel. On one hand I felt empowered. At the same time I couldn’t understand what my skin color had to do with my abilities as a designer. I don’t think I ever responded.

When I first started working after graduation, an architectural sales rep wanted to know if Ferguson was my “real name”. She asked if I was married or adopted and was surprised when I said no. Then she said, “So Ferguson is your real name? The name you were born with?”

When I realized what she was implying, I was embarrassed but it quickly turned to anger (…in case you missed it, she was suggesting that my name isn’t “black” enough). I wanted to tell her off but my boss was standing right next to me. I honestly don’t remember what I said but that is when I finally understood what my professor meant. She was right, I was “hot stuff”.

Architecture is a profession that is dominated by white men. For years great architecture was defined by one group of people and designed for that same group. How many black architects have you heard of? But I’m sure you’ve heard the name Frank Lloyd Wright.

Of all the registered architects in America, less than 2% are black. The numbers must be even more dismal for black interior designers because I could not find any.

I understand why there are so few minorities in the design community. It’s an expensive and time consuming major and getting licensed after graduation is not easy. Interior design is a relatively newer field that is still fighting to be seen as a legitimate profession in some states. So I get it.

Doesn’t mean it is not lonely though.

I was the only black girl in my class in grad school and it never bothered me- my class was super diverse. But then I started working and I was almost always the only person of color in the room.

It is exhausting. Especially in this new era where culture, race, and politics permeate every aspect of life.

I can’t be the only person who feels this way.

I know I’m not the only black woman who has wondered what might happen if she wore a headwrap to work.

So how do we change this? As the places we live become more diverse, how do we ensure that the places we work reflect that?

I can’t speak for other careers but after almost two years as a designer, I think I’ve picked up on a reason or two why my field has created a culture of exclusivity.

How many architects or designers do you know? White, black, Latino, Asian, doesn’t matter- I’m guessing the answer is very few if not none. For those of you who know me personally, I am almost certain that I’m the only one you know.

And that is one of the biggest challenges for the future of diversity in the design profession. Many children of color do not even realize that it’s an option because they do not know anyone in the field.

Traditionally, most minority students choose to pursue careers in STEM or the humanities. Architecture and design fall right in the middle. I have heard people tell me that they want their career to have meaning and make a difference. Unfortunately, architecture has never been seen as a way to do that. However, good design can give back to a community and be very progressive. It can have a significant impact.

I’m sure the same can be said for lots of other jobs too. So how do we start to change these professions from the inside out?

Should I say something or just walk away and leave it alone?

The question I ask myself at least three times a day.

A few weeks ago when I got an email inviting me to a discussion about diversity in architecture held by local groups of architects, I decided to go and say something. I was really glad to see that others have also noticed the problem and are starting to have the conversation of how to fix it.

Yesterday, when I found out this week’s office farm share vegetable was collard greens, my mind immediately went to last year’s #gentrifiedgreens debacle. Was I witnessing greens become the new avocado? Would my coworkers soon be bringing greens in for lunch?

I decided to walk away and leave it alone.

Have you ever found yourself biting your tongue at work? Wondering if your anger only reinforces or upholds stereotypes? Hoping you didn’t make your coworkers too uncomfortable? I’d love to hear your stories- share you experiences below! 



1 comment on “Hot Stuff

  1. Yes I’ve felt this way, never knowing whether or not to rethink what was being said “maybe she didn’t mean it that way” or straight up be pissed at their ignorance. All I can do is be unapologetically me. This was how I was born so I’ll be the best damn version I can be, and let that speak for itself.

    Liked by 1 person

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