"Suspects" in the Studio

Increasing Diversity in Design Education



Dec '14 - Dec '14

  • "Suspects" in the Studio

    Derek Ham
    Dec 11, '14 2:42 PM EST

    It was a Sunday evening in March of 2011 when I received the strangest email. I was sitting at my computer working when in my inbox the message [SECURITY] Unidentified Suspect In the Undergraduate Studios” popped up from our “arch-all” email group. The message (which I saved) was sent from another architecture student whose name I removed for the sake of this article (I also made pseudonyms of the student names that come up in the email as to keep them anonymous).

    The email said:

    Hi guys,

    I just wanted to send out an email warning people to be on the lookout for a person roaming the undergraduate studios today in studio 7. A few other undergrads and I saw him sweep up and down the studios while talking on his phone. He was not recognized as an undergraduate, nor a first year graduate.


    Young, black male (and no it wasn't Rex or Winston, har har)

    Approimately 5' 6" in height.

    Seemed to be of stocky build

    Young, possibly of high school age.

    Was seen "talking" on a cell phone, and had a notebook with scribbles and presumably "fake" architectural sketches.

    Left before I could approach him. Did one last sweep of the undergrad section before leaving.

    Keep an eye out for him! Thanks,

    When I received that email my first thought was that this was some type of bad joke. As a first year graduate student in the architecture program I learned that a lot of the undergrads had an awkward sense of humor and often lose their minds under the pressure and demand of the program’s curriculum. But when this email was responded to by “Winston” writing back to everyone saying- “You are so silly” I couldn’t help but feel both bad and a little angry at the same time. I felt bad because although I didn't know Winston (but would later get to know Rex) I wondered if that email response was showing his participation in this ill shaped humor. Then again, perhaps he had sent it to help ease tensions? Later I found out it was a little bit of both. Secondly, I was angry because the student sending the initial email had made a judgment call that helped spread the “suspicious Black man” stereotype. That student with the “presumably fake architecture sketches” could have been me walking through the architecture studio! I am Black, and although I can assure you my sketches are on Beast Mode, I personally did not know everyone in the undergraduate program. What if one day they approach me with suspicion? Should I make it my priority to go introduce myself to everyone to avoid being identified as a future suspect? This was an entirely new type of imposter syndrome.

    The recent cases involving Mike Brown in Ferguson and Garner in New York all continue to illuminate how many people view Blacks (and especially Black men) in America.  They are a potential threat, up to no good, and something to “keep an eye on.” While our architecture department later issued a statement urging all students not to use the email system to make these types of unsupported claims of threat, it doesn't deal with the real problem. Architecture like so many other STEM professional programs are so underrepresented at Ivy Institutions that we can be counted and accounted for. Unless you are studying at one of the seven HBCU accredited architecture programs, Black students find themselves in a small minority. You are either Rex or Winston. How we change these statistics is a challenge we must all face. The architecture studio should be an inviting atmosphere for people of all walks of life. It is a place of collaboration where people share experiences to learn. And perhaps this can be one place where an unknown Black man can be seen without suspicion. 

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About this Blog

The recent cases involving Mike Brown in Ferguson and Garner in New York all continue to illuminate how many people view Blacks (and especially Black men) in America. Architecture schools cannot avoid this discussion as many schools still have staggering low numbers of Black and other underrepresented minority students in their programs. I want to help us talk about these issues as we continue to try making our learning environments (the design studio) welcoming for people of all walks of life.

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