Why I don’t speak to white architects about race

Black people encounter obstacles in their professional lives of a kind unimagined by their white counterparts. Kunle Barker shares a personal testimony illustrating an insidious problem that blights the construction industry

On a recent flight, I began a conversation with an architect sitting next to me. He had read one of my AJ columns and asked what the difference between diversity and inclusion was. In answer, I quoted Richard Thompson, chairman of Surrey County Cricket Club: ‘Diversity is a reality. Inclusion is an option.’ To put this into an architectural context, I explained that there are black architects but just not enough of them in big practices nor in senior positions. Has architecture chosen not to be inclusive?

Our discussion turned to comments I had made in the AJ regarding the Southwark Council framework controversy. The framework had come under fire because none of the 110 practices appointed to it were black-led. Southwark subsequently added to it with a competition assessed 20 per cent on equality, diversity and inclusion criteria.

My travel companion questioned why race should be prioritised over one’s ability to deliver a scheme. He had missed the point; Southwark had accepted the reality of diversity and acted to make its procurement procedure more inclusive. His comments highlighted a deeper, insidious problem: why is inclusion associated with a sacrifice of quality? Why is it assumed black architects cannot produce work of the same quality as their white counterparts?


The architect I spoke with is white, runs a growing practice, is originally from the North of England, and was educated at a comprehensive school. I am black, sit on the board of a growing practice, was brought up in a small village in Bedfordshire and educated at a public school.

This brought up the question of privilege: am I more privileged than he is?

In answer, I recounted three stories to highlight recent challenges I have encountered that he would never experience, because, despite my schooling, I am black.

1) As project lead on a recent, complicated scheme I fulfilled my role in an exemplary manner, turning a once-controversial scheme into one that garnered overwhelming support. Despite this, the head of the architects for the scheme frequently talked at me, down to me, and around me. I tolerated his treatment for the sake of the project. But why should I have had to?

2) Standing in a breakfast queue for coffee at the Hilton Hotel at the NEC, impeccably dressed in a bespoke Timothy Everest suit, I was approached by a woman who asked if I could clear her table. I explained that I did not work at the hotel. An hour later, as I opened Grand Designs Live alongside Kevin McCloud, the incident played on my mind. Nothing about me suggested I worked at the hotel. The lady had simply seen a black man and, from that, made several assumptions.


3) Last year I was witness in a court case against a man who had sent me a barrage of unpleasant text messages. I had recommended his contracting company be removed from a project, due to poor performance. His response was to send me a string of threatening and racist texts. No other members of the senior team on the scheme (who were all white) were subjected to this treatment. Thankfully, UK law now protects people against crimes such as these, and the man was convicted. Nevertheless, I had to endure that abuse, that crime – and only because I am black.

Incidents like these are a regular feature in the professional lives of all black people. The first step to a more inclusive industry is acknowledging that black people face additional challenges. The second step is to do something about it, and I mean really do something about it, not ticking boxes, nor putting up Black History Month posters. Make positive, long-lasting change.

Some of you may ask, why? Things are changing; the world is a better place; and we refuse to accept certain behaviours of the past in our industry. These things are true.

However, there is another truth, and it is this: if you are white and send out 10 CVs to get an interview, your black counterpart will have to send 30. If you have to attend five interviews to get a job, they have to attend 10. If you have three chances to mess up in your role, they have just one. That’s the truth of being black in this industry.

Kunle Barker is a property expert, journalist and broadcaster

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  1. Viktor Westerdahl

    Great article. As a white man I recently read ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’ by Reni Eddo-Lodge. The book is an eye opening and rigorous analysis of race history in Britain.

  2. Robert Prewett

    Kunle. Thank you for speaking up. I don’t imagine its easy. But what you say is so important for everyone to read.

  3. Hi Kunle, interesting story and thanks for sharing. I have to point out a few gaps in your article that I would like you to address.

    Firstly, you have questioned your travel companion’s statement as to “why race should be prioritised over performance” by saying that there is an implicit prejudice against people of colour. I would suggest there is another argument based on principles of equality: why should anyone include race as a criteria when selecting a project team or a candidate for an interview? Surely, the goal of movements for equality of race (or gender) is to have equality of opportunity while also avoiding compromise on performance? If so, then the purpose is literally to remove race from the equation entirely, not to place it back into the selection criteria? How would it feel for a person of colour to know that they won an architectural competition simply because they “gained points” because of their race?

    Secondly, I can see how your past experience has been painful and can personally relate to that. However, none of the three incidents you describe refer either to a project competition or an interview. Yet in the conclusion you make a few broad assertions about how easy it is for white people to be selected for jobs or projects vs black people. So how exactly do the incidents you describe relate to the problem you conclude with?

    I would suggest that the mechanisms to “balance the scales” are not simply to prioritize people of colour simply because of their race. I am sure you have by now heard of the term “diversity hire” and how that can also have negative impact on individuals working in a company. The reality is that in order to achieve the goal of equality of opportunity, the dynamics need to be bottom-up, with initiatives coming from within the organisations. If we start imposing quotas of staff percentages, black led practice criteria and other similar top-down mechanisms, this will become an artificial tick box exercise, which will never get absorbed into the fabric of our culture.

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