contextualizing “white supremacy culture”: towards “antidotes” in design school

“Culture is so powerful precisely because it is so present and at the same time so difficult to name or identify” (Okun).

Tema Okun’s breakdown of “White Supremacy Culture,” though focused on the workplace, resonated profoundly with CED grad students last summer during discussions of anti-Black racism and other hegemonic power structures in our academic environments. I especially appreciated the format of the piece: for each characteristic, Okun includes several specific examples of the attitude in action, and then a list of “antidotes,” or actions toward repairing the harm the attitude sustains. Though I think each of these elements offers potential critiques of design school culture, several seem particularly relevant to our daily experiences as both students and GSIs. Below, I’ve begun to think through some possible opportunities to employ “antidote” strategies within the specific context of graduate design pedagogy.

perfectionism

  • Especially in crit/review environments, consciously offering feedback that addresses the project/work, rather than the student.
  • As student and GSI, developing culture of affirming effort, asking about and validating process, even when it does not produce a “desired” deliverable.
  • As member of architecture community, advocating for curricular change and while recognizing impossibility of perfection, acknowledging challenges of change, encouraging evolution regardless.
  • As human, striving to better appreciate my own work, to be willing to make mistakes and own them, to ask “the wrong questions,” to move on.

sense of urgency

  • As GSI, holding space for honest check-ins with students about course timelines and work volume. Offering extensions or accommodations without consequence where possible. Advocating for students to instructors when appropriate.
  • As student, checking in with each other about well-being, sleep. Finding ways of delegating, collaborating, or sharing work where possible.
  • As students (collective), communicating with instructors/administrators about unreasonable expectations, and being willing to not meet these expectations.

defensiveness

  • As student and GSI, recognizing personal positions of power and privilege within organizational structure and ways in which this power/ways of wielding it oppresses others. Cultivating awareness of personal fears and circumstances that would provoke defensiveness.
  • As member of architecture community, “discuss[ing] the ways in which defensiveness or resistance to new ideas gets in the way of the mission” at hand (Okun).

quantity over quality

  • Related to “urgency”: As GSI and student, validating ways of working that may not produce traditionally recognizable deliverables. Advocating for syllabi/curriculum that set “process goals” as well as or in place of high-deliverable goals.

paternalism

  • As students, communicating with instructors/administration when decision-making is unclear. Advocating for more transparent assessment processes, especially in studio. Advocating for more transparent employment appointment processes.
  • As GSI, taking time to explain pedagogical and assessment strategies, when possible. Taking time to gather feedback about clarity of course expectations and approaches. Gathering feedback about ways to improve course structures/teaching methods.

either/or thinking

  • When offering feedback, avoiding binary language. “Good” or “bad” design decisions. Making an effort to detangle these binaries (or offer alternative/more expansive language) when they arise, especially in crit settings.
  • Related: Always calling out/problematizing use of reductive, coded-racist language (“good neighborhood” vs. “bad neighborhood”)

power hoarding

  • As GSI, student, and member of design communities, seeking opportunities to challenge designer-privileging hierarchies and consolidation of power in hands of designers. Investigating and proliferating diverse strategies of power-sharing in the built environment.

objectivity

  • As GSI and student, holding space for peers’/students’ emotional lives. Validating emotional landscapes as relevant and wellbeing as essential.
  • As GSI, being willing to make accommodations and changes based on information shared about personal lives. Creating opportunities for students to share personal information, if they choose, and fostering environment of active support to receive and respond to that information.

placekeeping seminar, s21