A black RIBA president doesn’t mean architecture’s race problem is sorted

The line may seem a fine one to tread but all that’s needed is a mindful attitude and a willingness to accept change. I have personally experienced very few instances of racial discrimination in architecture so I too must be active in listening to the stories of those who have experienced prejudice. We all must be. Be they from the 1 per cent of black registered architects or those of underrepresented genders or disabilities. To move forward towards an equitable profession, we must celebrate the wins but understand that more work needs to be done.

The findings of the AJ’s recent race diversity survey (‘Young, gifted and blocked’) were proof, if it were needed, that minorities within the profession still face major barriers. Among several saddening statistics was that 73 per cent of those surveyed suggested that skin colour is a factor in their career progression. 

Recent articles and media pieces have focused on Oki being the first black president, with pieces bridging over to the mainstream news and people outside the profession becoming aware of current happenings in architecture. The tone of these articles makes me worry that tokenism may arise. From the outside, architecture may appear different to the truth that’s been documented and lived daily.

Toko Andrews is an associate at Tunbridge Wells-based Kaner Olette Architects


73 per cent of those surveyed suggested skin colour is a factor in their career progression

We now have a black president of the RIBA and the importance of this cannot be overstated. Similar to the election of Sunand Prasad and Ruth Reed (the first woman president), the election of Muyiwa Oki will be meaningful to countless students, architects and other professionals. Now there is someone that looks like them in a position of prominence. 

So, we should celebrate the election of the youngest and first black president but be mindful of discrimination that still exists. We should reject prejudice, including the possible positive discrimination that tokenism can lead to. We should judge Oki in his role as RIBA president as he makes his mark on the profession. Judge him as fairly as anybody in a prominent position should be –no more and no less. He was elected because he deserved it, and critical charity will undermine his obvious ability and what he is capable of.

Thankfully I’m no longer in that situation but architecture, unfortunately, might be. Challenging this requires the acknowledgment of individual stories that illustrate the discrimination within the profession. More than three years ago, the AJ put forward the argument that ‘Architecture is systemically racist’. This is a hard fact that must not be ignored or forgotten simply because we now have a black RIBA president.

Tokenism can be an excuse to avoid bringing about actual change. I’ve been a victim of tokenism. A long time ago, when doing a job far from architecture, I was the go-to for any black or ethnic customer. Pushed into situations based solely on skin colour, I was used as a means for the company to sell more. I was there for two years and despite a high staff turnover, there was still no diversity or inclusion when I left. 

Representation is important in promoting diversity and inclusion in the profession as well as improving the wellbeing of those minorities already within it. As a student, I struggled to find black role models in architecture so I feel something like relief that students now won’t face that same problem. However, while I celebrate the new president, I am mindful that there must be a realistic understanding of what the true situation is.