Open Letter To Students Of Colour
Congratulations on having made it to this point. You managed to overcome social, cultural and economic obstacles to gain a degree of access to a world that was never designed for you. This in itself is a profound achievement.
During your degree, you will be confronted by your blackness, as you will be pushed into a world that prioritises aesthetics: that of your work as well as your body – its gender, accent, skin tone – over the content and richness of your thoughts.
You have knowledge of things that your teachers don’t – you know things that you need to learn to explain, albeit only to yourself. This knowledge is something quite exceptional, even magical. You may know what I’m referring to, or you may still have to find this/your voice. This is important: our buildings reflect who we are, so be conscious of how you explain yourself to yourself. This ‘magical knowledge’ comes from a deep place of understanding who you are in the world. It is humbling and should not be used to serve you, for it does not only belong to you.
Last year I had the privilege to teach in the first-year architecture studio at the University of Cape Town. This gave me the opportunity to reflect upon my own time as a student there. Beyond the existential difficulties of being black within the school, alongside well-travelled, music-festival-attending classmates – and beyond not being able to afford all the drawing stationery, or having to build models from scraps from my peers – the greatest difficulty was undertaking the project of architecture because, for a person of colour, to build is to submit to a degree of hypocrisy.
Our discipline has evolved because of surplus. Its fundamental values have become dependent on expediency and material gain. This is more than likely the world you will enter. It is predicated on the original sin, that of settlement and land theft, the crime that led to the genocide and enslavement of your forebears and the uneasy condition we find ourselves in.
And here we find ourselves at a critical moment in history, where you have to call into question the very value set of the discipline. The challenge is to rise above all these deeply emotional and existential difficulties and embark on laying the new foundation for a decolonised education.
This is a call for you to make your education meaningful. Draw what you can from those who teach you, but know they are not necessarily on the same road as you. Think, reflect, criticise, and speak confidentially to them. Address the culture of the school. Call out arrogance of whiteness, polite violence, micro-aggressions and unethical behaviour.
For a decolonised education, we must demand rigour from ourselves, and not get caught up in feelings. This requires a new, unified imagination of optimism, rooted within the current condition. It requires a commitment not only to the tired trope of ‘change’ but to a fundamental shift in the way we think about who we are, how we occupy spaces, the public commons, aesthetics, economy of use, and opportunity presented by intersecting differences that divide.
Understand the everyday social workings of the urban environment, for here lies the most important lessons. Architecture is about creating support for human life and for interaction between different people. Guard your learning time and use it wisely for remaking worlds and socio-spatial connections.
The academy is a place to grow. You owe it to yourself, your families, and the black masses to make the most of it. It is a magnificent opportunity. Design creativity affords the possibility for a constant remaking of worlds.
You are in your formative years, faced with much uncertainty. But uncertainty is our contemporary condition. Equip yourself for this, learn as broadly as you can and peruse your interests tirelessly. The only constant is you.