Essay by Germane Barnes and Shawhin Roudbari
Mario Gooden testifies that “Blackness is a spatial act.” As a society we demand that those who identify as Black be hyper-aware of their surroundings. The vilest of these demands are often implicit, systemic issues that allow aggressors to hide behind a veil of ignorance. How does one prove ambiguity? Surroundings may be a term too shallow to fully encompass the acute awareness required to survive an architected environment designed and constructed to stratify races. Why must a Black family feel unsafe in a park? Why must a Black man feel unsafe while watching birds? Why must a Black woman feel unsafe while asleep? Why does the mere occupation of space by a Black body create animosity, fear, and aggression?
Perhaps answers can be found when we recognize spaces that are racialized as white. White spaces in the US have in their DNA a set of racialized assumptions about who belongs, who is in control, and what sorts of actions are permissible. There is an implicit obedience within these spaces that welcomes the assimilated and refuses the abstract. Some of these governing rules are expressed through the design of thresholds and the designation of public vs. private spaces of the self vs. other, the manipulation of hierarchy and circulation, as well as aesthetic choices and their symbolism. Other modes of implementation include bureaucratic documents, aggressive collectivity, and colorblind interactions.
To better understand the racialization of everyday architectural spaces, we must understand ways black occupation and white hegemony collide.
We define hegemony as consensual and as internalized participation in systems of domination. Take racism as a system of domination where one group of people takes advantage of another group and justifies it by some arbitrary measure, example the shade of your skin. When we buy into the difference in ability, intellect, and values based on this measure, we consent to this system. And when we adopt or internalize the values and fears of the dominant group, we render the system hegemonic. Hegemony is different from more overt forms of domination. And the subtle difference is a key to understanding our role, as architects, in confronting the racism inherent in what we do and what we make.
Dominant groups normalize their worldviews through establishing cultures that reproduce their control over oppressed groups. White hegemony calls attention to how ideas of whiteness, white dominance, or white supremacy are baked into culture and assumed to be normal. From the early formations of whiteness, settler colonial elites and their descendants have built institutions that reproduced habits, values, practices, and discourses (collectively, cultures) that served to benefit their interests at the cost of the livelihoods and lives of others.
A lot of whites and non-whites take for granted cultural norms—without acknowledging their racist underpinnings and the fact that these norms were forcefully, violently, at times overtly and at times covertly, shaped to concentrate power and domination. We are all subject to the influential power of white hegemony. Even whites working on anti-racist agendas carry white hegemonic ideologies.1
Consider the policing of aesthetics in architecture school. Those of us who are students and teachers in architecture schools learn to perform to white architectural standards and behaviors. The white hegemony of studio culture is a forceful reminder of how we consent to and internalize hierarchies, work practices, aesthetic choices, and design thinking that are all rooted in the history of whiteness and its connections with colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy, and directly, racism.
In architecture schools, white architectural standards and behaviors are maintained and enforced by more than just white students and faculty—and this is what makes it hegemonic. The racism of studio culture is one matter, but the hegemonic whiteness of that culture is another, entirely more insidious matter. We make painful adjustments in our own taste, cultural values, and design genius to conform to standards set by the ghosts of a white power elite.
Sociologists Matthew Hughey and Carson Byrd are direct in acknowledging these entrenched operations of white hegemony. They show how “assessments of whites (by both whites and people of color), in any given locale or context, depend on a larger shared ideal of what whiteness both is and should be” and importantly, they continue, “[this] is policed through implicit and explicit social and cultural markers of authentic belonging.”2 It is this idea that we police who belongs and who doesn’t that hegemony helps us understand. Indeed, white hegemony is maintained by our own vigilantism.
White hegemony is driven in part by fear of the diminishment of white identity. Caroline Knowles, a sociologist of race and ethnicity, tells us that “non-white performances of lifestyle attract censure and heighten fears.”3 To protect against a sense of invasion, in response to a racist fear, white individuals internalize a sense of difference and superiority. The construction of the idea of whiteness draws on this dynamic.4
Architecture participates in the perpetuation of white dominance. Take a walk through any architecture school and you will likely find countless renderings of new urban developments in trending neighborhoods and branded districts with mostly white people enjoying mostly white activities in mostly white spaces. (Think of the countless craft breweries in revitalized industrial neighborhoods branded as arts districts that we see in pinups at our schools.) If these projects don’t serve to police shared ideals of whiteness, in our schools, our profession, and the spaces we design and construct, then what does? Images of “American domesticity” are iconic. They too help produce a hegemonic idea of white culture and virtuous families. More than a backdrop to normative ideals of kinship and domesticity, architecture is a critical part of using the built environment to reify and deepen white hegemony.
White hegemony is often unacknowledged or invisible, and that is what makes it insidious, with lasting, harmful effects. But when we scrutinize the behavior of white users of space, this hegemony comes into view. Sociologist Elijah Anderson reminds us that “when encountering blacks in the white space, some whites experience cognitive dissonance and, if for no other reason than the need to set the dissonant picture straight, become confused or disturbed, or even outraged at what they see. In the interest of consonance, they try to put the black person ‘back in his place’—at times telling him in no uncertain terms to ‘go back where you came from.’”5 In other terms, Anderson explains how “in the white space, small issues can become fraught with racial meaning or small behaviors can subtly teach or remind the black person of her outsider status, showing onlookers and bystanders alike that she does not really belong, that she is not to be regarded and treated as a full person in the white space.”6
These dynamics play out consistently in the spaces we design, and they are perhaps most visible in the everyday institutional spaces we create: overtly in our prisons, and covertly in classrooms, courtrooms, museums, and the social spaces of our cafes, our retail experiences, and our restaurants. In these spaces, we design what Black feminist geographer Katherine McKittrick calls “[a] material spatialization of ‘difference.’”7
In her analysis of the slave auction block, Katherine McKittrick helps us broaden our thinking about the architecture of white hegemony both historically and spatially. For us, it is an architectural expression of the roots of white vigilance in the US. The auction block and slave quarters at the Green Hill plantation in Campbell County, Virginia are sited beside each other. The colorblind perspective calls the first an assembly of stones arranged as a platform and the second as a basic gable-roofed shelter. But they are much more than that. McKittrick analyzes the auction block as “a site of public-racial-sexual domination and measurable documentation.”8 She writes about how “racial positionings—of the auctioneer, the buyers, the onlookers, the enslaved—hold steady this domination through the gaze, the exchange of money, and bodily evaluation.”9 She calls the auction block a “technology that ‘scales’ the body… that displays black bodies in relation to the wider landscape.”10 In doing so, as a platform, or a plinth, the auction block situates the white gaze of the buyers, with the seller, and the hegemonic image of the plantation.
Now, if we consider a comparison of the figures of the suburb vs. slave quarter, what conclusions about the architecture of white hegemony might we draw? If we consider a comparison of the figure of the suburb against the image of the auction block, what conclusions about the materiality of hegemony might we draw?
To collapse the four posts and two platforms of the auction block into inert materiality is not to speak of architecture—it is to speak of six stones configured. But as architectural elements, these six stones have meaning, history, and are arranged to further racist violence enacted by the system of slavery. The same can be said about the slave quarters. The same, we argue, can be said about the suburban home.
McKittrick gives us this salient reminder:
It becomes very clear that this structure—whether it be a tree stump, a stage, or a table—is created by those who are on, around, and even distanced from, the selling point. The processes and acts that produced the auction block demonstrate the ease with which race, ownership, and profit culminated on the auction block and continually substantiated the economic and ideological currency of blackness, whiteness, possession, and captivity.11
Ruha Benjamin, writes that “if we consider race as itself a technology, as a means to sort, organize, and design a social structure… we can understand more clearly the literal architecture of power.”12 Architecture’s role in perpetuating and entrenching racism in the US must be acknowledged in order for architects to address the violent power of white hegemony.
We share a passage that has affected our thinking together on this idea of vigilante architecture. This passage, from Claudia Rankine, underscores how our experiences of hegemony in architecture are holistic. We encounter typological, elemental, tectonic, and aesthetic aspects of our built environment simultaneously. The experience of white hegemony is compounded. Rankine writes:
The new therapist specializes in trauma counseling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked.
At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?
It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right.
I am sorry.
I am so sorry, so, so sorry.13
Consider ways the elements of this house are coded. The side gate, the back entrance, the path bordered with deer grass and rosemary, the locked state of the gate, the front door, and its bell are given significance in this passage. Architecturally, to us, these represent threshold, private vs. public spaces, controlled access, paths, and communication. To folks for whom these architectural elements give the feeling of exclusion, the objects and their material characteristics are laden with racialized signifiers and mechanisms of control. To those whom these elements give a welcoming feeling, these objects are also racialized: they keep the bad people out and they keep the fragile dominant group safe from the diminishment of their markers of white identity.
Picture the therapist’s house as a detached home in a white neighborhood—maybe not unlike the suburban home shown referenced above. Such architectural elements speak volumes to those who have experienced racist encounters like this countless times in their lives.
At a basic level, by mere association, specific types of residential architecture, designed with particular architectural elements, and coded with intentional aesthetics, are connected to experiences of racism. At a less symbolic level—but a more spatial and functional level—forms of architecture are embedded in centuries of white hegemony. Everyday spaces of homes, classrooms, and courtrooms reflect this oppressive baggage. White hegemony is maintained by white vigilance and Black occupation challenges/frustrates white hegemony. This is poetically and painfully expressed in Rankine’s work. Vigilance as such, becomes a point of connection for us, between architecture and hegemony.
If we can agree that white hegemony is the static version of American systemic ideologies, then it stands to reason that Blackness operates as its glitch. The inherent sensibilities associated with public space are entrenched with barriers intending to contain ethnicities. Historically Black neighborhoods, both rural and urban, are planned with the idea that those residents will not stray into unwanted environments unless asked. The authors’ hometowns of Miami, Florida and Boulder, Colorado, like almost all cities in the US, are among those governed by these rules. In Miami, Black migrant labor was utilized to build the city once Julia Tuttle convinced Henry Flagler to extend the Florida East Coast rail line to the southernmost point of the continental United States.14 A population originating from Georgia and the Caribbean, by way of the Bahamas, were critical in the creating the contemporary metropolitan city. However, while these constituents were born from and near water, their primary residences in Miami were located farther from the Atlantic than any other ethnicities’ homes were.
Miami Beach, Florida, an artificial island constructed by landfill, was inaccessible to those with more melanin. A city dependent upon the influx of individuals from other locations would not extend the same invitation to people from other locations that literally built the city. Informal racial enclaves due to restrictive covenants and housing policies would later become fixed borders of Black Miami. To operate outside of those boundaries would often result in detainment by local law enforcement. Commensurate with prejudiced institutional frameworks, local citizens often adopt the field guide of racialized spatial politics. The Arthur McDuffie riots and Travon Martin tragedies, perpetrated more than thirty years apart, are glaring examples of what happens when Black presence and white space collide.
The argument we are making through all of this is that architecture maintains hegemony through vigilance. What if, to protect white identity, we not only police one another, but we police aesthetics and aesthetics police us, and what if just as we police space, our spaces police us? Can our very architecture be an expression of vigilantism? We propose to deconstruct vigilante architecture by asking, what is aggressive, where is resistance, what and who bears witness? How are these three expressions of vigilance embedded, coded, and reified through architecture? The examples of the slave auction block, suburban home, parks, and the waters and beaches are a sampling of vigilante spaces that maintain or challenge white hegemony.
When coupled with the mere presence of Blackness, many interactions escalate to verbal or even physical altercations deemed appropriate by the deputization of white hegemony. If Blackness as a spatial act is the testimonial, then the pulpit upon which this declaration occurs is resistance and the practice of Black refusal. We argue that this collective refusal empowers the disenfranchised and begins to dismantle the systems that propagate the current hegemonic conditions.
1. Matthew W. Hughey and W. Carson Byrd, “The souls of white folk beyond formation and structure: bound to identity,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, volume 36, issue 6 (2013): 974-981.↵
2. Matthew W. Hughey and W. Carson Byrd, “The souls of white folk beyond formation and structure: bound to identity,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, volume 36, issue 6 (2013): 977.↵
3. Caroline Knowles, Race and Social Analysis (London: SAGE Publishing, 2003), 24.↵
4. We recommend James Baldwin’s essay “On being ‘white’ and other lies,” for his insights on the idea of “becoming white” to maintain social and economic standing. It highlights the power of the fear that drives hegemony. James Baldwin, “On being ‘white’ and other lies,” Essence, April 1984, 178..↵
5. Elijah Anderson, “The White Space,” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, Volume 1 Issue 1 (2015): 14.↵
6. Anderson, “The White Space,” 14.↵
7. Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), xvi.↵
8. McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle, 66.↵
9. McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle, 66.↵
10. McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle, 68.↵
11. McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle, 72.↵
12. Ruha Benjamin, Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code (Medford, MA: Polity, 2019), 91. Though Foucault did not figure explicitly in this analysis, his conceptions of the spatial operations of power (e.g., the panopticon) and governmentality undergird the axioms about architecture and power that this sociological analysis relies upon. Our focus on the power relations that perpetuate racialized difference, which empower whites at the expense of racialized minorities, is less about the abstract operations of power in space and more about the expression and perpetuation of racism through architecture.↵
13. Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014).↵
14. Edward N Akin, “The Cleveland Connection: Revelations from the John D. Rockefeller-Julia D. Tuttle Correspondence,” Tequesta, no. XLII (1982): 57–61.↵
Germane Barnes is the founder of Studio Barnes and an Assistant Professor and Director of the Community Housing Identity Lab (CHIL) at the University of Miami School of Architecture. His research and design practice investigates the connection between architecture and identity. Mining architecture’s social and political agency, he examines how the built environment influences black domesticity. He is the 2021 Harvard GSD Wheelwright Prize winner, Rome Prize Fellow, and winner of the Architectural League Prize. His design and research contributions have been published and exhibited in several international institutions, most notably The Museum of Modern Art, Chicago Architecture Biennial, Pin-Up Magazine, The Graham Foundation, The New York Times, Architect Magazine, DesignMIAMI/Art Basel, The Swiss Institute, Metropolis Magazine, Curbed, and The National Museum of African American History, where he was identified as one of the future designers on the rise.
www.germanebarnes.com | @UncleRemusChkn
Shawhin Roudbari is an assistant professor in Environmental Design at the University of Colorado Boulder. In his research, Roudbari studies ways designers organize to address social problems. He bridges sociological studies of social movements and race with architectural theory. Roudbari is a founding member of the Dissent by Design Collective, which uses design and theory building to investigate how dissent and counter-hegemonic tactics play out in urban landscapes. His work contributes to theories of contentious politics in the spatial professions and employs ethnographic methods.
www.dissentxdesign.com | @dissentxdesign