When I first arrived at the event, I was struck by the title and the description of it. It lacked any explicit mention of the words “race” and “gender,” meanwhile the word “matter” (with all of its implications) was there, neutralised with an uncompromising “we”. As much as we want to believe that “All lives matter,” reality has shown that such equality is still a fairy tale. Some acknowledgements must be made in titles, especially if they pretend to attract those who usually don’t feel part of that hegemonic group we call “we”.

With this in mind, my colleague Christopher and I went to the Orange Hall as part of the audience.

To my (pleasant) surprise, the introduction began with the organisers of the event explaining that the goal of the debate was to start talking about the Black Lives Matter movement and to “figure out what to do with our slavery history but also the cultural challenges globalisation has brought us.” Ultimately, the title was more a problem of branding and institutional etiquette than one of content or intent.

After this, the speakers were presented: Lyongo Juliana, an architect and director of OZ Caribbean in Amsterdam, Amy Thomas and Roberto Rocco, both teachers at BK, Anagha Yoganand, a graduate student of the Building Technology track, Aart Oxenaar, director of education of the faculty, and David Keyson, a teacher at the faculty of Industrial Design and recently appointed Diversity Officer of the university. Although it is disappointing to have to acknowledge the whiteness of the panel, and the teacher to student ratio, the speakers present seemed to be either well informed about these themes or at least interested parties.

For the sake of brevity, I have reorganised some of what was said around specific themes of interest. For a more complete rendition of the debate, readers are welcome to access the recording with the code provided at the end of the article.

Is the Netherlands, and its cities, inclusive?

“If I enter a room, they won’t think I’m the architect, I can be anything else” said Juliana when asked about the consequences of his skin colour in his life as an architect, both in the Netherlands and Curaçao. During the whole two hours that the event lasted, he was the most active and eloquent of the speakers. His insights of Dutch society, always accompanied with analogies and personal anecdotes, helped make clear that racism is still a thing in the Netherlands. For instance, after recalling other experiences of exclusion and differential treatment, he mentioned how even being regarded as a “serious thinker” is a challenge: “Sometimes I’ve had clients, or people I work with, that have difficulty to accept I would know the answer or see a problem that they don’t see.”

During the second half of the discussion, a new round of reflections regarding the Dutch way of dealing with differences was started by Oxenaar. While talking about diversity in the faculty, Oxenaar explained how it produced both a negative confrontation and a positive increase in perspectives and possibilities, and then mentioned the Dutch pillar system. It didn’t take long before Juliana commented on this: “The Dutch way of thinking is very much in pillars; the zuilen. But what I want to see happening is that we stop thinking in pillars. […] [This way] of thinking in the Netherlands […] is still so much present at this moment.” In this same line, Roberto Rocco commented on how the pillar system “is really not helping. Because you tolerate, and tolerance is important, we need tolerance, but we need recognition, respect and we need to like other people. So, like other cultures, not only tolerate them.” One of the proposed ways to do this has been the implementation of diversity quotas in institutions. The speakers also had something to say about this.

Institutional quotas

About the decision (now reversed) of TU Eindhoven of hiring only women as professors for the next two years, Amy Thomas mentioned how “many women were actually quite upset by it, because of this fantasy that we’re hired on merit. It is a fantasy, because [of] the implicit bias”, she said, before adding how in order for a woman to have a voice in a hiring team, there need to be at least 30% women on the team. “I think quotas are good, I think they are corrective,” she concluded. Later on, Rocco criticised the argument against quotas according to which that system won’t allow for “the best people to be here”: “That argument hides the fact that there are structural injustices in the world that don’t let the best people be here. In order to correct these structural injustices, we need to make an exception and make differences for people to come here.” Even if everyone agreed upon this theme, the reasons for working for diversity were diverse, and I would like to focus on one.

Diversity and productivity

Halfway through the presentation, David Keyson, the newly appointed Diversity Officer of the university, presented his vision for the future. Given the short time he has held this position, he could not say much about concrete actions towards a more inclusive university. Perhaps his bolder statement was that, after a survey on well-being, they could observe that some faculties were showing forms of discrimination. From there on, he mainly focused on the inclusion of women, while LGBTQ+ and race were almost absent.

However, what struck me as concerning, was his view on diversity mainly as an enhancer of productivity and product quality. For instance, he said that “there is a lot of misconceptions about the value of diversity. ‘Oh, yeah, you have to do it because we’re a diverse society, so therefore we should have diverse companies and diverse universities, etc.’ […] There is actually very strong academic proof that [as a result of being diverse] the actual quality of the research is much better, and the output, also in companies.” This is problematic, as it is a position that blindly assumes the notions of productivity that are currently established in academia. I believe that part of diversifying any environment also asks for the questioning of the standards of excellence and efficiency that rule it. Even the standards by which those things are measured need to be challenged. As said by Thomas in the introduction, “if we want to teach in an inclusive way, we need to reappraise the kind of values and norms that we have at the moment.” So, what can the faculty, and architectural education in general, do in this sense?

Architecture (education) and diversity

In the beginning, Juliana illustrated the need for a different way of confronting difference with an example that also related to academia: “When I was in university, I made water turquoise, and the teacher told me that ‘water doesn’t have that colour’ and I said ‘Yes, for me it has that colour because I grew up in the Caribbean’. He said ‘No, water should be grey’. And it’s those little things that we need to change.” In a similar line, Yoganand mentioned how, despite language working as a bridge between different cultural backgrounds, other students and teachers wouldn’t “know what to value. It’s not their fault, it’s just that they don’t know. So, it’s about that awareness”. So, what to do? Thomas mentioned the need for a task force in charge of questioning the structure and contents of the academic programmes of the faculty, as well as training in diversity for the staff. Juliana focused on the need for a “proper education in history” that doesn’t skip the chapter of Dutch colonialism. Towards the end, Yoganand proposed a platform where students could have a voice and talk about their experiences.

When the event came to an end, I felt I was left with more questions unanswered than answered. This is, perhaps, a characteristic of any good conversation. Nonetheless, I felt that, somehow, all the discussion revolved around over-diagnosed problems. We know very well that something is not fine. And yet, as you read this, we have a university that has not been able to keep up with its times. If still torn about the topic, perhaps the words of Bezawit Zeryacob Bekele, a student of Building Technology who intervened during the debate, could make things clear: “The fact that it excites me to see another black student should tell you that TU Delft has a lot of things to work on.”