This conversation was recorded on 21st April 2021. Host: Subhadra Das, Critical Eugenics Researcher, UCL Sarah Parker Remond Centre
Episode 5: Race and space
Guests: Kamna Patel, Associate Professor at the Bartlett Development Planning Unit // Yasminah Beebeejaun, Associate Professor at the Bartlett School of Planning // George Burridge, Senior Teaching and Learning Officer at the Bartlett Faculty Admissions Office
Subhadra Das: Welcome to What Does Eugenics Mean To Us?, a podcast from the UCL Sarah Parker Remond Centre. I'm your host, Subhadra Das, and for the last ten years I've been researching the history and legacy of eugenics at UCL, in the sciences and beyond. In this podcast I've brought together some brilliant researchers for some fascinating and insightful conversations across the disciplinary divides. Together, we are going to discuss, examine, critique and explode eugenic thinking. How are racism, ableism, sexism and class warfare embedded in our ways of thinking about and perceiving other people? What can we do to challenge and dismantle those ideas and structures? As a university and a community of researchers: what does eugenics mean to us?
The places and spaces we inhabit profoundly affect our lives and how we live them, in ways we need to think about more critically. At the launch of the project that we’re going to be talking about in today’s episode, Kamna Patel spoke to how people had been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic by saying, 'it is not who we are and what we eat that will kill us, but where we live and where we work'.
My guests today came together to write a curriculum, 'Race' and Space: What is 'race' doing in a nice field like the built environment, to help students and researchers of the built environment be more mindful about the ways in which their discipline actively reinforces and reproduces racism and ableism. They all work at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment, and are, Kamna Patel, Associate Professor at the Bartlett Development Planning Unit, Yasminah Beebeejaun, Associate Professor at the Bartlett School of Planning, and George Burridge, Senior Teaching & Learning Officer at the Bartlett Faculty Admissions Office.
The reason that I wanted to talk to you all about this is because, as far as I’m aware, it’s a unique example at UCL of people in a department getting together to try to address issues to do with social injustice. And I know that the project was officially launched in November 2020, which was in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Blacks Lives Matter movement that year, but I know that you all had got together and were thinking and working on this a good deal earlier than that. So, what I want to know is what motivated you to put this curriculum together, why did you think it was needed?
Kamna Patel: The idea of this curriculum, as a curriculum, was an idea that evolved over a short space of time. Initially, what I had imagined was being able to provide a set of resources to colleagues that engages with questions of race and makes a case for why, across the various disciplines that are within the Faculty, we should be engaging with race; what’s the scholarly reasons for a critical engagement with race?
The format of a curriculum came about on inspiration from other colleagues, one of whom, and I call them a colleague even though they’re at another university, Suzanne Hall, and Huda Tayob. They both developed a curriculum on Race, space and architecture. It’s a different curriculum to our curriculum but it’s still a curriculum. And that’s what resonated with me, the fact that we do work in the university and we produce curricula all the time – we review others as external examiners and so on. So, it became quite a natural thing to engage in a project of educating our colleagues, of bringing them on some kind of a learning journey through the medium of a curriculum.
Subhadra: Do either of you two want to add to that? When you heard this was happening, what were your reasons for wanting to come and join in?
Yasminah Beebeejaun: I was invited to join on it and I thought it was a really exciting and interesting idea. One of the things very much for me, working within planning, is that it was something that I’d kind of looked at in my own work and was part of my own teaching, but it always felt like a very small part of what students were getting; that it was something that they maybe got a few hours here and there.
So, when I was invited to be part of it, I thought it was such a good idea, about not only bringing together a kind of interesting set of resources in this specific curriculum, but also really emphasising how important the idea was of connecting race and space. So, it’s not just a specialist interest, but it was something that was really fundamental to what was going on in the Faculty across all the disciplines.
Subhadra: George, was it similar issues with you, in terms of wanting to be a part of this?
George Burridge: What really appealed to me was the means of educating. I’ve often felt in the past that you can have a very important message and you can talk to an audience, and it’s quite clearly global and social issues, but they’re not addressed, and people aren’t engaged with in a way that they enjoy or find interesting. I always felt that building a curriculum around interesting literature would reach people in a way that might be unconscious.
If you’re reading a book and it’s engaging and it’s interesting, and you find that it’s a good story, after a while you develop an interest in it. And you might go back and reassess it and you might find that there’s a story about people from different backgrounds, people who might have immigrated to England and made it their home. And after a while, certainly for me, being a white middle-class guy, is to find that there is a lack of acceptance for people who have migrated to this country, and who have not actually had a sense of involvement, but it is, nonetheless, their home, they’ve brought their children up here. There’s a great sense of responsibility off the back of that and certainly there is a lingering feeling of guilt. There is a need for me personally to want to have involvement. And the literature itself, I think, would feed and have a ripple effect for people and they find it interesting and they take a message home, without having it imposed on them.
Subhadra: Yes, I think there’s something really valuable in that, in terms of this is why we read: it broadens our horizons and it brings in a wider view to things that we might not have thought about before. I think what I’m getting from you is the idea that actually these are stories, and these are subjects, that aren’t generally told. Was there a frustration that these were things that you knew from your research and from your experience, but actually wasn’t appearing anywhere else?
George: I think the books that I have read have brought it home in a charming way, with good humour, and they’ve been written in a way that makes me want to continue to read the book and then read the next book. It does reinforce what is clearly already evident. There’s obviously extracts missing from history, which I think is being currently addressed. Quite clearly, you do not see images of it as you’re educated at maybe GCSE level, but the amount of people from international countries who might have fought on behalf of Great Britain in the First or Second World War, now you’re seeing actual images of black people fighting on behalf of the 'Mother Country'.
I think that has stemmed from work in the last couple of years and it’s quite comforting for me, because, once I’ve read it, it does bring home to me that I’ve had to wait until I’m in my late thirties to have found out about this. Now I actually feel a lot more at ease when I actually see- I think there’s programmes on TV at the moment which quite clearly are showing what West Indian contributions to the Second World War was, and I think that will grow. And I think there will be other people who will look at that and rather than feel defensive about it will actually feel glad.
Subhadra: Entirely. Does that accord with you two as well, Kamna and Yasminah?
Kamna: I suppose that if we’re talking about broadening the audience and accessibility, which is a language we always use in academia, we want to make our learning accessible in some way, and either that’s through relatable research outputs, or it’s through coming up with new techniques to engage different kinds of students, or new students doing outreach work and so on.
Within the context of this curriculum, what I think was incredibly important, and remains really important, is having something that translates across our disciplines. So space became this really useful concept to enable us to do that. But those of us that worked on it, we all come from very different disciplinary backgrounds, Yasminah’s a planner, we’ve got others who are architects, I come from development studies. So, it’s having this space; we curated an area, we curated a place for us to be able to have these discussions about what does that intersection between race and space look like for each of us, and that was drawing on our research and it’s drawing on our ideas.
We’re also not just a group of academics. George was involved in the project and George is professional services staff. So having a wide group of people, drawing on a full range of their lived experience, the full range of their knowledge, academic knowledge as well, became quite pivotal to producing what we did. Because what we did is not just geared towards students, it’s not a curriculum for students, it’s a curriculum for our peers as well.
And as academics, I think it’s fair to reflect that we often work in silos, particularly when it comes to teaching our module or teaching on our programme. And so this was a means of breaking through those silos, not just amongst each other as contributors, but with colleagues who perhaps need a little bit of help and a little bit of direction in seeing what is the relevance of this race and space to the quantitative research that they do? What is the relevance of it to whatever area that they regard as niche perhaps and not relevant to race and space?
And we’re saying, it is. Look at this one resource, it shows you that it is. Read this language and it will tell you and it explains quite clearly, in an everyday language, that whatever niche area you think you’re researching, there is a race and space element to it. The fact that it goes unacknowledged is speaking about the absence and the erasure of race.
Subhadra: Yasminah, do you want add anything to that?
Yasminah: Just to kind of continue from that, about that dimension of research and it being seen as a niche area is really interesting, and I was thinking about it a lot recently. My PhD was on race and urban planning in Britain, and the amount of conversations I had, including with very senior academics, who were just really shocked by my topic, and said that this has nothing to do with planning, why are you even doing that PhD? So, that was always very much the message I was getting in the UK context.
So, I think, with the curriculum and so on, my interest is around race but also the way it is always pushed back on, which I think is really interesting in the UK context, given its colonial history, the way that you could even start to talk about Britain not having any kind of engagement with race is obviously a very specific positioning. So, Gurminder Bhambra, the sociologist, her work, in terms of sociology and that connection to colonialism and race, I think has been really important in trying to talk about how we uncover and retell those stories. But also, I think, in terms of the connection to research and teaching.
So, on one level, the importance of really bringing these resources together for people that might not have really thought about that, but also in terms of thinking about how one of the things about UCL that is so nice is that you do have such a diverse, international group of students, and actually connecting with those students that are also thinking that these things are missing, I think that’s been really important.
And then just the final point was, I think with the variety of resources we’ve got, as George was saying about the way that those stories are told, I think, is really important. I often say to my students, if they want to understand urban space and cities, then maybe reading an academic planning article isn’t necessarily the best way of doing that. So, having that diversity of resources and different accounts and stories, I think, is really important for that whole kind of lived experience.
Kamna: To add to Yasminah’s point about our international students, and I think it is important to acknowledge there’s also a subset of our students who don’t think that race matters, who, particularly when they come to the UK and maybe it’s their first time, particularly if they’re postgraduate students, they’re only here for a year, and they encounter this discussion about race that’s happening in the UK context, that’s quite inward looking.
And so, part of the curriculum, and the language that we use in it, is to allow students to understand how they may be placed within the UK context, even if it has no legitimacy to them in their home country context. And I kind of doubt that, actually. I think it’s relevant in every context, even if the language might change to caste, for example, instead. But allowing them to see how they’re placed and what is the history and the structure that occurs to them, it happens to them without their consent, so that they can navigate some of those politics.
And the curriculum points them in the direction of how that situation came about and how they might be able to resist it - not to deny it, but to form their own anti-racist resistance in solidarity with UK based students, or any other students who are more familiar with race politics.
Subhadra: So, it’s about making people familiar with the discourse. First of all, acknowledging that there is a discourse there and then being able to see where they fit into it themselves. In the work you cite, for example, Brooke Neely and Michelle Samura, where they say that all racialised social processes are also spatialised, could you share maybe a couple of examples about the ways in which the built environment contributes to social inequality? Can we help people to visualise exactly how that works, because I think we’ve been talking metaphorically kind of all the way through, but what are the physical ways in which the space can impinge on us as people?
Kamna: There are so many examples, it’s hard to know where to begin. The most obvious and the most recent, of course, would be the Grenfell Tower disaster. It’s pertinent, I think, to raise that because it’s so close to UCL, geographically. From where we are, Grenfell is down the road. You could walk there. It’s a very horrible walk, down a very busy road, but you could walk there.
And the situation that led to a tower like Grenfell being built in the first place, and then of course the type of cladding that was put on, the inquiry, the initial advice to stay put, all of that has racialised elements to it. The aftermath, I remember with Theresa May awkwardly standing amongst survivors, not quite knowing what she should do, how she should behave. All of that speaks to ways in which these are lives unknown to her and folks in positions of power like hers.
The built environment element of it is quite physical and it’s quite literal, in that it’s a big scab in the middle of London. It’s still there as a reminder of how racialised processes play out in creating buildings like these, and play out in the demise and the destruction of buildings like these as well. And we’re still living through the aftermath. We still talk about justice for Grenfell every year, particularly every year on the anniversary of the fire and in between, as the inquiry is unfolding.
Subhadra: Moving on to the details of the curriculum itself, brace yourself for the thing that sounds like a really tedious interview question, but nonetheless people will be interested to hear. There are a really wide range of recourses in the curriculum across highbrow and lowbrow culture, and I phrased that very particularly because it’s a very eugenic way of describing culture. And ever since I’ve really reflected on highbrow and lowbrow, i.e. highbrow people are well-born and they’ve got big foreheads and big brains is the implication there, so I wanted to use that phrase very particularly, with a view to probably never using it again. But what I’m interested to know is, what your favourites are in the curriculum and why do those pieces speak to you particularly? It could be a piece that you really wanted to include and you were going to fight to have it included, or it might be something that someone brought in that you had never encountered before.
Yasminah: Just to start off, I don’t think we ever had a fight over what we wanted to include or not. It’s just such a really nice collection of stuff that we would never individually have had, and I think that strength of the different people, the different disciplines, and the different locations we all worked in, I think, really comes through.
For me, two things that I like particularly within that, is the Andrea Levy book, Small Island, which I picked up off my bookshelf this morning. And I’ve been reading actually a lot more literature recently that looks at that post-war immigration experience. I’ve been thinking about my parents a lot – I think I mentioned to you that my father passed away recently. And I think part of the reason for that is that he was a post-war immigrant from the African subcontinent actually, but actually those stories of peoples’ arrival in the UK, into London and other places; and I think Andrea Levy’s book is a really important contribution to that story, but also about the everyday experiences of people. I think often in a lot of the narrative about post-war migration, those kinds of individual experiences are really left out. Even just things like, for my parents, when they came to the UK, it was exciting, and that’s never really talked about in the literature, that it was an adventure. And it’s something I can never really imagine ever doing. So, my dad came to the UK and all he had was some money and an address in his pocket of someone else from Mauritius in Lewisham to go and see and to help get settled. So, that’s why I like these stories. I think they’re really powerful and obviously Andrea Levy was an amazing writer.
The other thing I was going to say was Kerry James Marshall, the artist. I think his work is very powerful about the kind of recentring of black people, the American artist, in art and in those narratives. I think you realise that, as you’re growing up, that kind of absence of people of colour within many representations of life, and I think it’s very powerful but you also hope that for a younger generation of people, seeing that kind of change and shift, and the acknowledgement of other perspectives within art and literature, is really important and gives like a profound connection, not just to culture but also to that sense of belonging.
Subhadra: I really like sense of belonging as well.
Kamna: I’ve got a favourite section and then one piece within that section, it’s the bit on speculative futures. That’s my favourite part of the curriculum because it’s the part that provoked me personally to think a lot more deeper than I have about the ways in which race and space are related to each other, and what does that mean for scholarship, and what does that mean for built environments of the future, in physical, real ways, as well as the more metaphorical and symbolic ways that we often speak about, or I often speak about.
And it brought home to me just the dearth of imagination that exists and how the legacy of a racist education has this effect of stymying imagination, of limiting our possibilities, and that the role of us as educators ends up being to provoke re-imagining and to direct folks to where this re-imagining is occurring.
And so, the piece within speculative futures that I really like is Black Panther, the film. It’s a great film, everyone like their superheroes and so on, but it’s the imaginations of Africa. And I watched that particularly attentive to those representations, because my own research looks at representations of Africa, from a development studies perspective, where it’s often deprived-looking, hungry-looking, black and brown bodies in constant states of deprivation waiting to be saved, and here was something that paid no attention to that whatsoever. There is no imaginative genealogy that exists between those images of Wakanda and the images we see in development studies, in development literature, in fundraising campaigns and so on. So, this was a complete break with what exists in predominantly UK-based, northern-based, imaginations of what is Africa. I thought it was marvellous for it, incredibly creative, beautiful buildings, the architecture of the buildings in that film are just stunning, and it just shows what is possible. And we have to be able to imagine something, I think, in order to be able to move towards it.
Subhadra: Very well said and excellent choice as well. As a museum person, the scene at the beginning of the film, which is Michael B. Jordan standing in what is obviously the British Museum, and at every single museum conference I've been to, since that film came out, that scene has been cited one way or the other, so, yes, its influence is enormous. Right then, George, your turn, what’s your favourite?
George: I don’t mind saying it would probably have been Small Island by Andrea Levy. Again, it’s educative to me, the concept of the Mother Country, which is very, very bold, I think, for people probably born in far-reaching parts of the old empire, is that there was an enormous draw for people to go home, in many respects. That, I’ve come to realise, is common in a lot of stories that most people won’t be conscious of. It’s common in James Bond. It’s enormous, the idea for an orphan child, who isn’t actually of English origin at all, to have that aspiration, to have someone, or something, to return to. So, that hit home for me. And it’s also done with humour. But, given that that has already been chosen, I will myself go for British Born Chinese, which was a very short film, which I was introduced to by accident. I took an interest in it because a friend of mine, who’s married a Chinese lady and he’s got a half-English, half-Chinese child, and it was a little sad to see the film, even though the message, of course, is quite important, because the parents of the Chinese kid, born in Manchester, are very clear that identity is going to be very important for their kids as they grow up, and they’ve got to cling onto their Chinese heritage, because they don’t fully trust they’ll ever be accepted and afforded an English identity.
Subhadra: This is just such a brilliant project and there is so much inspiration for other people, other departments. You’ve created something, I think, that other people can use. This is, as you say, not something just for the students, it’s for your colleagues and for our peers at the university. The question is, what advice would you give other academic departments at UCL, and beyond, for drawing up their own version of this curriculum, other than saying use this one, that you’ve already done?
Kamna: If I think about what worked best with this curriculum and it would be some core principles, I think, that others might want to emulate in that, it’s having the central concept of space that meant something to everyone across our Faculty, and that really is the primary audience, it’s staff and students within our Faculty, and then it’s got broader reach.
So, finding that concept that has currency and that gives the project a relevance to all those naysayers who will say, 'hmm, doesn’t relate to my area, doesn’t relate to what I’m interested in, this is completely irrelevant', there has to be some ability to be able to push back against that. And so, whatever that one or two, maybe three even, concepts there are in those relationships to race, is what other teams might need to search for.
The other answer, and I’m saying this very much with my EDI hat on, it can’t stand alone, because otherwise this becomes a one-off, niche, cute little project that a handful of academics did and then it’s forgotten about. So if we’re raising consciousness, and for me this has always been about raising race consciousness across our Faculty, then what does one do with that consciousness? How is that directed? How does that filter through into other projects, into other initiatives that we are also coordinating and leading on?
So, for me, this relates to a Bartlett promise and the scholarship programmes that we’re running from undergraduate, postgraduate, to postgraduate research students. It’s a way of signalling and putting in place the content for those diverse scholars, for those scholars who are under-represented within our system, who are coming into that system, to understand that we are taking race seriously and we’ve given our colleagues the tools to be able to do so.
New recruitment initiatives on race and spatial justice hang on things like the race and space curriculum, because we are signalling outwards that we are taking this seriously, and that means not just looking at curriculum content, which is a critique that I would make, and I’m sure others would make as well, about decolonisation initiatives, that they sit only within the curriculum and rarely look at who is teaching that curriculum as well, and our work here on the race and space curriculum becomes a foundation, if you want to use the word foundation, for recruitment initiatives for staff and students. There’s a whole movement, there’s a whole push and this is an important cog in that.
Subhadra: George, Yasminah, is there anything else you wanted to add to that?
Yasminah: The thing about the curriculum was, from those discussions, about having a very clear pathway. And I have to say that the speculative futures part was the part I found the hardest to engage with, but I think was very important to think about going from how can we understand it based on what we already know, to having that pathway through and then the call for action.
So, I think having a kind of trajectory is really important, that it’s not just about the critique, although that’s a very important, fundamental part of it, but actually thinking about how does that make a call for action for the discipline to change, and for us to think about how we teach differently and how we engage with each other as well.
George: My thoughts are, in terms of expanding this curriculum, and also for anyone that might be hesitant about adopting it, is that really if you present it to your student body within any department in UCL, or at almost any university, all of sudden this is going to get a lot of traction. It’s going to be picked up by the students who I always say are so much smarter than people give them credit for, and very quickly they’ll turn around and say, 'we’re actually familiar with a lot of this literature' and they’ll start throwing a lot back. They’ll start growing the curriculum for everyone.
There is a fantastic video by a series of students who were interviewed at UCL and SOAS, and possibly another couple of colleges, and for me just to see these students, some of whom were quite irate about the way that they’d been treated, and for them to actually say, 'yes, we’re already very familiar with a series of these different authors and, yes we can’t believe you’ve never heard of Toni Morrison'; if this curriculum is presented to UCL students I think, within a year, it will have doubled.
Subhadra: Well, here’s hoping. That sounds like a good thing. That sounds like a good place for it to go and a good thing to happen. Kamna Patel, Yasminah Beebeejaun, George Burridge thank you very much for joining me.
You can follow The Bartlett's work confronting racism in the built environment through their Inclusive Spaces series and of course, you can download their 'Race' and Space: What is 'race' doing in a nice field like the built environment (The Bartlett, UCL Faculty of the Built Environment, 2020) curriculum and read along for yourself. Other authors of the curriculum were Solomon Zewolde, Tania Sengupta and Catalina Ortiz.
Race, space and architecture: towards an open-access curriculum (LSE Department of Sociology, 2019) by Huda Tayob and Suzanne Hall is also available to download from the London School of Economics website.