Black lives do matter - Stories of Hope
I am sure those reading this will clearly remember the first time they saw and entered the firm’s main building. It is an intimidating place that first time. I remember navigating the cobbled carpark to get to the stairs, to be met by the splendour of the interior and large paintings of random men from history. I remember half-joking to myself that not many black people had entered this building before. I say half-joking, because there was also an unsettling self-doubt - I was a black guy in an ill-fitting Austin Reed suit, attempting to get a job at a prestigious law firm. I was not posh enough, I did not have an Oxbridge education, and, at that time, there were no visible black lawyers at the firm. For a moment, I forgot that I was more than qualified to interview for the job or that I had earned the opportunity to do so. I am sure many of you can empathise with this general self-doubt. What distinguishes my own self-doubt from a general self-doubt is how it is fuelled, almost unconsciously, by my race.
The self-doubt I describe has had some utility in my own journey. It has driven me to prove people wrong – to even surprise people. It has also conditioned me to think that I need to work harder than white colleagues because they have a head-start on me. This driver or conditioning is common to many black professionals. For me and many others it starts when you are very young. My father, probably frustrated by a lack of professional opportunities, would warn me about racism and that I needed to work harder than white counterparts at school. The beauty about being a child is that you are largely naïve to racism, that is until you are called a black bastard for the first time. Other children start to tease you about your council house, your wide nose or big lips or that you get free school meals. Slowly, you realise that Dad was right: racism does exist and being born black does make your life harder in ways that are difficult to describe or for white people to understand.
By way of example, at various client meetings or events I am usually asked “where are you from?” To most people that is an innocuous question to facilitate small talk. For a black British person that question can be loaded. I speak like a Londoner so why ask? I will reply by saying “North London but born in East London”. I then get the response “but where are you really from?” In my head I am thinking that this person does not believe a black person can really be British or English, but I respond politely “well…my parents are from Ghana….” This interaction is not necessarily racist, but it can serve as a reminder of the occasions people have said to me: “you should go back to Africa” which made me feel like a guest or impostor, not a British man born in London who happens to be black.
Being a black lawyer at the firm can be quite a lonely experience. At times, it is difficult to be in an environment where you are one of very few black people at a place of work. I find work parties to be the harshest reminder of that reality. I have even felt guilt when the only other black people in the room are serving the drinks or canapes. There have been times when I would have loved to have sat down with a senior black lawyer who has ‘been there and done it’ at our firm for a little inspiration or to share experiences. On better days however, it excites me to realise that I could be that person for somebody else in the future. I know how uplifting these interactions can be. We had a black lawyer in our Private Client department who looked and sounded like me, with a similar family background. I loved being able to share experiences in an unfiltered way with somebody who worked in the same building who just ‘got it’. He would often say to me that our interactions helped him settle into life at the firm.
In my experience, being black at the firm also brings an added pressure and responsibility – probably self-imposed. Could I be doing and saying more to help change things on diversity? I think so. Perhaps I do not have the privilege to think about my own career and see where it gets me on merit alone. I should inspire aspiring BAME colleagues and I should be part of the solution to the problem of BAME underrepresentation at our firm. I do not have the luxury of forgetting my blackness, even though there have been times I wished I could simply put my head down and get on with my legal career in the way many people are able to do. It is largely because of the support and genuine friendships I have at work that I can be complacent and forget that the firm still has work to do on diversity. Many of you reading this will be aware that I have been signed off work ill for some time. In these difficult times I continue to receive unwavering support from colleagues which is helping my recovery and given me a feeling that I am accepted as I am. This is a good place to work – I would not be here otherwise! But we can make it even better.
It has taken a global pandemic; unprecedented lockdown; and a 9-minute video of another black man being killed by the police for the world to take notice that racism is a sickness that needs rooting out at all levels. I am frustrated that it has taken these events to finally get people to wake up, but I am encouraged that people have started to wake up. It needed to start somewhere. We have an opportunity for real and lasting change. I think we all have a duty to realise that George Floyd could have been me or any other black person. I do not say that lightly. Even in my time at the firm I have been stopped by police because I am black. Being a well-spoken lawyer in the UK does not make me immune from that real threat which is part of an ingrained institutional racism in this country.
My fear is that the news cycle will inevitably change and the Black Lives Matter movement fades away quietly. We must all ask ourselves how do we meet this historic moment? It matters to us all. We must be courageous to make changes and have difficult conversations. Be brave and talk to me and other BAME colleagues. Do not let the fear of possible offence or political incorrectness stop you. Do not be afraid of being part of the change - we may never get this chance again.