The Black Lives Matter movement has received much press over the past month since the disgustingly horrific murder of George Floyd. It’s put the issue of racism firmly on the agenda of the mainstream media, major corporations and institutions and prompted much debate among individuals. We have seen the Bank of England pledge to remove from our bank notes certain figures who were linked to the slave trade and we’ve seen Cambridge University pledge to return a statue to its rightful place in Nigeria 120 years after it had been looted by the British colonial forces.
And for me, closer to home, it has prompted my own firm to put racial equality high on the agenda as a priority. There is a desire to be part of a global movement that is taking place to change the systemic racism in our society and our world, with a recently established action group which I am pleased to be part of.
I have found the last few weeks personally very challenging – they have brought back deeply buried memories of racism that I have experienced from being called a packie, blackie, nigger and wog by children at school and, when older, by complete strangers.
I remember at a previous firm, as a trainee, walking back in to a meeting after being sent on a photocopying run, and the client joked and asked me why I had turned the documents into French. I smiled politely (what else was I do to?!) having no idea what he was referring to.
I must have had a slightly puzzled look on my face. So he responded by saying, “they speak French in Rwanda don’t they?” I wondered what the hell he was on about as I continued to smile. Does he think I’m from Rwanda? Do they speak French in Rwanda? What?
Again at a previous firm, I remember sitting in the HR director’s office whilst he was running through the Law Society practising certificate renewal forms. His comment out loud on any lawyer with a vaguely foreign sounding name or brown skin was “I can’t believe they don’t speak another language”. And he saw nothing wrong with making his comments in front of me.
I remember being out with a group of my lawyer friends after drinks in London and a stranger talking to us on the train home. “What do you all do?” the stranger enquired. “We’re lawyers”, one of my friends replied. “What, all of you?” he said, pointedly looking directly at me. “Yes, all of us!” she replied, offended on my behalf at the obvious undertone of his question, given the rest of my group of lawyer friends were all white.
And I remember attending a client lunch about 10 years ago when the client used the phrase “a nigger in the ointment”. Everyone was uncomfortable, but no-one said anything. More recently, a corporate finance advisor who I have known for many years used the phrase “a nigger in the wood”, referring to an issue on the deal. And then he said “oh, I hope I haven’t offended you…”
The reality is I have beaten the odds in many ways to get to where I am, from a working class background with a state school education, no redbrick degree and neither of my parents having attended university. My parents were exceptionally hard working and I have them to thank for my work ethic and their constant belief in me. I am the only black female lawyer in my division, and the first black female partner the firm has ever appointed.
But the past few weeks have made me turn the mirror on myself and realise that I am also part of the problem because I haven’t spoken out. I have accepted “it’s just the way it is”. But I have realised that it isn’t acceptable for me to be complicit anymore and that it isn’t ok for any of us to accept that “it’s just the way it is”. I wanted to be a lawyer from the age of 15, and I have lost count of the number of times various people along my journey told me that I would need to work harder and be better than my white peers if I wanted to succeed. And it was true. I want to see a world where no aspiring BAME lawyer has to be given this advice and has to put this into practice.
On occasion, on a freezing winter’s day I will travel from Surrey into the City in my warm hoodie and Ugg boots. It is noticeable the way people look at me differently than when I’m suited up. The reality is that they are judging me. They are drawing a conclusion based on racial stereotypes. And it saddens me to think that people judge me based on the colour of my skin, and more so, it deeply saddens me to think that, even worse, some people don’t like me because of the colour of my skin. It is something that I have put to the back of my mind for many years.
I want to change that now. I want people to examine their own deeply held views, question whether they are part of the problem as much as I was, in that they don’t call out racism. It isn’t okay anymore to accept that’s just the way it is.
It isn’t enough any longer to simply not be racist – you have to be anti-racist. Anti-racist to the entire spectrum from stupid jokes (which aren’t even funny) at the one end, to the unconscious judgmental bias, through to outright racism at the other end. What are you doing to tackle the problem?
I would love for everyone reading this article to reflect on their own views and consider what are they doing, and what more can they do to play their small individual part in the great opportunity we have to work together to bring about real change and tackle systemic racism.
Ultimately, the reality is that if you aren’t doing anything then the question has to be, why not? Because if you are not part of the solution, then as hard as it might be to hear or accept, the fact is, you are part of the problem.
Rebecca Burford is a partner at Charles Russell Speechlys and a member of The Hot 100 2020.
Great article. Each and everyone of us has to take on board what you say about it not being enough to be “non-racist”, we must all be “anti-racist”. The future of the profession is in our hands.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences Rebecca. I am sorry you had to go through those experiences. Talking about it certainly helps to make all members of our profession be more conscious about this issue and thus I applaud you.
Two immediate thoughts:
1. I think Rebecca is being far too hard on herself for thinking she is part of the problem for not speaking out. It is an inherently British reaction not to be the ‘tall poppy’, not to create a fuss, not to draw attention to yourself. In part, it’s a defence mechanism, as we all jostle our way through life on this crowded, competitive island. And I understand the reflexive sense of self-criticism (loads of lawyers, myself included, can be self-critical beings). But racism and dealing with racism is more the responsibility of white people to fix than black people. Our forefathers created the problem, 250+ years ago. Us white people have to start trying to fix it – and that starts with us owning the problem.
2. I am shocked and horrified that someone in this day and age saw fit to use one of the phrases Rebecca has recounted there. I first heard that used by my grandfather when I was 6 years old, and I knew then that it was wrong. There is simply no excuse for using it – none whatsoever, particularly when (i) it is a gratuitously offensive phrase with a particularly nasty / unpleasant backstory; and (ii) non-racist alternatives (e.g. ‘spanner in the works’) are in equally prevalent usage.
It’s for all of us to stand up to this; even though it’s really hard. I’ve had two instances in the last week where clients have done and said things on calls / messages that are obviously unacceptable (one sexist, one racist about the Chinese). I haven’t properly called them out on it yet, even though I know it’s wrong. I will use Rebecca’s story to give me the courage I need to tackle the clients concerned.
Even reading your article made me angry and upset for you! I am sorry you had to endure this what I can only term ignorant and offensive behavior. One of those so called sayings was said to be by a development executive years ago (circa 1998 because I was at BLP at the time) and I told him not to use that that ever again in front of me – he didn’t apologise but I had to chastise him – I would do it again in a heartbeat