Perhaps it all comes down to one underlying assumption made by a significant proportion of the people they encounter – the assumption that black lawyers are less competent than their white peers.
Words by Rashida Abdulai – Founder & CEO at Strand Sahara
I have lived with racism all my life. It is inescapable here in the UK and affects everyone.
It’s so widespread and insidious that, despite significant racial inequalities being obvious and visible everywhere in our society, most people barely bat an eyelid. Until now.
There has been an important shift, with more people who have never experienced the discriminatory effects of racism finally seeing and saying what has always been so obvious to those of us who have.
This shift is important not because it in any way validates what I have long known to be true, but because I realised a long time ago that things will only change when a sufficient number of those who consciously and unconsciously enable racism recognise that they have a problem.
Growing up I regularly encountered overt racism. National Front members held rallies on my high street and their children would spit at me and leave racist graffiti on the walls that I passed on the way to school. But even as a child I knew that their actions and those of others who were overtly racist towards me were wrong, and I could (and did) avoid them as much as possible and learned to let go of the hurt.
It was only when I started working that racism started to impact me in ways that I couldn’t avoid and, at first, couldn’t quite put my finger on. Entering one of the highly competitive legal environments in the City of London, I was full of confidence. I had no doubt that I deserved to be there. Like my peers, I was a high achiever, always getting the best grades, winning competitions, leading my school as Head Girl and a natural hard worker. But I noticed that I wasn’t always treated in quite the same way as them.
It all came down to one underlying assumption that was made about me by a significant proportion of the people I encountered before I even uttered a word or wrote a line. The assumption that I was less competent than my white peers.
This assumption manifested itself in many ways. It was in the surprise in the partner’s voice when he remarked that my research note “was actually very good!”. It was in the discouraging disinterest in my contributions to meeting discussions when compared with the encouraging attention paid to the contributions of my peers. It was in the genuine belief by new joiners that I must be the assistant rather than the one delivering their training. It was in the way that barrister would feel the need to “dumb down” his language when speaking to me.
The problem with these unconscious (I hope) assumptions, is that they can be self-fulfilling. If you believe my work is likely to be sub-par, you are more likely to see it as sub-par. A minor error is all that is needed to prove you right, where the same error might be readily forgiven in the work of someone who didn’t have an assumption to disprove. Your confirmation bias will always work against me, and I will always have to meet a higher bar to beat it.
I saw the same problem when it came to the recruitment of black trainee lawyers. In my capacity as co-Chair of the City firm diversity network, NOTICED, as a committee member of the Law Society’s Ethnic Minority Lawyers Division and within my own firm, I recognised that the “less competent” assumption was an issue across the board.
The concern that I and others voiced about the embarrassingly low and often non-existent number of offers made to black would-be trainees was often met with comments such as, “well, everyone has an equal opportunity to get in – we take the best person for the role, irrespective of race,” or “diversity matters, but we can’t lower our standards,” or “it’s a pipeline problem”.
All of these comments, which felt like a sharp blow to the stomach every time, are grounded in an assumption that black students are just not good enough. That their (assumed) lack of competence is the problem. The confirmation bias at work again. Were these commenters even investigating other possibilities? Couldn’t it be that there is a problem in the recruitment process instead? Isn’t this a more likely explanation, at the very least in the cases of those whose applications meet the required academic standards?
How many competent black students have not been offered a place on the back of an interviewer simply deciding that “he’s not the right fit” or “she just isn’t ready” (both of which I have personally heard from interviewers)? These subjective observations, that are by their very nature infected with bias, should be challenged and the interviewer’s fitness for such an important role reassessed. On their own they are not sufficient grounds for denying black students a place and, if it still happens, this must not be allowed to continue.
I was fortunate to have been offered a place at my firm and to have been supported throughout my career by peers and senior colleagues who always gave me the benefit of the doubt, took an interest in my career and used their influence to speak up for me. But mine was a rare case, and even with their support and my bucket load of self-belief, feeling singled out by others and that many were just waiting for me to fail, weighed heavy.
My experience is a couple of years old now, and I hope that things have changed for the better in that time. I know that the efforts made by so many to improve diversity in City firms is sincere and make these remarks in an effort to share a perspective that may be missing from the conversation.
We all must take responsibility for combatting these discriminatory biases that still persist in our profession and more needs to be done to identify and prevent the harm caused by them in order to truly level the playing field and live up to the British values that make this country and our profession great.
This article is also published on LinkedIn