The 21-day challenge: a personal view

Author:
Sacha Sokhi, Irwin Mitchell LLP
Date:
Thursday, April 1, 2021

The challenge gave the writer a lot of food for thought, both about her own experiences and the wider employment and legal communities.

Over 21 days, participants were emailed a link to resources that gave an insight into the experiences and lives of black and Asian communities. As well as topical articles and video clips, the challenge also featured an unconscious bias test, designed to test your quick reactions when faced with questions of good v bad compared with black v white. I’d encourage anyone who considers themselves to be ‘not-racist’ to take the test – you may be surprised by the results.

Intersectionality

While I can sit here and confidently say that, as an Asian woman and a claimant lawyer, I am fully aware that racial prejudice and inequality still exist both in a professional and private sphere, by no means am I unable to educate myself more on this issue. In particular, I was oblivious to the oppressive intersectional issues, or the presence even, of the Black Jewish community that Lara Monroe depicted.

On a personal level, as both a woman and a person of colour, Tsedale Melaku’s article resonated with me. Tsedale explores the habitually uncomfortable intersect of race and gender in the workplace, specifically the often heard statement, ‘But you don’t look like a lawyer’. I, myself, heard this early on in my career as a paralegal. The comment came from a client and fellow Indian and I often wonder whether he would have made that comment had I been a white woman. Was it the fact that I was Asian that he was taken aback by, or that I was a woman? Or, as I suspect, was it both?

Identity

The challenge featured a podcast from Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. Reni talks about the wave of light hearted comedy that emerged in modern Britain that poked fun at racist attitudes. I recall growing up watching Goodness Gracious Me and finding it hilarious, but not really understanding the harsh reality behind it until I was much older. For many, becoming aware of the racial inequalities and micro-aggressions that exist happens in the workplace.

As a junior lawyer, it is important for me to see people who look like me in managerial positions. It is also important that those same people actively play a role in promoting diversity and inclusion. Not just paying it lip service, but really encouraging and endorsing those individuals who are on the same path as others but have additional hurdles in their way; be it a protected characteristic or a social mobility issue.

I now look at firms’ websites and see a general increase in Asian solicitors but, the higher up I look, the thinner on the ground they are. If I were to look from a black person’s perspective, they are almost non-existent. We can only hope that this gap narrows with future generations, and that we challenge why these gaps in ethnicity representation and pay exist. It is clear that these hurdles will exist for many years to come, but we must do what we can to lower them for the lawyers of tomorrow.

Recognition

The challenge was a timely reminder of racial inequality. Not just because of the Black Lives Matter movement, but also when we look at the global pandemic. The poem You Clap for Me Now painfully illustrates those BAME frontline workers, teachers and delivery drivers who are so often overlooked for promotion, salary reviews or in Government legislation and Budgets. Yet those same frontline workers were honoured with a weekly clap during the first lockdown. It is this feeling of a lack of recognition, ultimately stemming from barriers caused by race, which creates hostility in the workplace for many.

As Hamilton actor Obioma Ugoala put it on day 1 of the challenge; be an effective ally by actively seeing colour, rather than turning a blind eye. By no means is this confined to the notion of ‘white privilege’. As an Asian, I need to be an effective ally to those from other BAME backgrounds. Now is not the time to just ‘look after your own’.

Aishnine Benjamin’s piece on racial literacy summarises this position well when she states: ‘Perhaps you aren’t aware that by saying “I don’t see race” you are inadvertently putting a negative value on that person’s race by suggesting it’s not important to you.’ Rather than distancing yourself from the ‘other’, whoever that may be, let us build on this past year of movement and call for change. As many of the resources point to, it is not enough to be ‘not-racist’, you need to educate yourself to be anti-racist.

Justice

So how can we relate this to our work as employment lawyers and why is it relevant? We are in an age where the majority of discrimination that takes place in the workplace is subtle and understated. If we can address the unconscious bias in our personal lives and tackle that, then surely we would view discrimination claims, whichever side of the tribunal room we sit on, in a clearer, more attentive light.

The challenge incorporated resources from the legal industry, such as employment barrister Mukhtiar Singh’s review of the employment justice system. While reading Mukhtiar’s views on the ‘uncomfortable but necessary discussions’ that need to be had to address the imbalance in judiciary and legal representation, I am instantly reminded of the experiences of Alexandra Wilson and many others who often get mistaken for being the defendant in criminal proceedings, simply because of the way they look. We, as employment lawyers, have an opportunity and a duty to set the bar high when it comes to diversity and inclusion, so that other industries take note and follow suit.

In the wake of the BBC partially upholding a complaint about broadcaster Naga Munchetty criticising President Trump on air for racism, a sea of British journalists and television personnel wrote a letter to the BBC (day 17 of the challenge), partly in solidarity with Naga and other BAME employees, but also as a call out to fellow broadcasters, politicians and other industries. One statement that particularly struck me was that ‘racism is not a valid opinion on which an “impartial” stance can or should be maintained’. As a legal community, we must address the issues that have long been ignored or unseen. As employment lawyers of all backgrounds, we have an even bigger part to play in addressing these inconsistencies.

For those who are interested in viewing the content, the challenge’s resources are still available at: www.elaweb.org.uk, and many of the pieces signpost recently written books by BAME authors exploring the above issues and more.

Sacha Sokhi, Irwin Mitchell LLP

The legal content in this article is believed to be correct and true on this date.