PROSPER MAGAZINE: DIGITAL EDITION
LAWYERS AREN’T BLACK!
How one successful lawyer is championing equality and diversity in the workplace…
Prosper met with employment lawyer and a senior associate from Thursfields Solicitors, and ambassador for Project Embrace, Jade Linton, to hear her story.
“I consider it an honour and a responsibility to show up to work as my authentic self and occupy spaces historically not meant for me - “How can we be what we don’t see?” asks Jade.
Meeting Jade over coffee, close to her office and many weeks prior to the Coronavirus crisis, you can’t help but be struck by her tenacity, professionalism and sheer determination to absorb the opportunities and occupy the spaces unavailable to her parents and grandparents, who despite the ambition, skill and the intellect, lacked the opportunity because of the colour of their skin.
“I remember the day so vividly it was my first day at secondary school”, Jade said, “I was sat next to my new friend ‘Laura’. I cannot recall the lesson, but I do remember being asked to draw someone I aspired to be, we were to work in pairs and Laura, and I decided we would draw a Lawyer. We took great care to keep our colouring inside the lines; Laura had given our Lawyer a nice big smile and smart briefcase and I had sharpened my black and brown colouring pencils ready to colour my Lawyer’s face brown and give her a nice big afro, but the then Laura shouted, what are you doing - lawyers aren’t black”!
Feeling her face burn up as her new classmates were at first silent and then united in giggles and murmurings, Jade explained that being one of only two black pupils in a class of 28 she had considered conceding to her assertion but also being the semi-confident, slightly outspoken 11-year old that she was, she stilled her nerves and said aloud “Who said they can’t be black?”
“A debate ensued,” Jade said, “And I can’t recall the outcome, but what I do remember is that Laura and I agreed to draw separate pictures. She was adamant black Lawyers with big afros did not exist and I was, (despite having never seen a black Lawyer outside of American TV shows), determined that on my piece of paper at least, they would exist.”
That exchange would forever spark something in Jade for many years to come, she began asking herself, ‘do black Lawyers really exist?’, ‘can black Lawyers exist’ and ‘If not - why not’? And, if they did exist, ‘why didn’t her classmates know’ and ‘where were they all hiding’?.
In the years that followed Jade noticed very few black Lawyers existed in her expanse, just as she noticed that her shade of make-up never seemed to be available in the shops, the images of beautiful women on the cover of teen magazines were never her complexion and the terms ‘natural’ ‘nude’ and ‘flesh’ used to describe clothing, tights and lingerie referred to white flesh only.
By the age of 15, whilst outraged enough to write to a large department stores and beauty brands asking why her shade of foundation was not available in their shops, and why women like her never appeared in their advertising campaigns, she had also chemically straightened her naturally afro-textured hair applying a caustic lotion known as a ‘relaxer’ to the roots every 6-8 weeks to straighten her hair.
“I was aware of my difference,” continued Jade, “I always had been, and I was becoming increasingly more aware that outside of music videos and athletics there was little place for my difference in society. In a conscious effort to be more ‘accepted’, less ‘scary’ spice and more ‘pretty’ spice, I had already started to change and hide my natural features and characteristics in an attempt to fit into the dominant ‘non-black’ norm.”
Fast forward 10 years and Jade was that Solicitor with the nice briefcase, still very used to being the only black face in a white male-dominated corporate world. Equality and Diversity was slowly making its way into policies and handbooks but there remained little of it in the real legal landscape.
“My bosses and managers were all white and over 40 but more women were starting to become team leaders,” she said.
“The label ‘minority’ (smaller, less than, unequal) had been given to people like me, but on a positive note, I had stopped chemically straightening my hair. The damage this practice had caused to my scalp and hair had for the most part been repaired, and I was soon to embark on a new journey, that of a Private Practice Solicitor in the West Midlands.”
Many things excited Jade about the prospect, one being the racially diverse profession she expected to be met with, it was the Midlands after all and her previous trips to the aspiring city of culture had shown her this region was definitely diverse.
What she encountered was not quite what she had expected; “I was still very much the ‘minority’ in the room, in the office, at the networking event and in the profession.” Jade quipped.
“My long afro hair was regularly straightened or put into a bun in order to fit in and appease the inner voices of generations of relatives reminding me that afro hair was “not suitable for the workplace” and needed to be “fixed”.
“My hairstyle choices also curtailed the curiosity my afro hair would generate from my new peers which took the form of countless questions including; “is your hair real” “don’t all black women wear weaves” and my personal favourite (or not) “can I touch it”?
“Being the ‘minority’ in the room takes effort,” she said, “Occupying spaces traditionally not open to you and carrying the burden of assimilation takes effort, being the self-appointed representative for an entire race whilst desperately doing all you can to dispel stereotypes levied at Black people takes effort.”
By the time she reached 30 she was tired, tired of switching off as she left the office and switching on as she arrived all in the effort to ‘fit’ the dominant norm. Like a person who shows up to the ball under-dressed, she would arrive at networking events, the office, the tribunal and client meetings ‘under-represented’ and she was…. tired.
When the opportunity came to audition for Project Embrace, Jade jumped at the chance, a nation-wide billboard campaign aimed at challenging racial stereotypes whilst telling a whole generation of black men and women, you are beautiful, you are good enough and you don’t have to change your hair to fit in.
Jade was one of 6 winners, chosen from 500 educated, glamourous, successful and professional black men and women. Appearing on 800 billboards displayed across England and Wales with an image of her, natural, unfiltered and unapologetically black, and in magazines, tabloids and on the TV, she would be an ambassador for the many black men and woman who had been criticised, expelled, disciplined and even dismissed from their jobs for wearing their hair to work and to school the way it naturally grew from their heads.
“My parents and grandparents before them had the ambition, skill and the intellect to occupy the spaces I do now, but they lacked the opportunity, she said, “They would routinely share stories with me about how their job applications were overlooked, how they never received callbacks following interviews, how doors would close in their faces when they showed up and how they would see less qualified individuals that they trained, promoted above them all whilst being overlooked and turned down because of the colour of their skin.
“I am my ancestors’ dreams come true and I consider it an honour and responsibility to show up to work as my authentic self and to occupy the spaces which were historically not meant for people like me, because “how can we be what we don’t see?”
Jade believes much work remains to be done, “Race has been on the agenda for decades and until the systems which perpetuate the falsehood that one race is superior to the other are reviewed and dismantled, only so much can be achieved.
“I am hopeful Equality, Diversity and Inclusion is moving off page 76 of the staff handbook and is manifesting itself into calls to action, strategic moves and initiatives. There is infallible proof that diversity is good for business, innovation and creativity. Having a diverse workforce is one thing but this alone is not good enough; creating an environment where employees can come to work and make contributions as their authentic selves, without pressure to assimilate the dominant group is where true inclusion begins.
“I would encourage the business community not to wait for diverse talent to come knocking on the door but to get out there and look for it. Send ambassadors from your workforce to actively seek, mentor, tutor and invest in talent from diverse backgrounds; show these individuals that you are interested in who they are, where they come from and what they can bring to your business.
“Talk about difference, share stories, experiences strengths and weaknesses but don’t isolate people from ‘minoritised’ groups by highlighting their differences, their hair, their looks and their skin particularly in arenas where they are the minority.”
Jade continued, “Be an ally to under-represented groups, this means more than being present, this means believing them when they share their lived-in experiences and it means being vocal when you witness wrongdoing, it means using your privilege for the good of someone who is just as if not more capable than you are but who for discriminatory reasons has not been given the opportunities you have. Be prepared to enter into what for many is the uncomfortable territory of talking about race and the challenges that come from possessing these characteristics and be prepared to have your own beliefs whether conscious or unconscious exposed, challenged and corrected.
“Move from tokenism”, she said– ”The practice of making a symbolic effort to do a particular thing, such as recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of equality’, and strive towards true inclusion where everyone is encouraged to bring their whole selves into the workplace.
“Consider your field of influence, the territory, town, city or district where your business is based and how you can partner with residents, communities and businesses around you, looking at them as partners and not just clients. Encourage staff to become mentors and tutors to under-represented groups in the workplace, at schools, universities, mother and baby units and local universities. With partnership comes community and an opportunity to integrate on an effective level with the diverse communities we serve in the field of work.”
She concluded, “It takes courage, vulnerability, honesty and consistency to achieve true inclusion and the benefits for you, your workforce and generations to come will outweigh the temporary discomfort of being faced with ugly truths and will promote lasting change.
So, what became of Laura? – “She didn’t choose the legal route,” Jade said, “But I have it on good authority that she became a dental surgeon. I take comfort in knowing that the images drawn by generations to come will be less limiting than the ones I was presented with on my first day at secondary school and even greater comfort in knowing one day soon these images will form a real-life formidable and inclusive masterpiece”.