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How can I celebrate BHM if I’m not Black?
I was recently asked about my journey into law and whether I had a story to share. My first thought was that I didn’t. However, as the interview unfolded, the interviewer looked over the camera and said, er, are you sure? So here it is and you decide!
I grew up in Peckham, South London, in the 1980s. When my mother divorced my father, due to his infidelities, she had six children. We lived on an estate where we were the only black family. When I say that now, people can’t believe that the area had very few black people whereas today it is vibrant and culturally mixed. Our immediate neighbours, to the right, were National Front supporters. For the first few weeks, every night we would wake up to an awful smell. It was human excrement which was put through our letterbox. My uncle kept watch one night to catch the culprit. Turned out it was an elderly white lady, who was clearly annoyed that we had moved in. She soon stopped when she was caught.
My eldest sister was often attacked by the neighbours - they would spit and kick her, simply because she was black. We knew that they wanted us to leave and were doing these things to get us out. Mum didn’t have any money, however, so we had no choice but to stay. She used to complain to the local council, but they did nothing to help us. One day, my sister was beaten and slapped so much that my Mum stood on the balcony and screamed at the top of her lungs that if anyone touched any of her kids again, she would go to prison as she would hurt them back!
Those years, were normal for us and honestly, feel like they were the best. You may ask, how is that possible? Well after Mum’s outburst, people mostly left us alone. I’d like to believe it was because they realised we were all in the same boat, and the only difference was colour. Our neighbours eventually became our friends, and we would celebrate together at street parties and since my mum was a single mother, people would help her if she needed something fixed in the flat, even the family who were supporters of the National Front. They would tell us that we were different, not like the black people they were campaigning against to leave the country and go back to Africa, even if they were born here. This is a common response actually for those who hold prejudices.
However, we finally moved, after a few years, when “Niggers get out” was sprayed on our front door.
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) campaign from last year achieved something that I hadn’t seen before during my lifetime. It got everyone talking about racial injustice and people of all colours came out to fight the cause. I remember questioning the tag line, Black Lives Matter, as I have always felt my life mattered. The killing of George Floyd made me reflect on what I had seen and witnessed over the years and whether things have changed. It sadly isn’t the first time that a black man has been filmed whilst police are beating and kicking him. Rodney King for example was kicked and beaten by the Los Angeles Police Department back in 1991. In those days you didn’t have mobile phones to record things, so a passer-by used a video camera and secretly recorded the police kicking Mr King, almost to death. The four officers were later acquitted, despite the evidence and this caused the Los Angeles riots. It was also around that time that there was civil unrest in the UK and black people began fighting back against police brutality.
I was inspired to enter the legal profession after watching the news about riots in Brixton, Peckham and Tottenham. It was because black people were truly fed up with the police constantly stopping and searching them for no reason. My brother was always stopped, and my mum would routinely go to Peckham Police Station when it was getting late and he hadn’t come home. Sure enough, she would find him there and the police would release him, only once my mum was able to show an original document which showed his name. My brother’s name is Apollo and every time he was arrested, for no reason, he would give his name and the police simply did not believe him. I guess a young black boy being named after a Greek god was a little weird, although, in fact, he was named after the first space craft which successfully landed people on the moon. He was arrested so often that after a while the police would go to arrest him and then recognise him and not bother. When my brother and I were walking along the street, once, someone shouted out, 'Hi Paul’ and he responded. I asked him why he was now known as Paul and he said, it’s just easier and less hassle by the police.
There were constant riots as I was growing up. You had the police incident of Cherry Grose, who was shot by the police, sparking riots in Brixton. A week later in Tottenham Cynthia Jarrett died of a heart attack after police broke into her home. The Tottenham riots followed. Meanwhile 13 young people died in a fire in New Cross House caused by a suspected racist attack. The response from the police was slow and it was felt at the time that they didn’t care. Our lives (black lives) didn’t mean anything and there was no support from society.
When I watched the news and saw it all unfolding, I remember feeling so angry and sad and couldn’t understand why such things were happening. I remember thinking, so we are being badly beaten and treated in this way purely because of our skin colour? I went to an all-girls school, and it was normal that the woman who ran the ‘tuck shop’ simply wouldn’t serve the black children. You would ask your white friend to buy things for you. I remember an incident when the woman saw our friend giving us the sweets and she was angry. She tried to tell us to return the sweets, but we didn’t, and we got into trouble. Again, these types of things were normal. Of course reading this and remembering it, it clearly wasn’t normal, but it was how it was in those days. We were clearly so conditioned to the normality that you simply carried on.
My father moved to the US and got involved in black activist movements. Although my parents divorced when we were young, they, unlike many couples, remained close and were the best of friends. So, when things happened at school or anywhere, I would always tell my father who was visibly agitated but he would tell me not to worry as black is beautiful and I could be anything I wanted to be and nothing, especially my colour would hold me back. He would remind me of those who had gone before me and had gone through so much worse and if they survived and achieved their dreams, I was small fry and had no issues! I had read all the greats, Malcom X, Kwame Nkurmah, Eldridge Cleaver Cooke, Maya Angelou, Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis Junior, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone… I could go on.
My dream was to be lawyer as I felt I needed to fight the system from within and if I had knowledge that would give me power and I would be at the same level as those trying to oppress black people.
I started my legal journey in crime and would do the late hours of representing people in police stations as well as clerking cases at the criminal courts with barristers. Over time I began to dislike crime and fell into asylum and human rights. This wasn’t part of degree or post graduate courses. It was important to me that the playing field was levelled and that could only occur the more people went into the profession who were different.
I was a woman, from a low-income family and was the first child in my family to go to university. I say child, as my mother went to university to do social work when we were all grown. She and I were students together. With all due modesty I was never an overly bright student. I just worked hard and studied all the time. I sometimes wonder if I had some form of dyslexia as it took me ages to understand concepts and legal theory - learning didn’t come naturally to me. But what did come naturally was my drive to do what I wanted to, and I knew it was to be a lawyer.
I did a two-week work experience placement with a firm in the city. At the end the Managing Partner called me into his office and said that he thought I was good but in order to be better I would need to take elocution lessons, as I needed to, in his words, ‘be posh in order to succeed’. I honestly, remember thinking, wow, so my colour is cool I just need to speak posh! If you’ve ever heard me, you can decide whether I took his advice.
Another incident I will share is probably the most offensive and racist experience I have ever personally encountered. I once worked for a high-net-worth client advising her on the old Highly Skilled Migrant Programme (HSMP). She was due to attend the Home Office in person in a few days and I was trying desperately to finalise the documents required for her meeting. Her accountant wasn't responding, yet she blamed me for the delay. Screaming at me, she said, ‘I don’t expect anything less, as all ‘you’ people do is take drugs.’ She even asked me if I was on drugs at the time. My then boss was so horrified she said she was going to sack the client. But I told my boss that wasn’t necessary as I wanted to prove that I could get the client what she wanted. I did and her case was successful. She was made aware that the delay with the paperwork wasn’t my fault at all and was the accountant’s. After her case was successful, she called and sent her driver to our office with gifts for me. I refused the gifts and asked that they be returned to her. When she called to ask me why they were returned, I politely explained to her that I had never had anyone speak to me the way she had and accepting the gifts would have made me feel worse!
Those of you reading this and of colour will know the microaggressions when a client twitches as they are surprised that you are black having mostly spoken to you by phone and never having met you in person. How it feels when the client assumes that the white paralegal is the lawyer since it can’t possibly be the black woman. Or at a conference or networking events when you are the only person of colour in the room.
I was recently told that in the top 100 law firms there are only 71 partners who are people of colour. That’s sad and must change.
My advice to aspiring black lawyers is never let it be your colour that holds you back. Many years ago I once heard a person of colour say that she wouldn’t apply to our firm as there were no faces on the website that looked like her. I'm slightly different as all I cared about was working somewhere that has great potential and where I could make a difference. Kingsley Napley has one of the best reputations for immigration and that’s what I wanted to be part of. Back then, it was rare to find any firm that had people of colour on its website. And even if they did, it might have been that they were simply paying lip service to diversity. I didn’t care at the time that there weren’t people who looked like me in senior positions. I just thought that’ll change. I was the first black partner at my firm and I am pleased to say it has changed dramatically since then. That’s been my philosophy – let me get in and change will happen.
I have always believed that racism isn’t my problem even though I am black. It’s not my problem and it can only be yours if you have an issue with me because of my colour. It’s what I honestly believe. I love that we are all different. Let’s truly try and make a difference and allies do help us and speak up for us and let’s make it fashionable to stop racism! I don’t want to be writing about BLM when in my seventies saying I can't believe we are still going through this!
This article was first published in Legal Week (12 October 21)
Marcia Longdon joined as a partner in the immigration team in January 2014. She has practised in the area of immigration, nationality and European law since 1998. She has had a long career in the field of immigration and is incredibly passionate about this area of law. She has won a number of challenges against the Home Office regarding complex cases, which have resulted in discretionary leave for her clients.
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