The networking question that many BAME individuals dread

20 June 2019

For me, the word ” Windrush” encapsulates many emotions that go far beyond describing the way in which my parents came to be in the UK and therefore how I came to be here. That history continues to have a practical impact on my professional life.  As I network and meet others in the legal profession, the reciprocal conversation on meeting is generally wide ranging concerning areas of specialism and interests. It also often includes a question which, in whatever form it is delivered, essentially asks “where do [I] come from?”

Let’s unpack that for a minute. I really do not blame people for asking this question. I am incredibly inquisitive; in fact intellectual curiosity is an essential prerequisite for my job. However, the problem with this question is that every time it is asked, it invites me to remember that I am not the same; I do not come from here. This is so despite having been born and bred in North West London. How the question is answered depends on so many things, including how much energy I have on a given day or occasion. What the question usually seeks to understand is my background and it is usually asked out of genuine interest and the wish to understand more about me and my experience. On darker days, perhaps ones where I am the only black person in the room, the response can be quite draining.

While at times I have experienced my identification as “other” as something that requires a defence, as my career [and I] have matured, I see it as an opportunity. I can never speak for all BAME lawyers, or even black lawyers, let alone all lawyers of West Indian origin [3 hugely different and vast categories of people]. However, I can provide a narrative for what it feels like in our professional legal networks and use my “otherness” as a selling point.

I have learnt to embrace the fact that I am different and have, so far, made it work for me [even if the stereotype applied is not immediately attractive]. For instance, when my assertiveness is misinterpreted as aggression, I repackage that as something I and my clients describe as no-nonsense, straight talking advice that is clear, honest and cost effective. What’s not to like?

I am incredibly fortunate to have had the support of mentors and allies throughout my career; some of whom have helped to extricate me from the delicate situations described above.  If I had to do it again, I would remind my younger self that allies come in all shapes and sizes and do not have to be the same race or gender as me.  I would, more often than I have done, take a deep breath, answer the “real” question and get to know the person well enough to explain the potential adverse effect of the question and how it feels or maybe how they could get to the same information more carefully.

The current Windrush celebrations are informative and positive. I highly recommend the Get up Stand up Now exhibition at Somerset House which includes live dub style DJ’s, steel pans, great food and a detailed history of the alienation that was the genesis of the Notting Hill Carnival. Windrush for me is not a historical concept, it is my every day.

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