Black History Month: celebrating our differences

23 October 2019

Black History Month: celebrating our differences

Jamila Archibald writes for Shepherd and Wedderburn on Black History Month

Corporate finance trainee Jamila Archibald shares her experience of entering the legal profession.

On my first day of my traineeship, I had an internal debate about whether to wear my afro hair out or safely secure it back. This was not a question of vanity, but a decision rooted in a deeper nervousness as to whether I would 'fit in'. 

I have grown to realise that apart from my skin colour the biggest signifier of my race is my hair.

News stories such as the woman who was asked “to wear a weave to disguise her afro hair”; and another who was told to “lose her braids or lose a job opportunity”, echoed in my head.

Throughout my childhood (and in adulthood) I have heard people comment that my hair is “wild”, “crazy”, or looks “like a sheep”, so I identified with the women in these news stories. 

I was anxious that the comments about my hair while growing up would carry over into my professional life, and my hair would be viewed in the workplace as “messy”, “untidy” or “unprofessional”. I did not want my potential to be in doubt just because I look different, as others in the African and Afro-Caribbean community have experienced.

Jamila Archibald - Photo courtesy of Nathan RossJamila Archibald, photographed by Nathan Ross

Despite my concern, it was important that I walked into my new job staying true to my authentic self. Perceptions cannot be changed if we conform to what is considered the norm. The issue may seem minor but to me wearing my natural hair out represents a small, but important, celebration: it recognises the beauty in my blackness and pride in my ancestry

I felt intimidated joining the legal profession. I was very self-conscious about the fact I was a mixed-race, state-educated woman, and the first person in my family to attend university, with no legal connections. However, I took the initiative to secure work experience and build my own connections. Now, a year into my traineeship, my self-confidence is growing. I realise that while invisible barriers evidently exist, they will not prevent me from being successful: part of success to me is combatting presumptions about what a lawyer is ‘supposed to be’ and contributing to creating a space in which all identities feel they belong. 

I am not the first to fear ‘differences’ would distract from their capabilities. The Law Society of Scotland's Report 2018, states: “Students from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities are disproportionately over-represented on the LLB per head of population”. However, comparatively few BAME solicitors attain senior roles. The majority of respondents believed that the reason for the lack of progression is unconscious bias. 

The representation of different characteristics in a workplace has great significance. It is important to see people in senior roles whose characteristics you identify with: their success provides encouragement that I too have the potential to achieve my own ambitions. As a woman, I am inspired every day to see many strong, female leaders in my firm. As a black woman, I feel lonely when I fail to see my race reflected in senior positions. I am familiar with often being the ‘only’ in the room. I sometimes feel a strange sense of accomplishment as an ‘only’. However, I put pressure on myself to overperform so that assumptions about my race or gender never become an obstacle to my career.

I have learned that while we cannot control people’s perceptions of us, we can choose how we respond. We should not allow assumptions about any of our characteristics – be it our race, gender, religion, sexuality, disabilities or social background - define us. Rather, we should see it as a catalyst to help our workplaces evolve. Since starting out as a trainee in August 2018 my focus has shifted from being afraid of the barriers to concentrating on how I can contribute to overcoming them, both for myself and others. 

It begins with reminding ourselves and our colleagues why diversity is crucial in a workplace. In the legal sector, lawyers must represent the society they serve. A workplace full of people with the same characteristics inevitably generates the same opinions and ideas.

A culturally diverse staff ensures colleagues have a broader understanding of different cultures, meaning we build a general understanding of the different things that are important to different people. This is vitally important to clients and colleagues alike. Diversity ensures that a range of perspectives contribute to the firm overall, and this inevitably leads to innovation and progress. 

We all have hopes and aspirations. However, for these to be attained we must have opportunity. Increasing diversity begins with ensuring that everyone in our community has fair access to the legal profession. I feel privileged to work for a firm that provides a platform for different voices to be heard. We should not be bystanders. Instead, we should actively encourage our employers to provide opportunities and make use of them.

Diversity is a work in progress, but there is one action that we can effect immediately: to make all colleagues feel included. Verna Myers, lawyer, author and now Vice President of Inclusion Strategy at Netflix, explained diversity and inclusion beautifully: “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” 

In celebrating different cultural events, we let our colleagues know they are supported, and that what is important to them is also important to us. It’s about both recognising our differences and telling our colleagues that we want to learn. We are brilliantly unique; we are equals.

I no longer fear being different. I wear my afro hair freely in the office because being myself is the only way I want to belong.