Each October I find myself at Black History Month ("BHM") events that focus not just on the past, but use the month to: highlight current issues affecting black communities and individuals; to provide safe spaces in which those discussions can be held; and to champion and celebrate the achievements of black people.
The month has provided a designated avenue for black people to host and lead events about race and our experiences through frank and open discussion. Conversations like these are so important as they provide us with the opportunity to express nuances that are rarely spoken about with others outside our race as we often feel that people won't understand or be interested in hearing about them, or that the conversations would be too difficult.
Too often, I am disappointed by how few non-black faces appear in the audiences. BHM events represent excellent opportunities for non-black attendees to hear unabridged accounts of the backgrounds, experiences and achievements of their black peers and to take away messages and lessons that are often not given the platform they ought to have.
In 2013 I joined my chambers, 25 Bedford Row as a third six pupil. At the time, we had three other black women and two black men as part of our cohort, a significant proportion when compared to figures across the Bar. Over the years, the numbers have increased, - now two black men and eight black women in chambers. We range from a QC to freshly taken on tenants.
On a personal level, having other black members of chambers has been a lifeline for me. These are the people I instinctively call or text when someone says something in court that makes me feel uncomfortable and I need advice from colleagues who share my racial background. These are the women that have given me tips about how best to fit my awkwardly shaped barrister's wig over a newly braided hairstyle. They're the friends I can banter with about the latest Wizkid album when I bump into them in the robing room. The ones I go to Tasty's with for jollof rice and fried plantain after a long day at Woolwich Crown Court. The colleagues who recommended me a specific Patois interpreter and helped me frame the cultural explanation to a judge justifying why a Jamaican raised client may appear to speak fluent English but needed translation services.
Them being around encourages me to bring my whole self to work and in response I've found that my set has always been very receptive to me and to the contributions I've made to chambers and Management Committee meetings. When you are in an environment with others that share your characteristics you instantly feel more comfortable. It makes it easier to contribute to discussions and to vocalise perspectives informed by your racial background as you can do so knowing that you are not viewed as a 'token' figure, or a spokesperson for your race. You also have the support of knowing there will be someone else who can corroborate your anecdotal experiences or at least see exactly where you come from.
Empowering minorities to speak up means that chambers has richer conversations and debates on how we run chambers and how we represent our clients. Policies, rules and decisions are informed by those perspectives throughout the year, people feel comfortable ringing one another to ask for cultural perspectives and context about cases and so on. (Particularly important when you consider that as a criminal defence specialist set, a disproportionate amount of our clients are from BAME backgrounds.) Effectively we benefit day to day from having the kinds of conversations at work that are often only given a platform during BHM.
As October draws to a close, I want to encourage non-black members of the profession to consider how they view BHM, particularly if your workplace and social circle is not particularly diverse. If you find that you think of it as a month only for us then sadly you are missing the point. BHM is a chance for you to hear from others who navigate the same spaces as you from a different perspective. Take the opportunity to actively engage with it next year and attend an event or two. You will be tapping into a resource that is often undervalued.
Abimbola Johnson is a barrister at 25 Bedford Row. Winner of the 2018 Diversity Legal Awards Rising Star category and a rising star finalist in the 2018 Black British Business Awards, Abimbola's practice focusses on serious crime, professional discipline and inquiry work.