One Pump Court’s Raggi Kotak talks about racism and the Bar

6 Jan 2020

Speaking in the January edition of Counsel, Raggi Kotak shares her views, hopes and suggestions for change when it comes to the conversation about racism and the Bar

Conversations on race often bring up strong feelings of discomfort, anger and anxiety. Most prefer to avoid the topic, to remain silent, to minimise its importance or impact, or to pretend not to notice it. So if the subject of this article brings up such feelings for you, you are not alone. The subject is a difficult one. I just ask for you to have an open mind.


Are we all socialised in racism?


Racism is the belief that one racial group is superior to another racial group. It is supported by structural systems of oppression. So it is both the belief and the structural support of that belief.

We are all socialised in racism – for example, through our education, reading material, television, films and advertising. White people are frequently affirmed, made visible and represented in diverse and positive ways. People of colour (POC), on the other hand, are often stereotyped or not represented at all.

Psychological processes help create these dynamics. Our brains create shortcuts to process large amounts of information, based on what we already know to be true, which create unconscious biases. As social beings we are wired to connect with those that are most like us, so differences make us uncomfortable. Our emotional systems are designed to impact each other’s systems. For example, if we are with a person that feels angry, our emotional systems are designed to pick up on the anger and regulate in sync, so we may also feel some anger. If we are around messages of fear, we may also feel that fear ourselves. It is my belief that our emotions are being manipulated through some of the racist rhetoric that is becoming more normalised.

Most of us reading this article will have had some racist thoughts. For example, you may see a black teenager in a ‘hoody’ and feel scared; you might clutch your bag on the tube depending on who is sitting next to you; you might hold all Israelis responsible for what is happening in Palestine.

Most of you will hide these thoughts and pretend that you don’t have them. This will be for a number of reasons – perhaps you feel ashamed, guilty or frightened that people will think badly of you, or link you with those you don’t want to be linked with. You may not want to talk about racism. You may be scared of making a mistake, of not knowing enough about these issues or letting slip secret thoughts.

As barristers, we are all invested in the idea that we are good, fair and decent people. After all, we stand up for truth and we fight against injustice. The idea that we might have racism within us is just not something we will want to accept.

The problem with this, is that if it is pointed out that we have done something that is racially problematic, we may react quite strongly. We are horrified that we are part of the ‘bad’ and can become quite defensive.

Instead, we should understand that we are all conditioned into the dynamics of racism, that these are learning moments where we can notice – without being judged – and that this, in turn, can create a possibility of change.


How does everyday racism show up?


Experiences of racism vary from blatant racist slurs, like the ‘N word’ to more ‘minor’ incidents that are known as ‘microaggressions’. These are the everyday verbal or non-verbal incidents or comments, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate negative messages to people based on their race.

Sometimes microaggressions are compared to paper cuts. They may seem a small thing to the person who dished it out – but to the person receiving the ‘paper cut’, it hurts like hell!

Incidents may manifest in a number of ways, such as not really listening to the views of a black tenant at a meeting; giving more attention to a pupil that reminds you of yourself; recommending someone for a junior brief who you feel more at ease with; or creating a chambers where a person of colour feels that she has to assimilate in order to be accepted as part of the team.


What can we do about it?


In the short term, there are things that we can do when we experience incidents of racism. We can directly address them, if we feel confident enough to do so. I might ask: ‘What do you mean by that comment?’ We can speak to another colleague in chambers for support or to the person responsible for equality issues in chambers.

But that’s the thing. Microaggressions may not feel like a big deal to the person handing out the treatment. The person bringing the complaint may then be thought of as the one creating the problem by making too much fuss. There is little awareness of issues of racism amongst us – so a person bringing a complaint may have to try and prove that the incident was a racist one. This is particularly problematic if a junior member of chambers is bringing up the issue.

Mostly, when we look at these issues, we look at how we can ‘fix’ the problem. We look at our recruitment procedures, the representation amongst us. But do these policies really lead to a change in organisational culture and in an individual’s behaviour?

A recent report from the Bar Standards Board (BSB) suggests not. In March 2018, the BSB published Heads Above the Parapet a report of an event that considered how to improve race equality at the Bar, where it acknowledged that there are deep issues with diversity and inclusion at the Bar. The BSB has set up a race taskforce to address these issues.

My chambers, One Pump Court, have been considering how we can change our culture to confront systems of oppression that continue amongst us – not just in relation to race, but also all other social groups – such as gender, sexuality, age and physical and mental abilities.

We have agreed that all members of chambers are required to undertake anti-oppression training. We are also creating a space for regular facilitated sessions for those that want to continue with these discussions. The aim is to help educate us and support us, without judgment, so that we can bring the change we need.

In other jurisdictions, anti-oppression training is already compulsory for lawyers – for example it is required in the New York State Bar and Law Society of Ontario. My hope is that we can establish the same approach and work across the differences we all bring to the Bar, to help us all take more positive steps to help address these issues amongst us.

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