My experience with Racism – by Paula Rhone-Adrien

Paula Rhone-Adrien is a leading black female Barrister. Keep up to date with her journey on social media @familylawguruuk

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25th May struck a forceful blow to my heart. George Floyd was a man who was killed whilst under the arrest of a police officer. Why did this killing mean so much to me? George Floyd was a black man and the arresting officer was a white police officer. Why does the colour of their skin matter? Sadly, statistics tell us that black males are 2 1/2 times more likely to die at the hands of an arresting officer than a white male and yet they only make up 13% of the US population. Many believe, that law enforcement in America, from the arresting police officer right up to the justice system, is riddled with racism and so it is incredibly hard for a black person, who comes into contact with a member of law enforcement, to receive fair treatment.

Sadly the figures are no different for black people living in the UK. At the last census we only made up 3.3% of the population and yet a black male is twice as likely to die in police custody as his British white counterpart; 13% more likely to be incarcerated for the same offence and 47 times more likely to be stopped and searched. In 1999 Sir William McPherson produced his report into the mishandling of the tragic racist murder of Stephen Lawrence. He concluded that the London Metropolitan Police were institutionally racist and that other large organisations such as local authorities, schools and the English justice system were also likely to fall into this category. In 2017 MP David Lammy, was asked to undertake an investigation into the experiences of black and other ethnic groups in the criminal justice system. You will not be surprised to read that he drew similar conclusions to McPherson.

Racism is an uncomfortable topic for many. It’s just not something that most people in England have to think about or discuss. We also know that the topic can cause deep offence or distress to another if not handled carefully, and so we shy away, fearful of perhaps being labelled racist ourselves.

My experience of racism growing up in England may surprise you. I came to England when I was just 4, an immigrant from Jamaica. I had no idea what this new life meant for me and I can honestly tell you I have no recollection of being ‘different’ until the first day an adult pointed it out to me. I was just 5 waiting patiently in the dinner queue for my lunch. When it was my turn I asked for something using my best manners, but the dinner lady told me she wasn’t going to serve me until I “spoke English”. I didn’t understand her, because, I was speaking English, and the queue was now building behind me. I repeated what I wanted, but this time she told me that I couldn’t have it, because I couldn’t speak properly. Thankfully a teacher saw what was happening and came to my rescue.

Of course as I matured, I learnt that I was different and that for some reason my difference meant that others thought me inferior to them and at times drove them to want me hurt or even killed. On one occasion I felt I had to run for my life after being chased by some men who were wearing clothing that made me believe they were supporters of racist views. I managed to escape by miraculously vaulting over a closed park fence. On another occasion I was stood on a platform at  Tower Hill station and was caught in the midst of a group of white men who had circled a small black man, his wife and baby child. They were circling and nudging us towards the edge of the platform. I have no idea why they dissipated suddenly, no one had come to our aid, but that fear has never left me.

I have faced racism in the work environment too. I have been specifically told (after the event) that I have either lost jobs or not obtained roles because of “the way I comb and style my hair” (it was in braids at the time), or “because I didn’t fit the companies expectations”.

I was asked once to make a formal complaint and told that I would be supported in doing so, but of course I didn’t. Why? Because what was the point? I was already of the firm belief that nothing would really be done, and even if it was that others would still suffer. In any event, I needed to get a job so I could continue by studies, and so I moved on. That is something I have learnt to do often.

So if I, as a law abiding individual had lost faith in the system, what hope is there for the disaffected in my community?

Even as a Barrister, I was shocked at the racism that I have encountered in my role. One would expect that those who act on behalf of all, and whose job it is to uphold, fairness, equality and justice would not behave in such a prejudicial way, but they do. A classic example of such behaviour is where I am either already sat in a room with other barristers, who are all white, or I enter a room where all the Barristers are white. I will then be asked to either leave the room, because it is for Barristers only, or asked if I am the client or a social worker – because I couldn’t possibly be the Barrister! Now why would the white person who asked me that question be so bold as to assume I wasn’t a Barrister? What worries me is that it’s 2020 and there are still Barristers who believe or assume that only white people can be Barristers. How will those Barristers be able to represent those who are from ethnic groups with the vim and rigour they require? I doubt they can. 

So yes racism is a difficult topic, but please understand that it’s difficult for everyone and sadly, history will continue to repeat itself unless we are all brave enough to confront it. As a child you learn, that if you fail to deal with a problem it will return time and time again. Racism is no different. We all have to take responsibility to ensure that not only do we educate ourselves, but each other too.

Remember, no one is born to hate. Racism is not innate, which means it can be unlearned.

Oh, and what had I been asking the dinner lady for…. “a tomato please”.

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