The content of our character.

I am sitting in the comfortable reception area of a mid-tier Sydney law firm, suited and booted,  waiting, with a touch of nerves, for an interview.

The two white male partners appeared out of the lift well, jaws physically dropping when they saw me. Immediately they fell into a conspiratorial whisper, presumably wrong-footed by my anglicised surname.

Less than twenty minutes later my interview was over. Barely time enough to dispense with pleasantries, let alone for a credible review of my suitability for the role.

I left deflated, scarred again by the blatant discrimination I had encountered and not for the first time.

Fortunately, in my experience at least, these situations are rare but when they do occur, they cut deep and are nearly impossible to prove.

I have been brown Black a long time and have given this issue a lot of thought over the years.   Would my experiences have been different had my skin colour been lighter or darker? Yes.

Would I change anything? No. Where would the fun be in that!  

The content of our character is shaped by our experiences – the test is how we react and in turn build resilience. Besides – it’s good to be different.

This is my story.

I am the London born son of a Ghanaian father (student) and a Melburnian mother (legal secretary). They separated whilst I was still an infant due, I am told, to the cultural and financial pressures that come with the collision of different worlds and raising a young child.

My mother brought me here during the last vestiges of the White Australia Policy and seeing no future, promptly did a U-turn to England. It would be another twenty years before I reconnected with my father and thirty years and three surnames later before I returned to these shores. And from an early age I was lucky enough to have a stepfather who told me I could be whoever I wanted to be and encouraged me to do a law degree.

I mention this so you can see how my life has been shaped in no small part by the colour of my skin. This is just my story. “…the Black experience and fight for justice around the world is as varied and diverse as Black people themselves…” – Global Statement of Solidarity with Black Lives Matter.

As a person of colour you develop a sixth sense of “otherness”. You are not born with it, it grows over time from direct experience – the slurs, the slights, the sideways glances, the stop and searches, the spare seat, the being served second.

Well intentioned people often say, “…You probably imagined it…” or …”You’ve got a chip on your shoulder…” but believe me when I say it is very real.

You are not though expected to “walk in my skin”. In much the same way I cannot be female and fully understand what it is like to navigate my way through a group of vocal young men or venture down a dark alley – but I can try.

Maintain the Momentum

Much has been written about the murder of George Floyd and rightly so. Who was not horrified by the images that bombarded our screens. Eight minutes.

The rising prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement has shaken up the whole world.  And with COVID19 pressing the global pause button, many of us have had more time to reflect on social justice issues.

I cannot speak for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples whose experiences are different to mine but I think Meyne Wyatt’s outstanding monologue on Q&A powerfully sums up the frustrations of our first nations people. Please watch it and watch it again.

A perennial optimist, it seems to me that real change is finally coming: police deaths in custody are being assiduously investigated, sporting clubs steeped in history are changing dubious names, statues are toppling (best not destroyed but consigned to museums in my opinion), even a well-known brand of cheese is getting a makeover.

We must collectively maintain this momentum otherwise there is a real danger that Black Lives Matter will just become an empty slogan.

I often hear  “I do not see colour” or “ I am colour blind” – highly commendable on one level but it is not helpful on another. It should be a given to assume we don’t like the idea of other people being treated as inferior because of the colour of their skin. You don’t get an award for that. Don’t be a passenger in this debate, be an active agent for change and part of the solution.

Get comfortable with the uncomfortable

As in-house counsel we occupy a privileged position – we can extend long arms into every corner of our organisations. However, with that privilege comes responsibility and we can and must be instrumental in change.

It is now an undisputed fact that diversity makes for a broader, richer environment which produces more creative thinking and collaborative solutions. Not only is it a business imperative – increased profits – it is also the right thing do.  Kick over the “too hard” basket that been sitting in the corner of the Executive Boardroom for so long. No more excuses.  

Let’s step out of our comfort zones and start getting comfortable with having some uncomfortable conversations about race inside and outside our organisations.

Let’s review our recruitment processes – wherever practical, encourage the use of anonymised resumes and strive for diverse interview panels.

Let’s make sure our own organisations and our panel of external law firms are truly engaged with the indigenous community – for example graduate programmes, a Reconciliation Action Plan, a fair go for suppliers.

Let’s get involved in pro bono work and NFP’s – there is no shortage of worthy causes that need our skills and never more so than in this current environment.

No one is saying this is easy. It will take time. But if we all play a part, together we can make the boat go faster.

Now is my time, your time, our time to stand up, be counted and make a difference.

An original version of this article appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Australian Corporate Lawyer.
Nick Willetts

Nick Willetts

Board Director of the John Mac Foundation

Nick Willetts is a Board Director of the John Mac Foundation, an all-volunteer not for profit founded by Deng Adut. Deng is the NSW Australian of the Year 2017, former child soldier, now lawyer and refugee advocate. JMF provides scholarships, mentoring and career pathways for disadvantaged university students, often refugees from conflict zones.

Nick is a member of the ACC NSW Division Executive Committee and the ACC’s National Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Committee.

Nick has activated his incorporated legal practice and is providing in house legal services and solutions.