I have always thought myself to be an ally of black and minority ethnic (BAME) people in my professional life and my personal life. That said, I still find it awkward to talk about race. I find it harder still to talk openly about racism. I am most uncomfortable with the word racist. But we need to talk about race, racism and racists if we are to confront the prejudice, inequality and discrimination that BAME people face at work and in society.
Who could not help but take a step back and reflect on the world following the death of George Floyd in the US and the subsequent #BlackLivesMatter protests that started in the States and spread to the UK. It certainly spurred conversations in the CIPA virtual office. Or should I say it spurred listening, something I have not done enough of. I listened to my BAME colleagues talking about their experiences growing up, living and working in the UK. I was shocked. I thought I knew what racism was, I had hardly scraped the surface.
I came to realise that it is the fear of not getting the language right, of saying the wrong thing, that prevents me from talking as openly and freely about racism as I would like to. It is time for that to change. The CIPA team is incredibly diverse but it pains and shames me to say that I have never really sought to understand how race and racism has shaped the life experiences of people I have come to class as friends, as well as colleagues. How can I lead people and help bring about change if I do not understand the challenges they face in and out of work?
By listening I discovered that the team is proud of the community and the culture we have created at CIPA. People feel supported and they feel valued. Newer staff talk about having BAME role models in senior positions and that they feel encouraged by this. For me, this is how a workplace should be. Surely this is commonplace? Not so. When colleagues talked about their experiences of other workplaces, my eyes were opened to a very different world. Or perhaps that world is not so different. CIPA is more than an employer, it is a membership association led by its members. When CIPA staff look for BAME role models in the governance and leadership of CIPA by its members, they are few and far between.
What I learned from listening to CIPA staff is that it is all well and good getting the culture right as an employer, it is great that CIPA makes public statements about the support it offers its BAME staff and members, but do our deeds match our words. I think not.
I have been at CIPA nine years and together we have transformed the Institute in that time. It is barely recognisable from the organisation I joined. In my role, Council is my litmus. There are more women on Council. Council is ‘younger’. Council is more representative of the constituencies within CIPA. Council works very differently. But there are few BAME people. The same is true of our committees. The same is true of our seminars, conferences and events. That must change.
Change is, however, always difficult to bring about. I have no magic wand to wave. In testing this piece for the Journal with a few close colleagues and friends I have learned much, about myself and about race and racism. One comment rings in my mind as I contemplate how we build a future CIPA that is representative of its members. “We need a catalyst. I could write something for the Journal as a black person, but I do not lead CIPA, you do. You cannot speak on behalf of the BAME community or white allies, you can only speak as you. Find your voice and help CIPA find its voice.”
CIPA is a voluntary organisation and our members give freely of their time to advance and promote the UK patent attorney profession. It is CIPA’s great strength. I often say that my peers leading other institutes and associations would give everything to reach the level of member engagement we have at CIPA. But I cannot hide behind that volunteer ethos and ask the underrepresented groups in CIPA to volunteer themselves. I recognise that there are many and different barriers to volunteering, often the result of challenging or damaging life experiences. My job is to make it easier by lowering those barriers so that people feel more able to come forward and engage with CIPA.
I will try to ask the difficult questions. I will challenge. I will be more than an ally; I will be an advocate. In doing so, I may get the language wrong; I may say the wrong thing. Please forgive me, it will be for the right reasons.
To magnify the point about getting the language right, as I finished this piece BBC News was discussing the use of the term BAME. There were many people from a range of backgrounds arguing against the term; a ‘catch-all’ which serves a limited purpose. The two experts interviewed, whilst agreeing that BAME should not be used, could not agree on an alternative. One favoured persons or people of colour, the other preferred non-white.
I am going to get it wrong, I thought. No, I am not, I am going to ask my CIPA people for their view. They were unanimous and the conversation could not have been more different than the one played out on my television. Do not call us people of colour and most definitely do not call us non-white. If you need to refer to us collectively, use BAME. We know what it means and we know why you are using it.
BAME it is, by mutual consent in this context. My colleagues know that I am using BAME here to set out my thoughts on race and racism. They know that I only see them as a brilliant group of talented individuals whom I feel privileged to work alongside.
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