The fight for justice and inclusion, regardless of colour or creed, is a shared history that we must all strive to build upon to ensure a society and profession where everyone can thrive, says Tsepiso Forrest, a DPLP student at Robert Gordon University (RGU) and volunteer at the Citizen Advice Bureaux in Nairn and RGU Law Clinic. Along with her LLB from RGU, she also holds a LLB (Hon) from South Africa and a MBA.
Black History Month is a celebration of the achievements and contributions of black people in the UK. For many generations, people of African and Caribbean descent have been shaping the UK's story, making an enormous difference to national and cultural life, and helping to make the UK a better place for all who live in it.
It is a time to reflect upon people, such as Asquith Xavier, who campaigned to end the racial discrimination practised by British Rail in the early 1960s, and Baroness Scotland of Asthal, who has had remarkable achievements as the first black person to become Queen’s Counsel (QC) and the youngest ever woman to become QC. She was appointed Attorney General in 2007 - the first ever woman to hold the post since it was created in 1315.
It is also an opportune time to celebrate the positive Scottish contribution to Africa, where, in the wake of David Livingstone, Presbyterian missionaries established medical and educational institutions in Malawi. These had a profound impact, from which the African intellectual elite came and eventually gained independence for Malawi and influenced neighbouring countries, such as Zambia. The Ayrshire lawyer Colin Cameron was a government minister in the first independent Malawi government and helped Oliver Tambo - the man who fought to liberate South Africa from apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela - avoid Robben Island and gain his freedom to lead the ANC in exile.
Scottish black history includes the famous and groundbreaking 1778 case of Knight v Wedderburn in the Court of Session. Knight had been a slave who had left the employ of his master Wedderburn. Wedderburn wanted his return and, on appeal against the decision to send Knight back to his master, in the Court of Session, the remarkable words of Lord Auchinleck who said that, although in plantations masters could hold their slaves, it was not agreeable to humanity or to the Christian religion. He said: "Is a man a slave because he is black? No. He is our brother; and he is a man, although not our colour; he is in a land of liberty."
It is against the background of justice, equality and inclusion, regardless of race, ethnicity or creed, that the modern-day Scotland should continue to strive.
It is from these exemplary giants, who have achieved their goals and dreams against the odds, and the Scottish people’s contribution to fighting against discrimination that the current generation should take the baton and move forward to create a truly inclusive, diverse and multicultural society, where all citizens can thrive.
It is the writer’s belief and hope that the work that has begun with the legal profession’s commitment to diversity and inclusion will continue. The tackling of barriers to entry for those who come from black backgrounds to create a truly inclusive profession is to be commended. There is, however, more still to be done.
It is important to keep asking the following questions when making decisions to drive change:
- Do we have black people who are talented around the table?
- If we do not, how are we going to hear and learn from lived experiences from those of black backgrounds?
- Do we have employees from the black communities that can join our teams? Are we seeking them out?
- How are we educating ourselves about racism?
- What are senior leaders in firms doing to drive race equality in the workplace?
- Do we speak out against racism and are we modelling this to others?
- Does our recruitment hinder or encourage diversity and inclusion as part of our strategy? If so, what can we do differently?
The eradication of racism should be a personal goal of all.
It is also prudent for those from black backgrounds to come forward and make their presence known by taking up spaces in areas where previously they have not.
It is about meeting one another halfway - to make opportunities available on the one hand and for those seeking these opportunities to come forward.
Taking up space can include networking and getting involved in activities to do with the legal profession, such as free webinars, virtual schemes, attending fairs, seeking out mentors and volunteering in the legal space. Together, both black and white can build a truly inclusive and diverse Scotland, where all are welcome and all can achieve their dreams and aspirations through hard work and dedication.
The likes of Asquith Xavier are examples of what determination and diligence can achieve; Baroness Scotland of Athal becoming the first ever black QC is another. The positive contribution of those in the Court of Session in the Knight case - a legal system ready to uphold the rights of those who sought justice. The celebration of Black History Month is a celebration of Scottish history!