Shiva Ancliffe sat down (virtually) with Raggi Kotak recently to talk about diversity at the Bar. Raggi is a barrister practising from One Pump Court, with over 20 years experience, specialising in immigration and public law. She is a queer south Asian queer woman living in London and has a long history of anti-oppression work and has been involved in the setup and running of numerous ground-breaking and award winning projects.
Raggi is a Race Educator and runs a consultancy practice called Jedi Consultancy (justice, equity, diversity and inclusion). She trains, facilitates, consults and coaches others around the issues, specialising in challenging the dynamics of racism. She is the founder and main facilitator of an active online discussion forum called Race Talk, which aims to bring different racial groups together to find ways through their racial conditioning and trauma. She is also a facilitator for the Racial Justice Collaborative, an international project challenging racism through dialogue. Raggi’s work is informed by psychology, trauma awareness and movement work, in which she has extensively trained.
In this interview, Raggi tells her story of what life was like as a pupil 20 years ago and talks to Shiva about how far the profession has come since then, the work that still needs doing and what drew her to become a barrister in the first place.
1. SA: What attracted you to the law?
RK: I always feel like I should say something really profound when I’m asked this question. Something like I’ve also believed in justice and wanted to make a real difference to the world. Both of those things are true. But that’s not really what attracted me to law.
As a child, I used to watch a television programme called LA Law. I loved it and thought ‘I can do that!’ And here I am!
I was born in London in 1968. This was the year of Enoch Powell MP’s famous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, which strongly criticized mass immigration, mostly from former colonized countries and argued against equality legislation.
The speech led to either widespread support or condemnation, from individuals and groups throughout the UK. Powell MP was sacked from his role as Shadow Defence Secretary, for inciting racial hatred. He remained as an MP.
This speech had an enormous impact on my life. From early childhood, I experienced repeated verbal and physical racist incidents. Racism was a daily occurrence. This was commonly experienced by Black and Brown communities throughout the UK.
I think even though it was not an explicit decision, these experiences of injustice always led to me wanting to help create a different world.
When I finally arrived at Law School, I was a little shocked. There were few people that looked like me. Or that had a background like mine. I remember one of the other students saying that she had never met anyone before that hasn’t been to public school! It still amazes me that someone can get to their early twenties and have had that experience. Yet, I met a group of friends at Law School that I remain closely connected to. I think underneath all of our conditioning and experiences, many of us have the same hopes, dreams and fears. Many were really welcoming.
2. SA: Tell me about your experience as a BAME barrister?
RK: My experiences have been varied. Sometimes brilliant. Sometimes painful and challenging. I am a queer South Asian woman. I think some of my experiences have been the direct result of the intersection of my multiple identities. It is not possible to separate these experiences to those that just involved race.
My pupillage was really difficult as I was bullied by a senior member of chambers on my 2nd six. I believe that race and gender influenced the situation. At the time, I hid it and didn’t seek help. I didn’t know how to get help and thought if I told anyone I would be blamed and lose my chance of tenancy.
When I finally did raise the bullying, it was pretty much covered up. I remember being told privately that there had been a number of previous complaints against the member of chambers that I named. Yet, they were allowed to continue in their role having power over junior members of chambers. I was also told by another senior member of chambers that if I raised a complaint, that would be it, I would never succeed at the Bar. Yet, here I am!
Unfortunately, these incidents at the Bar are not rare.
I recently asked a junior tenant in my own chambers what she would do if she was bullied. She is White and from a privileged background. She said that she would never tell anyone, she would do whatever it took to get through the experience without creating waves as she felt by raising it, she would damage she chances of tenancy.
It saddens me that young barristers still feel that it is their responsibility to navigate bullying amongst us.
I am currently in a chambers where I feel welcomed and accepted. The other members come from a range of identities. It really makes a difference to be surrounded by colleagues that come from similar and different identities and allow you to be yourself.
It is so important, especially for those coming into the profession to have role models. To know that there are others at the Bar that have ‘made it’ and that what really matters is the quality of their legal work, not the colour of their skin.
Welcoming diversity makes us all richer. By creating an environment where everyone all forms of internal (e.g. mental health) and external diversity (e.g. race, sexuality and gender), it widens the field of those that are welcomed as barristers and creates a better working environment for us all.
At the same time, experiences of racism have been common throughout my time at the Bar.
Racism comes in two forms, overt racism (e.g. explicit racial slurs) and covert racism (e.g. microaggressions – the everyday slights, snubs and insults based on marginalised identities). Covert racism is the everyday racism that many of us experience on an everyday basis at the Bar. Examples include not being listened to at a meeting, not being invited out with the solicitors when the other junior is invited, being mistaken for the usher and/or client at court or being ignored by the Judge and assumed to be less intelligent.
In recent times, there has been widespread conversation about this at the Bar. It is mostly being led by an amazing group of young barristers who have shown great courage in speaking out about the treatment they are receiving. I see so many positive experiences happening at the Bar at the moment, which gives me hope that we can create a different, more just structure amongst us. This is reflecting society globally, where there has been big change following the death of George Floyd.
3. SA: Why is diversity at the Bar important?
RK: For various reasons, partly because it is important that we represent the client group that we serve. Partly, so that we all feel represented at the Bar and so young people have role models and know that the Bar is a possible career choice for them.
It is really important to focus on increasing diversity at the Bar. It is also not the most important issue. The more important focus is on inclusion. Creating an environment where those from diverse backgrounds feel like they can show up in ways that feel supportive. Where we are not constantly navigating microaggressions. Where, we do not have to ‘assimilate’ – act and behave like the majority of the Bar. There is always a personal cost when experiencing these issues. Unfortunately, these issues are an everyday occurrence for many of us at the Bar.
4. SA: When/why did you take a stand against tackling racism?
RK: I think I always on some level took a stand against racism. Even when I didn’t know I was doing it. Just by showing up with the expectation that I would succeed.
In more recent years, racism has again been massively on the rise. I have felt pretty devastated as I have seen racist language and violent incidents again become more normalised amongst us.
For the last 3-4 years, I have been studying conflict. I saw us all becoming more polarised around issues of race and wanted to understand more about the dynamics. I have been studying a brilliant conflict and change facilitation method called Process Work.
I have travelled the world studying with some of the best race educators. The more I learn, the more I realise there is to learn. The more I work out ways to deal with the complexities that keep us apart.
5. SA: Tell me about your work through Challenging the Dynamics of Racism?
RK: About a year ago I developed a programme called Challenging the Dynamics of Racism. I bought together a number of different methods (such as critical race theory; psychology and conflict skills) to take people on a journey to show them how racism works, how we are all socialised and conditioned in the dynamics of racism, what gets in the way of us addressing these dynamics and how to start to challenge the racism we see around us.
The basic programme is a 6-hour course, which currently is split over 2 x 3-hour sessions online.
Most of us get racist thoughts and pretend that we don’t. We shove them down and don’t even admit to ourselves that they are there. We feel guilty and ashamed as we know that they are ‘wrong’. Yet, the majority of our communication is non-verbal and ‘leaks’ out of us in various ways. That’s where the microaggressions come from.
If we are not prepared to look how racism shows up, in a non-judgmental and curious way, we do not give ourselves the chance to bring the change that we so need at the Bar. It basically requires people to show up and to be prepared to challenge the status quo. This doesn’t mean that people have to give anything up. It just means that we all have to create change together and create more space for everyone.
6. SA: How has the programme been received?
RK: Really well. I initially ran a pilot class with my own chambers. They were so excited by what they learnt, that we voted in compulsory training for all members and staff after the first session I ran.
We remain the only chambers that has compulsory anti oppression training for everyone. It means that the responsibility for bringing the change that we want to see lies with everyone in chambers, not just with those that are marginalised. Everyone in chambers is absolutely clear about what is allowed and not allowed. Everyone in chambers is supported to grow so that they don’t inadvertently impact those that are different from them in chambers.
I am currently working with a growing number of chambers and solicitor’s firms. People are showing up differently. Some really want to engage with the training. Some are starting with smaller chunks to see how that is received before they move forward. What is really reassuring is that so many are showing up to do this work.
Most show up feeling a little anxious. Most of us are not used to talking about racism. Yet, like most things, once we learn how racism works, we can learn to disrupt it and bring change. I’m not suggesting it is easy, but challenging centuries of oppression around race is bound to be a little challenging. I find it is also relieving.
7. SA: What changes would you like to see at the Bar in respect of diversity
RK: It is now generally accepted that the Bar has to significantly change. The Bar Standards Board issued guidance in November 2020, asking all chambers to complete a Race Equality Audit, so that they are aware of how racism may show up in chambers. The BSB also suggest that all chambers arrange training for all members and staff.
In December 2020, the Bar Council issued a training pack that chambers can download and implement themselves. This is a good start in challenging the dynamics as they appear amongst us.
We are at a pivotal moment in history where organisations across the globe are creating pathways to challenge the dynamics of racism. The death of George Floyd impacted us all.
8. SA: How can we individually and collectively help to bring about that change in the legal profession as a whole, and in particular the Bar?
RK: We have to be willing to show up. To look at ourselves and do the work individually and collectively to bring change.
We have to remember why we became lawyers in the first place. Many of us chose law because justice is important to us. Racism shows up in our systems as trauma. It is unjust that we continue to allow a system to flourish that supports us in disproportionate ways.
As lawyers we have so much power. We have reached a time in history where lawyers and judges are repeatedly under attack. Those that represent more vulnerable clients are being attacked and labelled as ‘activist lawyers’. Recently a firm had to deal with someone turning up in reception with a machete wanting to kill an immigration lawyer.
These things are not separate. It is completely clear that some of us are more impacted than others. In my view it is the responsibility of all of us to create the change we want to see in the profession. To remember why many of us chose law in the first place. To stand together against injustice. To protect each other and the profession from outside targeting.
It is the responsibility of those that benefit from a system that creates trauma in their racialised colleagues to bring the change that is needed. I believe that compulsory training is an important way forward.