“I can’t breathe” – these were George Floyd’s last words before he died. Three words that we all know by now. Three words that may become the symbol of a revolution.
It is these three words that made other voices from the black community become. Leading black female Barrister Paula Rhone-Adrien has spoken about white privilege, protests during the pandemic and opened up about her experience as a member of the UK judicial body in an exclusive interview for Platform.
Paula Rhone-Adrien is an award winning and renowned Family law Barrister with over 20 years of experience practising from Lamb Building Chambers in central London. Paula achieved the industry award of Lawyer of the Week by The Times and is also a trusted BBC expert voice.
She is one of the only leading female black Barristers within the family law arena and has talked us through how racism is visible and present in everyday life in the UK.
Is the UK innocent?
The answer is quite simple.
Looking at the statistics, UK is not too far from what is happening in America in regards to institutional racism towards black communities.
“There is a repetition of what we’re seeing in America”, Paula explains.
The proportion of BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic ) deaths in custody where restraint is a feature is over two times greater than it is in other deaths in custody.
In relation to crimes like domestic abuse for example, which is on rise during pandemic, Paula says that these figures can discourage victims to reach the police.
“Because black people feel like they can’t approach the police, they suffer even more”, the law expert says.
“They don’t feel like they can engage with the services in a way that other white females and males that suffered an abuse can – and that was such a shock to me.
“Racism is about the victim’s fear of going to the police and saying that her husband is abusing her, because she would think she’s not heard or quite frankly, she’s worried about what they’re gonna do to her husband.”
But institutional racism doesn’t stop here, as young black children learn about the unwritten rules of social hierarchy based on skin-colour from a very young age.
“This repeat of black men being targeted on the street… how do you then say to a black child who may be suffering from peer pressure or bullying to reach out the police?”, Paula says.
“Racism stretches so far, much further than the unfortunate death of Floyd.”
We don’t know where racism comes from, but we definitely know that it was happening before the tragic event in America, even more than we could possibly imagine.
Racism, like other types of abuse, comes in many ways and forms.
Paula’s experience as the leading black female barrister
Asked if she has even been stereotyped in court, Paula giggled and mentioned a repetitive episode that shows how far these assumptions can go.
“There are times when I’m sat in the room and I’m working in the court and I am very smart looking when I go to court, I’ve got my laptop and everything”, she says.
“I’ll either be sat in the room with other barristers or I would walk into the room and it’s guaranteed that somebody will then say to me ‘oh, are you the client?’
“And everyone else and myself would go ‘no, I’m the barrister…’
“And I feel sorry for the other people sat in the room because they’re so embarrassed, absolutely mortified, and the person who said it is obviously embarrassed, but then I think to myself: I’m not the only female black barrister that’s out there”, Paula explains.
“Why would you assume that I’m not the barrister and why didn’t you ask other white people in the room? They always ask me.
“So you can only think that they must have come to that conclusion because I’m black. What other assumptions can they have?”
This is an example of ‘micro racism’, repetitive instances where the black person is being targeted and becomes a victim of ridiculous assumptions.
Some of which Paula has mentioned during the interview were ‘braids are inappropriate’ or ‘black people can’t do certain jobs’.
And in most cases, as Paula explains, black people would not even respond – they just become so used to hearing them.
An example of this, she says, would be the instance where a black male would rather cross the street than pass a white woman as he consciously knows that in this society, “the white person will look like the perfect victim, and the black man will look like the perfect perpetrator”.
White privilege – what should we do with it?
We’ve seen by now that racism comes in all shapes and forms, so what’s the next step in combating the stigmatisation of black communities?
First off, learning more about racism and being keen to ask questions “will go a long way”, as Paula says.
“Don’t be afraid or ashamed to say that you don’t understand what’s going on.
“If you’re not a member of the black community, say ‘I see what’s happening on the TV, I see what has happened to George Floyd, how has that affected you? Explain this to me, educate me, let me understand.’
“Because there’s no right answer to how you can help somebody going through the trauma that the community is currently going through, other than to make yourself available to that.”
This process of learning could be then transferred to wider communities, like an educational exercise based on the ‘word of mouth’.
“You can take that knowledge to your parents, to groups within your own community and help them understand.
“You have to be brave to ask the question.”
Uncomfortable situations will then evolve into having uncomfortable discussions, but they still need to happen, as Paula further explains.
“The amount of times I’ve been ignored as I’m trying to order food or I’m stood at a bar end everyone is being served, it means so much when someone says ‘this lady was waiting first’.
“Black people are treated differently on the grounds of their race, but they won’t say it because they would think that there is no point.
“You know that situation wasn’t right, and that makes you feel uncomfortable.
“And if that situation makes you feel uncomfortable, imagine how how it made a black person feel.
“We make ourselves feel comfortable, we have to challenge those situations.”
Adressing the controversy around holding protests during the pandemic
The tragic death of George Floyd has soon traversed America with protests taking place all around the globe.
The ‘Black Lives Matter’ slogan has not only spread through social media platforms, but encouraged people of all ethnic groups to gather and protest, even amid the pandemic.
“For me protesting in light of the pandemic is acceptable because racism has killed millions and has caused harm and destruction to millions more.
“So the impact of racism has far outstretched the impact that coronavirus has had”, Paula says.
“And you cannot allow the impact that George Floyd has had on the community to go unsaid.
“When we look at the unprecedented action that was taken by government around the world in relation to COVID-19 combating – the lockdown – we respected that it had to happen.
Paula says that protesting during the pandemic is reasonable, as people are aware of the risks and take all the possible safety measures.
“The government now need to respect the fact that we cannot allow George Floyd’s death to go unspoken.
“And the people are intelligent enough and respectful enough to know how serious COVID-19 is, but now is a time when we should protest peacefully and safely.
“People are wearing their masks, people are wearing their gloves, people have done their best to social distance.
“We can protest and we can do that safely.”
Do we have any real chance of stopping racism?
From institutional to micro racism, from America to the UK and other countries around the world – we’ve also asked Paula if she is confident that this movement will be successful and put a definitive end to racism.
“You can’t hide it anymore.
“You can’t hide George Floyd’s death anymore, it’s being commented on in Japan, China… We’re a very small world now.
“It’s not just a problem in America – it’s all over the world.
“So from that point, I hope it will be eradicated itself because more and more people are talking about it, more people want to be educated on the topic, so I’m positive about this.”
But this will only come after efforts are made, more voices are heard, and sufficient action is taken.
“Black people, who are not just a homogeneous entity, need to make their own decisions and obviously need to take the steps that they feel are appropriate to ensure that George Floyd’s voice remains a constant feature in the upcoming days, weeks and months.
“We need to make sure that George Floyd’s voice is remembered and is remembered for right reasons.”
“For me, not only is it a time to not be silent, but it is a time that we should know to never be silent again.”
Paula Rhone-Adrien is an award winning and renowned Family law Barrister with over 20 of experience practising from Lamb Building Chambers in central London. She achieved the highly prestigious industry award of Lawyer of the Week by The Times and is also a trusted BBC expert voice.
She can be found on Instagram as @familylawguruuk.
By Olimpia Zagnat
Featured photo credit: (modified) original image Emilia Roman