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Bay Street Refugee: Black and White on Bay Street

I was hopeless on Bay Street. It had nothing to do with my race.

I absolutely loved Hadiya Roderique´s essay Black on Bay Street. It has been over a year since she wrote it and it is still (obviously) on my mind. 

The problem I have is that what I loved about Hadiya Roderique´s essay was how familiar the struggle to “fit” into a Bay Street firm was for me. I articled at a Bay Street firm before I became a criminal lawyer. Since I am not black and have never experienced anything like anti-black racism, I wondered if skin colour or race is a satisfying explanation for law students experiencing a lack of fit on Bay Street. This was something that I put into the category of wrong-think at the time and shuffled it to the side. That is the reason it has taken me so long to write what I thought in response.

It is my view that there were two aspects of Hadiya Roderique´s experience on Bay Street that should be thought of as distinct. One aspect were incidents that appeared to be a kind of soft or hidden racism where, for example, she would be assumed to be an assistant rather than a lawyer because of what she thought (convincingly in my view) was her race. The other aspect of the article is the lack of fit she felt at her firm and that constantly trying to fit in at a ‘mostly white’ firm was an experience she found grating and increasingly soul-crushing the longer she worked there. She also attributed her lack of fit at the firm to her race. My contention is that this aspect of her experience can be thought of in terms that have nothing to do with race. I believe that many white people feel the way that Hadiya Roderique and I do.

The first clue that I had about what a struggle Bay Street would be for me was during the first week of training at the firm I articled with, we had a lunch with an etiquette coach who was explaining proper business lunch etiquette while we were eating lunch. Try to imagine this for a moment if you have not experienced it. Imagine the extreme discomfort of looking at all your colleagues, many of whom you just met and know nothing about, but assume this is all normal and second-nature to them.  Imagine being nervous and trying to impress the other students and the student coordinators during the first week of articling and sitting at a table, all looking at each other and the food on the table while listening to an etiquette lesson, all too scared to make the first move to the bread and waiting for someone else to be the first to crack. At some point, I decided I had had enough and was the first to reach for the bread and grabbed the butter to boot in an act of defiance. It was the most unpleasant meal I have had in my entire life.

Now imagine the discomfort and unpleasantness in the situation above and ask yourself: what does this discomfort have to do with race? Who, of any race, would enjoy such a thing? As I recall it, I was sitting at a table of all white articling students and they were all too scared to make the first move. Everyone felt uncomfortable.

When I read Hadiya Roderique´s description of a Bay Street firm as ´an ocean of mostly white faces´, I thought back to that terrible experience during my first week of articling and my first thought that, outside of a very small circle of people who are groomed for it, everyone of every group feels uncomfortable at a Bay Street law firm and finds the experience of trying to fit in to be grating. The whites that I know who are lawyers are from very diverse backgrounds. Some are from wealthy backgrounds and some are from more middle-class backgrounds. Some are from established Canadian families that Stephen Harper referred to as “old stock” Canadians and some are from immigrant families. Some are from cities and some are from small towns and rural areas. In many ways, the white lawyers I know do not have very much in common with each other, but I suppose on a cursory glance of a website, they could be described as being part of “an ocean of white faces.” What has given me a feeling of uneasiness in the time since Hadiya Roderique wrote the article is that I think the implication of her argument that the ‘ocean of white faces’ fits easily into the Bay Street law world, unlike people of colour, is very often wrong. 

My Experience on Bay Street

There are varying degrees of discomfort and struggle when it comes to fitting in at a Bay Street firm and I feel very confident in saying that, within the group of about 30 people I articled with who I thought I could gauge (about 90% of whom were white) no one struggled more than I did. I just never ascribed my lack of fit at a Bay Street firm to my skin colour.

The articling student events I was forced to attend summarize very well the grating and unnatural experience of articling on Bay Street for me. The first event we had to attend was a golf day and I refused to attend because of my lifelong antipathy towards golf and made up a lame excuse that I am nearly certain was not believed. I was actually planning to attend the golf day until one of the lawyers came to my office and, completely unsolicited, started talking to me about how excited he was to take the day off and attend the golf day and how he had played golf for over twenty years and other bullshit like that. Our conversation was full of awkward pauses because he kept waiting for some kind of acknowledgment from me about how great he is because he plays golf and there was absolutely no way in hell that such an acknowledgment was going to be forthcoming from me. It was only after our terrible conversation that I decided I would not be attending the golfing event under any circumstances.

The second event we were supposed to attend, a ski day, was one of the strangest days of my life. I hate to use this example because of the obvious racial issue in the movie, but in retrospect it was actually a lot like the Jordan Peele movie Get Out where Daniel Kaluuya´s character is always noticing these weird things happening all the time, but can´t quite put his finger on what exactly is wrong and doesn´t say anything about it because he is not sure if it is just his mistaken perception and he doesn´t want to be rude.

The first thing that struck me as weird was that everyone was wearing the same thing. Everyone. Black snow pants and either a red or blue ski jacket and mostly everyone was even wearing the same brand of ski gear, Columbia. I was wearing something that looked more like what a snowboarder would wear and I actually thought that I had missed a memo or e-mail of what we were supposed to wear to the ski day.

I actually like skiing and am a reasonably good skier, but I could never have known or been prepared for what it would be like. The lawyers and to a lesser extent some articling students were really good at skiing and were not shy about showing it off. People were going down difficult, double black diamond hills as if they were in the Olympics. I can remember thinking that this was no leisurely ski event, it was an exhibition. I actually could not believe how good some of the lawyers were at skiing, how effortless they were going down the difficult hills and how fast they were going down in such a controlled manner. Skiing is not something these lawyers do for fun, it is something they take seriously and showing skiing prowess is part of showing off your status.

The weirdest part of the whole event was the dinner after the skiing. I was sitting at a table with about 12 other people. We were offered three different options for a three-course meal and every single person ordered the same thing. Everyone even ordered the exact same brand of beer with their meal. I was the last person to order and ordered a different option than everyone else, again out of sheer defiance. And a Coke.

I won´t go on (though I could) because there is more than enough to make the point: ski competitions where people show off their status masked as a fun student event and incessant and insipid conversations about golf? What percentage of people of any race could possibly enjoy this crap?  Hadiya Roderique is right when she says that fitting into a Bay Street firm has to do with fitting into a culture that has been long since constructed and that the culture includes Glenfiddich and cottages, hockey, private schools and extensive travel. Skiing and golf. My question is: what percentage of the white population in Canada has a life experience like this? What percentage of the non-white population in Canada has a life experience like this? And would not an upper-class non-white person have a much better chance of fitting into this world than a white person that comes from challenging or just more average financial circumstances or another country? 

I ascribed my lack of fit at a Bay Street firm to my middle-class upbringing and my individualistic personality and it is my view and my argument that these are much more satisfying explanations than skin colour or race.



The Bay Street “Type”

Now that I have been on Bay Street, I can think back to law school and imagine exactly who I think would have been most successful at a Bay Street law firm. This person I imagine would be better-looking than average, more athletic than average, have higher than average social skills and come from a family significantly above average in terms of wealth. I think of it almost in terms of who would be most likely to have joined a fraternity or sorority if I imagine going to college in the United States. The image I have of who would be successful on Bay Street is not mainly related to race. I can picture many non-whites I went to university with fitting this mould and succeeding on Bay Street and many have.

I have spoken to many white and non-white lawyers about their experience on Bay Street about the issue of ‘fit’ and how they felt being with a firm. What is interesting to me is how common the experience is for white and non-white lawyers. Everyone I speak to finds the experience grating and soul-crushing. Everyone feels that they have to check their individuality and free thought at the door in order to fit in with the crowd. Everyone feels like an imposter for various reasons, whether it is coming from a more modest or middle-class background, an immigrant background, being socially awkward, not sharing common interests with the majority of people and many other reasons.

What I also notice is that the non-white lawyers are much more likely to ascribe the grating and de-individualizing experience to their race or immigrant background. Many of these lawyers imagine or perceive that the white lawyers are not struggling with these issues at all and that they are enjoying the social experience on Bay Street and the task of fitting into the culture of a Bay Street firm. For me, I always thought most people were experiencing the same soul-crushing experience that I was and some were just better at faking fitting in than others. I thought that from minute one at that learn-etiquette-lunch-from-hell during the first week of articling. I am willing to bet that a lot of senior partners on Bay Street feel the exact same way, but don´t do anything about it because of those golden handcuffs.

It is not I that does not fit with them, it is they that do not fit with me.

There is something else that has bothered me about Black on Bay Street, which is that it seems to uphold the notion that Bay Street is some kind of gold-standard or the measure of success for lawyers. The small number of non-white lawyers at Bay Street firms relative to their overall population or their population in the legal profession is one of the reasons often cited to conclude that there is systemic racism in the legal profession. Very often the people who make this claim do work on Bay Street and see themselves as the gold standard of success. If you ask me, they are labouring under a misapprehension and this is the type of mentality that people who know what they are talking about have to break. Has anyone ever paused during this line of thinking to consider that many white and non-white lawyers are increasingly choosing not to work on Bay Street? That many are realizing the benefits, both economic and non-economic of becoming entrepreneurs and arranging their affairs in other ways?

I chose to be a criminal lawyer and entrepreneur and I do not think of people that work on Bay Street as my rich cousins, contrary to what they may believe. Whatever your financial circumstances are, especially if you are a young lawyer who does not have a children, it is best to detach yourself from those circumstances and actually try to figure out if you are a fit with whatever job you are doing. I know this is easier said than done, but it is often necessary in life. There is no way I could act for a client charged with murder if I did not detach myself from the circumstances and the fact that if my client is convicted, the penalty is life in jail. I have to detach myself from the circumstances and do my job because it will not help to dwell on the downside risk. In the same vein, law students or young lawyers working on Bay Street should consider whether they are going to be struggling against their nature until they crack or burn out early in their careers. Achieving longevity in a career and the feeling that you can do it for a long time is really important.

It only took me moments to realize just how much effort goes into sustaining the image for people working on Bay Street. When I saw the lawyers skiing down those double black diamond hills at blistering speed, competing with each other and trying to keep up and one-up each other, I imagined the time, expense and effort that went into it. When that lawyer came to my office and started talking to me about how much he loved golf and how long he had played it, I imagined the time, expense and effort that went into it. The money and expense that goes into sustaining this kind of lifestyle meant and means two things to me: 1) even though they earn a really high income, many Bay Street lawyers are not wealthy and will never accumulate wealth because they spend so much money trying to sustain this kind of lifestyle and 2) this is a pitiful way of going through life. 

In fact, there was only one benefit that I had when I worked at a Bay Street firm compared to when I became a criminal lawyer-entrepreneur — my parents got to tell their friends that I worked at a Bay Street firm at their lame dinner parties and holidays and it registered to this older generation that I was successful. I guess this made me feel happy for a few seconds. Internally, I was miserable because my conversations were filled with awkward pauses because of people insisting that I acknowledge their golfing prowess and because I constantly felt like I was stuck in a Jordan Peele movie. The experience taught me that perception is not only often different from reality — it is often the opposite of reality.

Bay Street Refugee

I can grant that some people are groomed for the Bay Street thing and that the vast majority of the people groomed for it are white, went to private schools, took ski and golf lessons, play hockey and have a cottage. Once you have reached this point in terms of income and wealth, you are talking about a very small minority of people. Even among people that are groomed for it, I can notice two distinct categories among them: the families that are truly wealthy and for whom money is really no object and the families that financially struggle and make sacrifices to groom their children for the Bay Street world. If you get one of the children from the families that struggle to groom them for Bay Street in a room, especially in a drunken state, you will discover a lot of pain and angst about this predicament. Many of these people feel like they too are faking it and feel that they have much more in common with the people from middle class backgrounds. They have just been faking it for longer and are less likely to be discovered as a fraud, even though they feel like one.

Even though I can grant that the vast majority of the people groomed for Bay Street are white and even if most Bay Street firms are ‘an ocean of white faces’, I do not think that this has to do with racism. It so happens that Canada was overwhelmingly white until very recent history and discrimination was a fact of life for non-white families until very recent history. It stands to reason that the wealthy, established Canadian families that groom their children to work on Bay Street will be white, but they are a very small percentage of the white population in Canada and they are starting to lose their majority status on Bay Street as well. It will just take time for immigrant families and non-white families to climb the ladder at which point they can also groom their children to work on Bay Street and this is already happening and will happen naturally in ever-increasing numbers without a Statement of Principles or any other policies from the Law Society. I come from an immigrant family and attended public school, but my son attends a private school. For all I know, he will grow up to love golf and be really annoying about it and repeatedly bring it up completely unsolicited and the person hearing about it will be mystified about what the catalyst was that started the awful conversation about golf. 

Me, Hadiya Roderique, lawyers from immigrant families, lawyers of colour, white lawyers from rural backgrounds, white lawyers from middle-class or working-class backgrounds and mostly everyone is going to find the experience of working on Bay Street grating. This is not, respectfully submitted, an issue of race. Everyone hated that learn-etiquette-lunch-from-hell and probably still does no matter how long they have been there. It is the reason why the phenomenon of legal entrepreneurs and innovators is growing with every passing year. I always feel uncomfortable about dividing people into white and non-white because of my background as a South African where the society itself forced you to think with your skin colour even if you did not want to. When it comes to fitting in on Bay Street, this is one area where most whites and most non-whites have a lot in common. If you want to know the truth of it, they can have it whatever colour they are. I don´t think it´s worth it.


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