Written by Sean MacKay.
Sean is a 2018-2019 ELN Communications Lead and Managing Editor at BuzzBuzzHome. Find out more about him here.
Like so many of those who read Hadiya Roderique’s Black on Bay Street essay in The Globe and Mail, I was blown away by her powerful story of representation, exclusion, and oppression, at times overt but often subtle, as the author navigated law school, job interviews and then ultimately joined a full-service law firm in Toronto. I know from speaking to many in the corporate world and beyond that her piece resonated in spaces well outside of the legal community. Maybe the most exceptional element of the phenomenon surrounding the essay is that its impact hasn’t fully manifested. Initiatives aimed at changing corporate culture and hiring practices that may not have found broad support before are, hopefully, more likely to gain momentum because of her piece.
So when I had the opportunity to see Hadiya speak at the Emerging Leaders Network’s (ELN) Black on Bay Street: Real Talk event on February 21st, I jumped at it. I was eager to learn more about the challenges she faced and her perspective on what we all can do to improve the status quo for racialized people, not just in the Bay Street corporate world, but in workplaces that span all sectors and industries. The important evening focused on the realities many racialized professionals face, and a discussion on how to make our so often siloed workplaces more inclusive.
By Hadiya’s own telling, when her essay was published last fall, she did not expect it to make a splash. She was certainly not expecting to see the piece still rippling through social media discussions in Toronto and beyond months later.
After speaking to the sold-out crowd of ELN members about the genesis of the essay and the reactions to it (plenty of support and remarkably few trolls, she said), Hadiya was joined on stage by McCarthy Tétrault Associate and 2018 CivicAction DiverseCity Fellow Atrisha Lewis. Recently Atrisha also authored a personal reflection on racial equality in law for Canadian Lawyer Magazine. The two engaged in a conversation that covered many facets of inclusion, with a focus on why fostering anti-oppressive environments is crucial in boardrooms and beyond. I listened to fellow ELN members from diverse backgrounds and sectors — from tech to management consulting to not-for-profit — ask Hadiya questions while relaying their own views on the challenges they’ve encountered and the inherent difficulties in creating viable solutions. Anecdotally, I know current law school students who’ve listened on as the essay has been noted explicitly by partners during Q & A sessions on firm tours at the very Bay Street law firms Hadiya addresses in her piece.
Throughout their discussion, Hadiya and Atrisha recounted several experiences that many, who traditionally hold the most privilege, cannot adequately imagine as everyday work experiences. From my personal experience as a white man, the process of applying for jobs has never included an ongoing internal debate over changing my name on an application, or deciding whether or not to include certain accomplishments on my resume. But these types of internal struggles are exactly what racialized people face when having to put themselves out there for an opportunity. Speaking with Atrisha about barriers racialized people face in the workplace, Hadiya also described the “constant drip” of subtle racism that individuals encounter daily.
Another major takeaway for me was Hadiya’s message that organizations are guaranteed to lose out on top talent through their inability or unwillingness to address issues of diversity and oppression from the boardroom down. “People will not come to your organization if they don’t see themselves represented there,” she said. “If you don’t have representation, you don’t have the best talent.”
Through their discussion about personal experiences, I realized that it can be very challenging to comprehend the frequency and impact of microaggressions when you may not have that lived experience. This is why it is absolutely vital for us to listen when racialized individuals speak up with their lived experiences, and take action to make sure we all have the same opportunities and experiences in the workplace.
If it slipped under your radar last fall, read Hadiya’s essay Black on Bay Street. It’s a powerful blend of deeply personal experiences and incisive critiques of how Bay Street has failed, and continues to fail, racialized people with essential takeaways for all of us, regardless of sector or industry.