A little over two years ago I met my (work) soulmate. Or rather, my “twin soul” as we often now call each other.
We were formally brought together through a mentoring scheme designed to pair incoming Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic trainee solicitors with mentors who might be well-placed to understand their experiences and help them navigate the complexities of a City legal career where, despite the frequent conversations and initiatives around diversity and inclusion, you might regularly find yourself as the only person of colour in a meeting or possibly even a department.
We first met on a sunny day in June; we sat in the square outside our soon-to-be shared offices and talked about everything and nothing. On paper, we had some immediate qualities in common – both black, both women, both Londoners (and both frequent exploiters of the versatility of Kanekalon hair). I went back to my office feeling invigorated in a way that I didn’t quite understand but put it down to the combination of good weather and the afterglow of a first meeting with someone you naturally get on with.
Two years on and she is now a fully qualified solicitor, for which I feel an unearned but enormous amount of pride. Technically, she is still my mentee but her presence at work has easily been as significant to me as I hope mine has been to her, and we slipped into the comfortable informality of friendship many months ago.
For many of us our identities are complex and multi-faceted and the ways that we move through the world reflect that, sometimes without conscious effort. As an example, I very rarely deliberately change the way I speak but know that I have a dozen voices and vocabularies that adapt themselves to the rooms I’m in and the people sitting in them. I’m not sure when I developed this reflex: at school some of the kids thought my mum and I sounded “posh”… and then I went to a university where half of the students came from independent schools (despite independent schools educating only around 7% of school children in England) and spent the first three months trying not to feel like I sounded like the black modern equivalent of Eliza Doolittle.
Whatever its origin, this variation of code-switching is now second nature to me and many others. I don’t have a fixed definition of how my “authentic self” sounds and acts, but the version of me when I’m with my mum is probably the best benchmark. On the whole, I feel pretty comfortable being myself at work – it’s one of the things I value most about the team I work in.
Yet through intangibles like our shared cultural references, speech patterns and sense of humour, in my relationship with Tanisha I’ve found a space at work to comfortably access a version of myself that I didn’t know I needed or was missing. I know that technically “two people does not a community make” but if the value of community lies in there being a connection between people who have a shared sense of identity there are few recent experiences that have done more to personally remind me of this.
Naomi Ofori is an associate at Herbert Smith Freehills and specialises in real estate. She is also the co-chair of the firm’s London Multiculturism Network. Her post was first published in Herbert Smith Freehills’ “Publications from a Community” a collection of thoughts and expressions from internal and external black contributors to mark this year’s Black History Month.