Some Biglaw firms put on variety shows and have associates sing, dance, and act out lame sketch comedy. It’s all about associates demeaning themselves for the amusement of partners in new and more interesting ways. And I guess it’s supposed to engender some kind of camaraderie, though it’s not clear how.
But sketch comedy can go horribly wrong. Like, any time a white guy shows up in blackface.
That’s a problem. And yet this Biglaw firm doesn’t seem to understand why….
Slaughter and May in the late 1970s and early 1980s seems to have had its share of issues with the whole “respectful work environment” thing. But apparently it went well beyond telling the gals around the office to show off their backsides. Allow me to present S&M’s former senior partner, which in Magic Circle speak means “former managing partner”:
Wow. That seems like a tremendous lapse in judgment. Granted, he wasn’t the senior partner back then:
Tim Clark was a young assistant solicitor in 1979 when he appeared in a comedy review performed by several S&M lawyers for the wider firm.
He played the part of a Zulu warrior — blacked-up with wig, kitted out in stereotypical grass skirt, but with a tie, and carrying spear and shield. His character in the skit, according to sources close to the production, was seeking articled clerkship (as training contracts were known in them days) and was being interviewed by a Slaughter’s partner.
Here’s a taste of the dialogue, as remembered by a source, who attended the event:
Partner: “I say, isn’t that an Eton tie?”
Zulu: “No — dis am the only tie I haven’t eaten.”
Yes, it pretty much breaks every accepted convention the modern legal profession espouses on equality and diversity.
Nothing makes a sketch like racism and puns. Now in S&M’s defense, you could say this was in 1979 and it was a different era. And that’s true, it’s just a stupid argument. Employed as a “defense,” it presupposes that this sort of thing was somehow acceptable in 1979 because white people were still blissfully doing it in 1979. The crux being that demeaning black people is acceptable until white people decide it isn’t any more… which is not helping. Besides, it’s not entirely true. Don Draper was visibly uncomfortable when Roger went around in blackface and that was set a decade earlier. Not that Mad Men is a historical account but it captures the Zeitgeist pretty well and the point is that blackface was already losing its universal (for white people) appeal by the 60s.
But look, it’s not untrue to note that it was a different era if you’re willing to own up to the fact that it doesn’t matter when this sort of thing happens. The most astounding thing about this story is not that white people in 1979 thought this was acceptable, but that in 2014 none of them seems willing to admit that it was wrong:
Clark declined to comment on the 1979 Zulu picture or the comedy review, apart from saying:
“It is now over six years since I retired from Slaughter and May and am not therefore in a position to make any informed comments on the current approaches of City law firms to diversity/inclusion.”
When Legal Cheek reached out to the firm, Slaughter and May likewise fell all over themselves to decline to comment.
If they’re looking for some free public relations advice, this is the right response:
“Whoa. Jesus. You say this was some kind of sketch? Yeah, that’s… yeah, that’s awful. Can you believe we once thought that s**t was OK? I mean, it was 1979 and we were all kind of pricks back then. Did you see that video where we talked about those women’s backsides? Accept our deepest apologies and know that we totally get why this was a profoundly inappropriate thing for us to do as professionals. Or as people, frankly. Anyway, we recognize that now and we’re committed to combatting these prejudices and promoting diversity.”
It’s pretty simple. Because that’s the thing, we’re pretty much all on board that blackface is wrong — we settled that debate — so that’s not really the story here. That, when asked, no one is willing to issue some version of the statement above is kind of a red flag. Do they really not get it? Are they somehow scared to admit a mistake? Are they just a**holes?
That debate rages on.