Michelle Silverthorn, a former lawyer turned organizational inclusion expert, spoke to a WilmerHale audience of more than 300 at a virtual event on November 10. She shared stories about her experiences with racism and encouraged listeners to engage in a new approach if they want to be real allies for change and actively fight bias.
Describing 2020 as a “really hard year” for Black people, Silverthorn repeatedly emphasized the urgency of addressing racism. “We are having a reckoning in this country that so many of us are unequipped to talk about—namely white people,” she said. “We are told over and over again not to talk about race…but we have to get honest about race.”
Silverthorn, a Black woman who grew up in the Caribbean, shared many examples of unconscious bias, microaggressions and stereotypical assumptions from her own and others’ lives. “Someone invalidating our identities—that’s what bias really feels like,” she said. She also shared data illustrating the rate of attrition for people of color at law firms. “We can recruit really diverse classes, but we don’t keep them,” she said.
In opening and closing remarks for the program, Litigation/Controversy Department Chair Howard Shapiro also noted the difficulty of increasing diversity, equity and inclusion in the legal industry and the broad scope of the problem: For a long time, we’ve told ourselves stories these issues are not about race…[but] of course they are, and always have been, and we need to acknowledge that fact in order to lead change. It’s incumbent on all of us to repair the world we’re in, in the workplace and more broadly.”
Silverthorn offered suggestions for how to do that, by encouraging respect and empathy and giving people the space to make and learn from mistakes. She also advocated for new rules of equity, allyship and inclusion, and changing systems and policies that can help or hinder people of color in the workplace, such as childcare leave, flextime and recruiting.
“Discomfort—that’s what I need you to feel if you are willing to change this,” she said. “I’m going to ask you to do some work now. This isn’t comfortable work. But if we are in this world-changing business together, it’s work I need to ask you to do with me.”