President's Page by Emily Ellison
February is Black History Month. The recent BCBA screening of This Is Not Who We Are sparked a conversation about race with my friend and BCBA member, Ellen Ross. Ellen kindly sat down with me to discuss the topic further, including some of Ellen’s personal experiences with race and ideas on how we talk about race—personally, professionally, and as a bar association.
If you have attended a BCBA event in the last year, the chances are high that you have met Ellen Ross. She is one of the most engaged and active supporters of the BCBA. Ellen started her own Family Law Practice in Longmont in 2008. Although Ellen and I had been friends since meeting at the Judge’s Dinner in 2019, played softball together for the last three years, and we even started holding regular meetings for family law attorneys in Longmont, race was not something we had talked about in depth.
Growing up in St. Louis, racism impacted Ellen from a young age, including an incident in first grade where a classmate used a racial slur to describe her and the teacher supported the use of the word. Ellen eventually moved away from St. Louis and landed in the Longmont-area with her three children. After moving to Longmont, at first, Ellen did not have the opportunity or the need to talk about race. Although her children were often the only people of color in their classes, they experienced little, if any, racism. Only recently has Ellen started being more vocal when it comes to race and implicit bias.
Ellen candidly shared personal accounts of dealing with implicit bias in the practice of law. One incident occurred in another judicial district when Ellen arrived at a hearing early and was seated at the table in the courtroom waiting for her client, opposing counsel, and the other party to arrive.
The presiding judge asked Ellen if she was one of the parties to the case. Dressed in a navy suit and seated where the attorney typically sits during the hearing and representing the husband, Ellen was surprised and disappointed by the judge’s assumption. Unfortunately, this was not the first time Ellen experienced implicit bias in the courtroom. On another occasion, when Ellen stood up at the start of a hearing to enter her appearance as counsel, the judge gave her a shocked look that even her client commented on the reaction. In a professional setting, Ellen shared that two fellow colleagues referred to a black college student as being articulate. She pointed out to one that statement shows implicit bias. The colleague was not defensive or argumentative, rather she accepted Ellen’s perspective and indicated she understood.
When I asked Ellen if she is comfortable talking about race, she said yes, she is comfortable talking about race and has recently started voicing her feelings on race more publicly. I learned from Ellen, and personally agree from my experience in having this conversation, that it’s white people who are uncomfortable talking about race. Ellen shared that in the black community, people talk and think about race every day. It is not a positive or a negative, but a fact of life. This was eye-opening for me.
In order to broach this subject, Ellen believes that first white people let go of their guilt and bad feelings around their implicit bias and realize that we all—black, white, all races—have implicit biases. If there is guilt or negative feeling about discussing race, then the conversation will not happen. We must face the discomfort of talking about race in order to be aware of our biases and systemic racism. It may feel uncomfortable, but those feelings pale in comparison to the lived experiences of people of color in the US. Ellen believes that a CLE on implicit bias would help others learn more about how to recognize implicit bias in ourselves, others, and the systems in which we live and work.
This is an important issue to be conscious of all the time, not just during Black History Month. Stay tuned for programming that continues this important conversation on race and how we can all be more aware of our implicit biases.
Thank you to Ellen Ross for her willingness to share her time, personal experiences, and ideas on how we talk about race.