In a long Twitter thread on Wednesday evening, Alexandra Wilson, a Black, 25-year-old barrister based in Essex, England, described the “exhausting” experience of being mistakenly identified as a defendant three times in a single day at work
“This really isn’t ok though,” she tweeted, saying she wanted to share what had happened to her to “shine a light” on how different people are perceived depending on the colour of their skin.
When she arrived at work, a security guard first assumed Wilson to be a defendant in the trial, rather than the defending lawyer.
Then she was told she couldn’t enter the court by a member of the public who thought she was a journalist, before being told to leave the courtroom and wait outside by another lawyer, because they also thought she was the defendant waiting to come in.
Finally, while speaking with the prosecutor before the trial began, she recounted that the court clerk loudly called her to “get out” — again assuming she was a defendant. “I don’t expect to have to constantly justify my existence at work,” Wilson concluded in her social media posts.
In just 3 months I’ll be defending and prosecuting in the Courts of England and Wales. I’m 24. I’m mixed-race. I’m from Essex. I’m not posh. I worked hard and NEVER listened when people said the Bar wasn’t for people like me. THIS is what a barrister looks like. pic.twitter.com/f5CHh1nji5— Alexandra Wilson (@EssexBarrister) January 4, 2019
The young barrister, who has written a book called In Black and White about racism and classicism in the British legal system, has received an apology from court officials.
Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) also apologised for the "totally unacceptable behaviour”, the BBC reported, and the service has promised to investigate the complaint made by Wilson about what happened.
Wilson’s shocking experience has highlighted how racism and racial microaggressions in the workplace are commonplace for Black British professionals, and sparked an outpouring of solidarity on social media.
The rush of support from other people working in law showed how frustrated people feel about.
I’ve been working in crime as a paralegal, Solicitor and latterly a barrister since 2003. As a white male, I’ve never been mistaken for a defendant. Please don’t take this lying down. I, along with the rest of the profession support you completely. This is appalling— John Richards (@JohnnyRichards) September 23, 2020
I had the same while working as a magistrate. Security, and my fellow justices, were incredulous that I was behind the bench, not in front.— Karisia Gichuke (@karisiagichuke) September 24, 2020
I am so appalled but proud @EssexBarrister called this out. the future is bright @Ciarabartlam@EmilyLandale@ChristianKamali I was last mistaken for a defendant at liverpool crown court in February this year. #BlackLivesMatter we don’t need to tolerate this @WomenintheLawUK— Sally Penni FRSA 🐝& CCMI🐝 (@sallypenni1) September 24, 2020
For crying out loud. Nobody has ever questioned who I am in a court in more than 20 years. When a black female is questioned three times on one day, she is not “being huffy”. I am really sad to hear you are sitting in judgment of others.— legalclaret (GSBOUT) (@legalclaret) September 25, 2020
Law has also been targeted by social mobility charity the Sutton Trust for being hard to access for people from low-income backgrounds. The trust's 2019 report on access to the UK’s top professions revealed that some 65% of senior judges went to private schools, compared with 7% of people in the country as a whole.
Here’s a few more of our favourite responses to Wilson’s experience, from sectors outside law too, demonstrating how widespread racial discrimination is and how much more work still needs to be done:
Sadly happens in academia too. As a black female professor, I have been mistaken for a student or administrator. Once got singled out at scientific meeting in room of >100 people, and asked where registration was.— Enitan Carrol (@CarrolEnitan) September 25, 2020
Awful to hear your experience. A police officer tried to keep me out once because he didn’t believe I was a journalist, a couple of times I’ve been mistaken as a defendant and several times as family of defendant. I’ve always laughed it off but it’s not ok— Fatima Manji (@fatimamanji) September 24, 2020
All the white people saying racial prejudice doesn’t happen because they haven’t been subjected to it or witnessed it are reeeeeeeally missing the point https://t.co/yv1eZnaSCW— CrimeGirl (@CrimeGirI) September 24, 2020