Barrister and author Alexandra Wilson has called for improved anti-racism training in her profession, following her recent, widely publicised tweets in which she described how court officials mistook her for a defendant three times in one day. (Alexandra Wilson via Twitter, 23 September 2020)
In a subsequent opinion column, Wilson – whose memoir In Black and White: A Young Barrister's Story of Race and Class in a Broken Justice System emerged to great acclaim – writes: “The fact that other Black people in my profession weren’t surprised by my experience after I shared it on Twitter last week highlights how much of a systemic issue this is.” (The Independent, 30 September 2020)
Wilson explains that on the day of the three incidents, she was attending Magistrates’ Court proceedings. As such, she and her fellow lawyers, all white, were not required to wear wigs – although Wilson wore a black suit and black shoes and was carrying a laptop. However, regardless of her formal attire, officials snapped at her and treated her dismissively.
She writes: “Many of the Black barristers I know have had similar experiences in court, from junior barristers to QCs, the most senior barristers. The assumptions made about us further illustrate that we are not yet properly represented at the Bar, particularly at the senior end. The statistics show that only 1.1% of QCs are Black, despite the Black working population being estimated to be approximately 3.7%.”
Wilson stresses: “There needs to be change. All court staff, barristers, solicitors and anyone else working in the justice system should have compulsory anti-racist training that goes further than current equality and diversity guidance. Training is rarely nuanced and all minority experiences are grouped into a single ‘BAME’ experience, rather than dealing with racism that affects specific groups, such as Black people.”
She adds: “Those working in courts need to understand systemic racism and how harmful it can be, particularly for Black defendants. Every single person working in the justice system needs to ensure that they are actively addressing racial discrimination as well as addressing their personal bias.”
What can other professions learn from Wilson’s experience and her thoughts on anti-racism training? And what can organisations do to ensure that such training is nuanced in the way that Wilson suggests, so that it properly accounts for the experiences of specific ethnicities?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Many critics of unconscious bias training highlight the fact that its origins are rooted in corporate efforts to comply with anti-racism legislation. So, from the corporates’ perspective, that’s quite a reactive response: ‘We’ve got to comply – what is it we need to do?’ At the same time, firms would have regarded that training as a positive development for their diversity and inclusion agendas. However, at an individual level, training with those sorts of origins is not going to provide a solution to systemic, organisational problems.”
She explains: “Rather than a question of nuances, this is about approaching the problem through the lens of ‘Which steps must we take to become the truly inclusive organisation we want to be? What are the things we are going to have to do with individual perceptions and biases – and which practices are we going to have to introduce organisationally – to guarantee a wider talent pool, fairer selection and fairer promotion decisions?’ In other words, it requires a multifaceted approach.”
Cooper notes: “As much as the racial awareness training we’ve become familiar with has met a legitimate organisational need, Wilson is right to point out that we need something different. What we have access to now – which we didn’t in the 1990s, when this training began to emerge – is an evidence base for the lived experiences of people who have been able to work in organisations because of increased participation. And those people have been able to provide first-hand accounts of what they have encountered in terms of exclusion – for example, racism.
“Any organisation of any reasonable size has the capability to gather that information anonymously. Once it’s in hand, it can be used to inform the design of courses that will deliver the behavioural change required to open up greater inclusivity. In that sense, it’s more of a bottom-up approach, rather than a more traditional, top-down one.”
She adds: “What’s really important here is that we need advocates and champions for this evolved form of inclusivity training. And ideally, those individuals won’t always come from excluded groups. Ardent champions of gender inclusion can often be men. Champions of racial inclusion can often be white people. Champions of the disabled can often be the abled. It’s vital to create conditions in which people in excluded categories aren’t constantly having to fight their own case. We must do everything we can to ensure that each group’s case for inclusion is understood across the whole of every organisation.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on appreciating diversity.