Posted inCultures

“I sconce anyone who only got into Oxford because they are black”, an Interview with Barrister Alexandra Wilson.

My interview style seems, in hindsight, to be somewhere between babbling and obsequious. I was anxious to meet Alexandra, she is a celebrity on legal Twitter alongside the likes of the Secret Barrister and Joanna Hardy. I flicked through my notebook which had long winding questions about her time at Oxford, her journey to the bar and her delicate and thoughtful new book, ‘In Black and White’. As our interview began, I snatched out the hardback edition of the book, thrusting it into view of the camera like a crazed TV shopping channel host, much to Alexandra’s mildly alarmed amusement.

Alexandra, having been called to the bar in 2018, is a barrister at 5 St Andrews Hill and specialises in criminal and family law. She attended University College, Oxford and proudly comes from Essex, accent and all.

The accent that I would be listening to during our interview was one that made me feel comfortable, and was familiar, I had grown up in Essex with that warmth of inflection around me always.

It upset me to read that Alexandra felt that her accent had isolated her during her time at Oxford, but it did nothing but ingratiate her to me during our chat. I understand Alexandra when she comes to tell me that throughout her career, her accent had normalised her to her clients, building trust rather than alienating those she is tasked to represent.

Alexandra begins to tell me about her time at Oxford, and the social groups that formed around her whilst she was at University College. “People tend to warm to people that are similar to them, a problematic, but common thing. When people meet others, who come from similar backgrounds and schools they tend to come together and become friends.” The conversation takes a natural turn to imposter syndrome, though neither of us mention the term, it seems implicit, perhaps a notion neither of us are strangers to. I admit, with a sense of latent embarrassment, that I no longer have an Essex accent, although my family do, my siblings especially. Alexandra, laughing empathetically, encapsulates the feeling, “part of the problem with accents is that people want to sound like they are part of the environment they are in, it is partly about naturally wanting to fit in. I would be lying if I said my voice hadn’t changed too”, she jokes that she listens to herself speak now with the occasional shock, thinking “ooh, you’re a bit fancy Alex”. Alexandra smiles, “Don’t be hard on yourself.”

When I ask Alexandra about the antiquated traditions of both Oxford, and latterly, the legal bar, she admits that she came to love them during her time at university. There is an excitement when one first arrives at Oxford to eat at a formal hall, the ritual of passing port and drinking with your tutors or the Master of the College. Alexandra tells me that it must be difficult for people to come to Oxford with little idea of the etiquette of a formal meal, “I had no idea what order to use the cutlery but remembered watching a film and did it that way, trusting a film without any real knowledge!”

Whilst dining visibly harbours a lot of enjoyable and warm memories for Alexandra, when I ask her about the discrimination she received, it was the venue of a very unpleasant experience for her too. After high table had left during a formal hall in her college, sconcing had begun, and she recounts how, “this boy stood up and said ‘I sconce anyone who only got into Oxford because they are black’, in a full formal hall, and there was me and one other black person.” Alexandra continues, “I remember being so upset. He came and apologised a few days later, because people must have spoken to him, but he said, ‘Oh I wasn’t actually talking about you I was talking about the other guy’, as if that made it any better! It’s not school is it, there is no headteacher, and you live there.”

On the topic of microaggressions, Alexandra admires a book called Taking Up Space by two black girls from the University of Cambridge, and how articulately they describe their experiences. The book was published by #MerkyBooks, Stormzy and Penguin’s publishing house, and I know it sits proudly on Alexandra’s bookshelf at home. Alexandra goes on, “It is really difficult to describe, the little feelings, like being left out of certain situations and there being no explanation as to why. People telling you that you are different and wondering ‘different how?’.” I ask whether she felt like bringing up this discrimination at Oxford would have earnt her the reputation of not being able to take a joke, or being too sensitive, she pauses, “absolutely”.

I wanted to listen to Alexandra’s thoughts on the culture at Oxford. I knew that she cared deeply about the Black Lives Matter movement, and as her activism saw her co-found #OneCaseAtaTime, which facilitates legal funding in cases of injustice for Black people in the UK.

I ask her about the Cecil Rhodes statue, and how she felt about it during her degree, “Yes, I was conscious. There were campaigns when I was there to remove it, and one of my friends was involved in those campaigns. Even at the time when people were talking about it, I would be asked ‘well why does it affect you?’. That was years ago, and people couldn’t see that Oxford’s colonial past has a huge impact on the way people feel even just being there”. Alexandra’s book, and her blog entries, contains numerous other instances of discriminatory, racialised comments. I ask myself to what extent the removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue might send a clear message to the university community that the status quo will no longer be tolerated.

The chapter entitled ‘Where are the women?’ explores the issue of female representation at the bar, and details instances of inappropriate sexual comments or incidences made to, primarily, young female barristers. I wonder whether Alexandra suspects minorities at the bar feel the same way about reporting these issues as she did at Oxford, reluctant through fear of developing an unfavourable reputation. Alexandra reminds me of the dangers of amassing all these types of instances, but goes on, “It is about being a position where you feel as though you are the victim… or complainant.”

Alexandra says, “As the minority it makes it more difficult to report things… because you are up against people who are all from very similar backgrounds who are telling you that you are sensitive. If you’re a young woman, and in an environment with lots of middle aged men who are making jokes, or inappropriate behaviour, being a young female in that environment you are a minority, you don’t want to be accused of being the person who can’t take a joke even if things are outrightly inappropriate.”

In the chapter, Alexandra details how she was subject to an inappropriate sexual remark in a court room during her training year, known as a pupillage. She recalls the ‘power imbalance’ in the court room that morning, and the hesitancy of raising concerns of harassment as a pupil barrister, as being deemed a ‘troublemaker’ may cause serious problems for her career.

On the topic of increasing and retaining the number of female barristers, she hopes, “maybe if there were more women at the bar there would be less of these comments, as I say in my book, I don’t think that man would have made the same comment had there been senior women sitting next to him.”

Aspiring to be a barrister myself, I wonder about the emotional and personal toll it may take on an individual. “I hope I don’t become desensitized, but I am also realistic that the more you see of something the more it is going to become normal to you”, she admits.

“Ultimately, I will make every effort I can to still have empathy for my clients, this job is so important that you actually care. It is not your average nine to five where you are doing work for the sake of work, this is people’s lives. Knowing how important the matters are means I will never lose that sense of responsibility; it really is dealing with people’s liberty”.

“I don’t think I’ll ever stop caring. Of course, there are cases that I have done 10s if not 100s of times, but each case is different because each person is different, and it is still somebody’s life. Every case will still be important.”

On being an individual at the bar, and the most important attributes for a successful criminal barrister, Alexandra says firmly, “being fearless is key for being a criminal barrister. If you have someone representing you in matters where you may be going to prison… you want someone who is not going to be scared to put your case.” “It is an individual’s game”, she remarks. Whilst the strength of character and confidence that barristers exude is what earns them veneration amongst their peers, and trust from their clients, Alexandra also shows an empathy and understanding that cannot be undervalued.

As I round off the interview and apologise for taking up a chunk of Alexandra’s afternoon, it seems to me that I am talking to someone who has a deeply held respect for their own profession. Alexandra’s tone, decided, assured and understanding comes through in her book so manifestly, from a perspective not so commonly heard at the bar. I would recommend it to anyone, it offers access into a world many people only encounter during their darkest days, with a voice never sacrificing on intrigue and character.

You can follow Alexandra on Twitter and Instagram at @EssexBarrister and buy the hardback of her book on Amazon.