IN BLACK AND WHITE - ALEXANDRA WILSON REVIEW
by Morgan Cormack, Deputy Reviews Editor
Sometimes (read: a lot of times) the world gets swept up in the ‘hype’ around a lot of books and there’s an unprecedented amount of pressure you feel even turning the first page. Sometimes though, the buzz around a book is warranted and Alexandra Wilson’s In Black and White is one of those pieces.
I feel it’s paramount to learn a little more about Alexandra Wilson before we talk about her recently released book. If you’ve been anywhere on social media or in British news over the past month, chances are that you’ve heard and/or seen Alexandra. A 25-year-old mixed-race female barrister, she has recently been in the news speaking out about an incident that saw her being wrongfully identified as a defendant three times in one day. Lodging formal complaints against the security officer, solicitor and clerk involved is one thing, but Wilson has since described the exhaustion of constantly having to justify her existence as a Black female barrister within the British legal system. Having read, and been outraged by, the story myself, I was excited to learn that she had recently published a book cataloguing her journey to becoming a barrister in In Black and White.
As someone who avidly watches, reads and laps up a lot of material related to crime and the legal system, I was intrigued by how such a book would read. Wilson caveats her writing with a disclaimer that all names and details have been omitted from the book in order to safeguard those involved. In presenting it as such, I assumed that the book would therefore not divulge many case specifics or criminal details, but it reads as quite the opposite. Wilson manages to paint a picture of her life as a barrister so vividly, it almost feels as if you’re going through pupillage with her. Pupillage, for those of you who may be unaware, is the term given to the traineeship to become a qualified barrister. As someone who hasn’t studied Law and is wholly unaware of the often fancy judicial terminology, this book reads surprisingly easily. Wilson includes helpful footnotes and explanations all throughout, alongside some pretty surprising – or unsurprising depending on your view of the justice system – statistics too. Basically, you’ll probably finish the book thinking you can now take on a Law Conversion course yourself (I’ve since closed those tabs on my laptop) but truly, this book is both informative and educational in many ways.
Starting off the book with a powerful chapter on ‘My Story’ sets the scene and background motivation for Wilson pursuing such a career. As a teenager, Wilson experienced the heartbreak of having a close family friend stabbed and killed at such a young age. From then, she describes how her driving force was to be part of a system that would prevent re-offences as well as having those that are accused of crimes be properly represented in court. Prejudice and power dynamics are referenced a lot throughout and even within the first chapter, it’s clear to see what Wilson has had to withstand prior to recent news coverage. Namely, the prejudice that is thrown her way purely because of the colour of her skin and her Essex accent: “Really? You? People like you usually find it very difficult to get pupillage, so well done.”
The thing I appreciated most about this book was the fact that it’s genuine and raw in its account of the life of a barrister. It’s nothing like what you see on TV and I almost felt silly thinking it would be. After reading Wilson’s descriptions of messy Chamber Rooms the size of toilet cubicles, historical gender imbalance and imposter syndrome, it’s clear that barrister life is not all silk gowns, dramatic courtroom speeches and power lunches. Instead, we get a down-to-earth account of a profession that has long been elevated and mystified in many people’s minds. In an age that is especially concerned with reform of the judicial system, it is also refreshing to see someone in the field expressing such concerns also. Wilson illustrates a vast array of issues wrong with the way we convict the criminally accused: from the general acceptance and acknowledgement of racist judges to the way poverty has an indisputable impact on someone’s criminal life choices, Wilson presents cases that cause the reader to think. As well as this, Wilson explains some of the ongoing ethical questions that are constantly presenting themselves in her profession: one big one being whether clients should be able to choose the race and gender of their advocates. Using something called Direct Access, clients can approach a barrister directly to represent them, thus cutting out the need of a solicitor. This in itself poses an ethical question as to the importance of race and gender within the courtroom. Wilson states that she has heard remarks from people who would prefer a barrister that is white and male due to the fact that “judges are mostly white and male, so they might have a better chance with someone that looks like them”. Favourably, there are cases, such as those involving domestic violence, when a female client may feel more at ease with a female barrister. Cynically though, a client convicted of racism may hire someone from “an appropriate racial group … to demonstrate that they are not prejudiced.” All these anecdotes, as well as all the others that make up this book, are entirely thought-provoking and were things I previously had no knowledge of.
Whilst it would be very easy to highlight all the cases in Wilson’s book that left me surprised, shaking my head or exasperated, I think it would only do the book a disservice. For me, the beauty in reading this came from learning so much in such a short space of time. Not only is this book educational in terms of the criminal and justice system but it also airs Wilson’s own internal monologues too. Some highlights include her writing on the need for impartiality, reasoning behind why some become criminals as well as the completely outrageous terms of unpaid maternity leave that see many women choosing between their career or children. It’s also a well-known fact that there are vast racial disparities regarding sentencing in the UK and Wilson highlights this in the chapter ‘Being Black’. Offering a stark look at just how this is, the statistics behind it and a personal look into her own mixed family history, Wilson takes the time to underline “how slow the profession has been to improve ethnic diversity” and address racial inequalities.
In Black and White is not a literary read, it is not a book where you can analyse its linguistic techniques but that is not what this work strives to do anyway. It is a necessary read, though. Wilson’s writing is informative, eye-opening and creates a hyper-realistic awareness of the state of today’s justice system. This isn’t a read that will leave you with hope for quick reform or change to a system that has so long been marred by its inequalities. Instead, it will leave you as “emotionally challenged” as Wilson herself describes being, but also with a plethora of newfound knowledge too.
n Black and White: A Young Barrister’s Story of Race and Class in a Broken Justice System (Endeavour) is out now in hardback.