Experiences of the Legal World from Barristers of colour
8 November 2022
Initially penned for Black History Month, we have written this blog looking at the present-day realities and recent experiences of barristers of colour in our Chambers. We have also written a blog highlighting some of the Black pioneering figures who have made legal history.
Underlying racism is still present in 2022. It may be to a lesser or greater extent than previous years and it may manifest itself in different forms, but it is present nonetheless.
When asked to share experiences of the Bar one member of Chambers shared, what is an all-too-common occurrence across the UK:
‘Particularly as a pupil, I would regularly be mistaken for a defendant in situations where I would feel like the automatic assumption, if any, should be that I’m the lawyer.’
They went on to say:
‘I could say so much more but I’m conscious that I have no way of proving it’s related to my race.’
This second point is possibly more damaging than the former and is articulated again by another colleague:
‘Racism has been ever present and the older I got, the more it bothered me. I started to notice every sneer, every time someone arriving after me was served first, every judgement on what I was wearing, what music I liked or how I spoke. I started to suspect racism behind everything and, whilst it almost certainly was there most of the time, I couldn’t see when it wasn’t.’
Due to the ambiguous nature of such (racist) comments there can be a lack of understanding or condemnation for them. That can have a chilling effect on sharing such experiences with colleagues and have a deeply negative impact, as outlined by this account:
‘It continued at work, being told we all look the same by an usher, being torn apart by Judges, seeing white colleagues being given support and opportunities that I wasn’t given, feeling an outsider, being made to feel an outsider, and, until recently, hearing those cringeworthy and infuriating words “I don’t see colour”. I got caught and lost in a downward spiral of negativity.
‘The racism I experienced took a heavy toll on my mental health. It made me less able to manage and I started to struggle to cope with work and life.’
Legal professionals are, as you probably know, an incredibly resilient, resourceful and determined group of people, so it will come as no surprise that there is a positive turn in the paragraphs to come.
However, please bear in mind that turning negative experiences of racism into positive action is nothing new. It is a tiresome process in which people of colour will have grown up experiencing racism, seeing friends and family from older generations go through what they are going through now. It continues with living the old adage of having to work twice as hard as white peers to advance half as quickly, in academia, in professional life and in UK society in general. And hopefully culminates in changing the attitudes and behaviours for a groups of people who are oblivious to the struggle, doubtful of its extent, or cognisant of the issues but uncomfortable with change.
My colleague picks up their story again:
‘The lows that I sank to that year were the beginning of a turning point. I started seeking out my identity, drawing strict boundaries, taking care of myself and slowly, I began to find a balance. I started doing more discrimination work and was appointed to the Equality Human Rights Commission panel of preferred counsel. This work helped me to process my experiences and getting redress for other people who had suffered discrimination was validating and satisfying.
‘After the murder of George Floyd, what helped was the space that was given to be able to share these experiences. Even being able to describe myself as “Brown” and someone else as “White”, without fear, was incredibly freeing.
‘I kick started the Equality Diversity Committee in Chambers and found myself supported and inspired by my fellow committee members, and together we are helping chambers to do better in the fight against racism. It’s a fight I can’t always engage in when I find the balance tipping the wrong way again, but the key is that I try to take the damage that racism has done and fashion it into something positive in work, in chambers and in life.’