On Being A Female Law Student—and Puerto Rican #6 The Interview: “Was it something I said?”

Here we move to the job interview. For law students, the critical interview comes in the fall semester of the second year. That’s when law firms come to campus to hunt for their slaves–I mean, to look for “summer associates” for the summer following the second year. Those placements are critical because if the student does well, meaning he doesn’t throw up on a partner or show up in underwear on a casual Friday, he’ll get an offer to join the firm after graduating.  This scenario isn’t the only way students will find themselves in a job interview but it’s an important one.

We all know the prep for an interview: dress properly, have a firm handshake, look the interviewer in the eye, be ready to highlight your strong points, to distinguish yourself from other candidates, and to engage in small talk. Most important, have the $100 bill ready to slip the interviewer when you shake hands when leaving.

Oh, and we have to prepare for possible awkward or problematic situations. For example, whenever I meet someone for the first time, I expect that person will immediately look at my emaciated hands, typical of a quadriplegic. I usually give her a break. I mean, my hands are unusual to most people who haven’t been lucky enough to spend time around quads, the coolest people on the planet. I think it’s like meeting someone with a huge pimple on his nose. You can’t help but glance at it and then focus on something else as super quick as possible, like the pimple on his chin. So I’m usually okay if the person quickly looks at something else after glancing at my hands. If she keeps staring at my hands, I might say, “Do you like what you see?” She’ll feel like crap real quick.

In this excerpt, Kristymarie talks about the complexities a woman of color, particularly a Latina, might face in an interview. As you’ll see, it’s not so much what is said, but lies beneath that, the subtext. And the stereotypes that inhabit that space.

“The racialized and gendered candidate walks into an interview at a presumed disadvantage. To succeed, the candidate must attempt to level the interview playing field and simultaneously resist reacting to any microaggressions that come her way. Building a Bridge: Hiding Your Otherness to Remain Relatable

Given the lack of minority representation in many law firms, more often than not, a racialized candidate will cross-interview, or interview with someone who is not of the same race. The gendered candidate will most likely have a similar experience, often interviewing with someone of the opposite gender. Linda E. Dávila outlines the challenges inherent in cross-cultural and cross-gender interviews: “nonprofessional interviewers are likely to choose lawyers who they perceive as fitting their own patterns of behavior. Since these interviewers—who are mostly white males—may not see Hispanics as fitting the patterns of behavior of white males, they will look instead for someone who will.”

College preparatory materials, which target majority communities, teach bridge building as the skill of translating privileged life experiences, for example studying abroad, into relatable proficiencies and transferable skills during college or job interviews. Even if I used them in a different manner, these strategies had to become second nature to me. For a non-racialized or non-gendered candidate, the goal of bridge building is to not appear exclusivist or to make their privileged experiences relatable.

Racialized and gendered candidates utilize bridge building to build rapport in a different way. For example, in my experience, male interviewers wanted to discuss sports, a traditionally masculine subject. When I interacted with male interviewers, the performance of the Florida Gators football team came up during the interview. The impending Gators discussion meant that if I had missed the latest game, I needed to get an update from ESPN.com or my husband. Sometimes I went as far as finding out the undergraduate institution of the interviewer, checking for potential rivalries to exploit. Thus, in my experience, the racialized and gendered candidate has to build bridges, not by making their own privileged experiences relatable, but by highlighting experiences that are relatable from the interviewer’s privileged perspective—in this case, assumed competence in a traditionally masculine subject.

A.    Cross-Interviews: Highlighting Your Otherness While Navigating the Microaggressions Minefield

A candidate’s responses to microaggressions may subconsciously demonstrate to the interviewer whether the candidate’s identity performance may affect the workplace in the future. Microaggressions are subtle put-downs that minorities often experience during cross-race interactions. “Microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual-orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group.” What differentiates microaggressions from what is commonly understood as out-and-out racial or gender discrimination is their subtlety and the fact that often times the perpetrator may be unaware that he or she is engaging in the behavior.

1.      “You Don’t Have An Accent.”

One of the most common covering strategies is changing speech patterns or altering vocabulary. Fully bilingual individuals may resort to mimicry, a language acquisition tool to improve pronunciation, as a covering tool. I am a mimicker. Personally, mimicking U.S. singers has helped a lot in hiding my accent. But when I let my guard down, and when I am nervous, excited, or speaking too quickly, my accent returns. I am constantly conflicted between covering my accent and embracing it. On the one hand, an accent could be a telltale sign of bilingual skills. Furthermore, it forces the listener to pay closer attention to avoid misinterpretation. On the other hand, someone with an accent may immediately be perceived as incompetent. Ethnoracism leads to negative perceptions of someone with an accent.

My mimicry also leads to a lack of control over my accent, which can be an asset or a hindrance. It is an asset when I pronounce 30 out of 32 words correctly simply by imitation. However, I may accidently copy someone’s distinct accent, which the person may perceive as mockery. In other instances, when my accent rears its “ugly” head, I am immediately perceived as incompetent. It stops being about the thirty victorious, properly pronounced words, and instead highlights my lack of dominance over those other two.

When an interviewer finds out that my first language is Spanish, I get the congratulatory “Oh, but you don’t have an accent.” The underlying message in this microaggression is a congratulation on efficiently assimilating. The laudatory note is a sign that an accent is something one should aim to get rid of, or that having an accent would more clearly define me as an “other” and I have successfully overcome that. My response to this microaggression is to reverse cover, highlighting my bilingualism as an asset and choosing to take the statement as a compliment on my successful second language acquisition. So I smile and say thank you, and turn my mimicry into a conversation piece. This conversation piece, however, continues to reinforce the racialized and gendered candidate’s isolation from the majority community.

2.     “I Did Not See the Latino Law Student Association in Your Résumé.”

When I walked into the room, I noticed the interviewer was a bit bewildered. My first thought was that an Anglicized name like Kristymarie Shipley, he was not exactly expecting a Latina to walk into the room.

This interview was my first in-person legal job interview. Thankfully, it was a mock interview that Career Services had set up to provide us feedback on our interviewing skills. For that reason, I tried not to take anything that happened in that interview personally. After all, this attorney’s job was to tell me what he was really, honestly thinking while he interviewed me so I could adjust my efforts as needed. I was not ready.

After the typical question (“So, tell me about yourself?”), and my prepared answer (a quick speech about my northward movements from Puerto Rico, to Florida, to Iowa), he dove in.

“So, I did not see the Latino Law Student Association in your résumé.”

Bam. Busted. I am not Latina enough… Wait, what?

He must have seen all these emotions play out on my face because he explained that he had interviewed a few white students and noticed that they were involved in the organization. These experiences, in turn, made him wonder why I was not in the organization or why I failed to list it on my résumé.

My internal answer was simple: “Because LLSA at Iowa Law is not an organization aimed at serving the Latino community within and outside the law school? Because if it does aim-to-serve, all its activities revolve around immigration as THE Latino issue.”

My verbal answer was: “Well, I was somewhat involved in LLSA last year, but I have limited space on my résumé and I felt it was more important to highlight the organizations I have put more time into.” He stared, so I continued. “Besides, the Latino Law Student Association’s trademark activity is an alternative spring break trip to Austin to work on immigration issues, which is why most people join. I am not interested in immigration like that, so I invested my time elsewhere.”

I thought that was a pretty solid save. It was a semi-intelligent response to the challenging of my chosen activities. I provided valid reasons, while explaining that I had at least been involved in the past. The implication here was that, as a Latina, I was expected to gravitate to what was perceived as a support group built for me. I perceived it as an accusation that even white students were supporting a culture that I seemed to have turned my back on. It was an unfair expectation and an assumption about the purpose and performance of what may have originally been meant as a support network, but no longer functioned as such. And then came the kicker.

3.     “Have You Thought About Changing Your Name Back to Your Maiden Name, or Hyphenating?”

The mock interview was very productive. The attorney explained that I needed to stay away from the “we” pronoun and start talking about myself in the first person. He listed my pros as being a Latina in a market that is becoming more diverse, solid grades, and extensive involvement in law school. My response was that being a Latina might not be a salient factor in my résumé. Unless a résumé reviewer looked too much into my B.A. in Spanish, my name and my involvement would not give my “Puerto Ricanness” away. Then I asked how I could highlight those characteristics he seemed impressed by.

“Have you thought about changing your name back to your maiden name, or hyphenating?”

I felt trivialized, and it was not until later on that I precisely understood my feelings at the time. I felt like my identity was disposable. I was asked to reverse cover, highlighting my most desirable outgroup membership, which in this job market seemed to be “Latina.” Taking your husband’s name, the decision to leave your familiar identity behind and join a new family, is a taxing one that few women take lightly. His comment, while I am sure was well intentioned, looked at my name as just a label that I could peel off and re-write according to the cover of my convenience.

I deadpanned and said “No.” Then I remembered that my goal was to walk out of the room with a connection, so I tilted my head sideways and said, “But that’s not a bad idea. I will consider it.””

 

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