On Being A Female Law Student—and Puerto Rican #7 “We’re not chump change!”

This next excerpt from Kristymarie’s article looks at the concept of meritocracy as it applies to students of color. What she writes about is familiar to me based on my experience in academia.

When persons of color began to make a concerted effort to diversify law school faculties in the late 1980s, we got pretty severe blowback. Back then faculties were virtually all comprised of white males. They invoked meritocracy and argued that we weren’t qualified to become teachers and scholars. Relying on affirmative action to diversify would lead to mediocrity.

This was a crazy stupid argument put together to protect the positions of mediocre white guys who felt threatened by people of color. We had awesome credentials. But that wasn’t good enough. No, we had to be supermen and superwomen. Actually, women of color had to be super-duper. We had to wear capes to our interviews. Mine was fire engine red with cute little rhinestones and…yeah.

We persisted, though. Professor Michael Olivas, for example, created the “dirty dozen list,” which called out elite law schools for not having any persons of color on their faculty. Little by little, we made our way onto faculties around the country. Once there, we still had to prove that we were super teachers and scholars. Never mind that much of the white guys’ teaching was uninspired and their scholarship about as profound as a TV Guide.

Still, we persisted. And little by little, academia came to know that teachers and scholars of color rock. We bring stuff to the classrooms that, because of our backgrounds, transforms dry presentations of doctrine into fascinating explorations of subtext underlying black letter law. Our scholarship brings critical perspectives and commentary that were unimaginable before we made our inroads into faculties.

Put simply, we’re kickass. And we don’t wear capes anymore. At least not in public.

Let’s see what Kristymarie says about all of this in the context of law students of color. You’ll see that she says, “we are not chump change.” Yeah, you all are mucho dope. Reminder: I’ve stripped out the footnotes to make the excerpt more readable.

“While the legal community thinks of its diversity as a priority, it continues to create a hostile environment for diverse individuals. The hostility is not brazen—it is subtle. Micro. And one of its most effective weapons is the myth of meritocracy.

The myth of meritocracy is the illusion that democratic choice and the freedom of confident action are available to all. This myth rests on two inaccurate assumptions: that the opportunities are equally available, and that any differences in achievement are due to the racialized and gendered candidate’s unique choices. Peggy McIntosh exposes the myth of meritocracy as perpetuating white privilege, which often gives whites “license to be ignorant, oblivious, arrogant and destructive.” That ignorance allows stakeholders in law school career-development to believe that different outcomes are caused by differences in talent and work ethic, and ignore the role of—and their role in—the oppressive environment…

[A] racialized candidate is simultaneously highly visible and highly invisible. It creates a need for the racialized candidate to make himself or herself known for markers other than his or her race. Raising awareness about this consistent struggle—whether to move towards or away from identity expression—is crucial for the non-racialized candidate, the law school faculty and staff, and the law firm recruiter.

Furthermore, these stakeholders should be aware of how trying to fight these generalized preconceived notions affects the racialized candidates. Specifically, the non-racialized candidates should care because, one day, they will be the cross-interviewers or the law school faculty. For their part, law faculty and staff can no longer afford the luxury of ignoring the subtleties of the racialized candidate’s experience because their ignorance perpetuates the oppressive environment. When the legal recruiter speaks of equal opportunity in the job market and meritocracy, he perpetuates white privilege and must be aware of this. Your license to be ignorant has been revoked.

Using buzzwords like “white privilege” and “ignorance” may cause some to tune out the message. But consider this: out of a class of 152, only nine were Latinos/Latinas. One of them was a corporate lawyer in another country before starting law school here. Another has won campus-wide awards, was Editor-in-Chief of a journal, and went on to clerk for a state court of appeals. A third one won a writing competition, and was on a journal board and a moot court team. Another was also on a journal board, won a public defender fellowship in a coveted district, and is now an associate at Chapman & Cutler. Another is an associate at Dorsey & Whitney, part of a tax bracket he has never been acquainted with. These are just some examples from these nine individuals being some of the most invested and successful law candidates available. These racialized candidates struggle between visibility and invisibility, which usually leads to anxiety, teeters between validation and covering. The mere presence of that anxiety validates the idea of the meritocracy, and creates a burden on the racialized candidate to prove himself or herself worthy.

As I just did there.

Because it has become second nature to highlight that we are worthy.

That we are not chump change.

But what is the real kicker is that the meritocracy argument disregards that each and every one of those students had to be above average and Latino/Latina to get into Iowa Law. When a stakeholder speaks of meritocracy, he seems to disregard the fifty percent of the law school class that is below average and, more often than not, white. When he speaks of equal opportunity in terms of the colorblind evaluation of résumés, he ignores that a racialized candidate has had to overcome a variety of obstacles a non-racialized candidate would not even consider just to achieve the same résumé content. This is how equal opportunity and meritocracy perpetuate white privilege. This is why awareness of the consistent slights the racialized and gendered candidates face matters.

An important step in creating a more productive environment for racialized and gendered candidates is to recognize the implicit bias that may affect interactions with racialized and gendered candidates, as well as the stereotype threat, which may hinder the racialized and gendered candidates’ performance. Implicit bias encompasses the unconscious ways in which one allows attitudes or stereotypes to affect our understanding, actions, and decisions. Stereotype threat is the situational predicament in which the racialized candidate debates whether to cover or reverse cover, fearing the risk of confirming negative stereotypes about their social group. Educators and interviewers may overcome these implicit biases and pattern preferences by establishing a rapport with the candidate before assessing their competence. Building rapport first may help curb the influence of cultural biases.

Similarly, cultural, gender, and/or racial sensitivity training may build upon the awareness stepping stone. Many educators or hiring professionals fail to understand the communication nuances that isolate racialized and/or gendered candidates. When a racialized candidate is referred to as “articulate” or when a gendered candidate is referred to as “ambitious,” the implication is that the candidate breaks through the stereotype of racialized candidates having poor dominion of the language and women being conformists. Dismissive statements about a married person’s unmarried name, comments about the candidate’s hair or appearance, or expectations about their involvement and the causes that are important to them equally reflect these racialized or gendered expectations. The educator or the interviewer may not think twice about his or her vocabulary, or his or her commentary. At the same time, the educator or interviewer may be isolating the candidate. Cultural, gender, and/or racial sensitivity training may provide an opportunity to replace the problematic behavior, and provide these individuals skills aimed at lessening that isolation.

Another more lofty potential solution is to provide more role models, which would require an overhaul of the education pipeline. Part of the isolation that results from stereotype threat is the idea that one is left by one’s self to be the representative of one’s race. Your identity and individuality are stripped, only to be replaced by the burden of being the definition of the group you represent. These are the instances where reaching critical mass lessens the burden on the few, allowing representation to become a duty once again: a task we undertake proudly, rather than something we have no choice but to shoulder.”

Having said all this, I’m sure Kristymarie would agree with me that our law school, the University of Iowa College of Law, is a special place where faculty and staff try hard in many cases to make the law school a supportive community. And many of the faculty members are awesome teachers and scholars. The school is legendary for its highly skilled teachers. And I wouldn’t have become the scholar that I am today without colleagues who went out of their way to constructively critique my work. And help me keep my cape clean for the homecoming parade.


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