Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives #18 On Losing Your Way Of Life

Paralympics+Day+7+Wheelchair+Tennis+ysOQyl_2BbJl

My final match of the camp’s tournament was against Nick Taylor, the legendary quadriplegic who plays in a motorized chair. I first heard of Nick when I started playing wheelchair tennis in Cedar Rapids, Iowa two years earlier. During one of our practices, Kevin Nebergall, our coach, asked us if we knew of Nick Taylor. Who? Nick Taylor, one of the most highly-ranked quads in the world who serves the ball with his foot. What? That’s right, Kevin assured us, his foot! And he whacks the ball over the net with a wicked underhand serve. I tried to imagine that…

Adaptation. One of the definitions of that word is the process we go through when we deal with changed circumstances. It’s a dynamic term that suggest forward movement despite a calamitous, life changing event that brings everything to a stop. One day I was jogging along a winding gravel road in Bloomington, Indiana, and a week later, thanks to Guillain-Barré Syndrome, I was completely paralyzed and dying in an intensive care unit.

If and when we’re transferred to a rehab unit, we begin the process of adapting to our changed bodies. If we’re quads, we have to learn how to do basic things with our mostly paralyzed hands. Using a fork to stab a brussel sprout.  Grasping a toothbrush and squeezing toothpaste on it.  Then getting the brush to our teeth rather than up a nostril. Using a “buttoner” to deal with shirt buttons.

After we’ve mastered the “activities of daily living,” we’re discharged and sent back into the world of trees, of clouds and birds above us, of concrete sidewalks teaming with people on their way to work or a baseball game. We go on with life. We adapt. Our reckoning with devastating change retreats to some space in our psyches that protects us, allowing us to move forward. But we never forget what we once had and lost. When we least expect it, maybe when we catch a glimpse of ourselves in a department store window, our psyches takes us back to those moments in time when we happily jogged along a gravel road, when we used a fork, brushed our teeth, and buttoned our shirts effortlessly. We exhale, blink. The moments recede. We push forward. Again. And again.

Is the narrative any different if you’re born with a physical disability? Let’s find out. Let’s get to know Nick.

Finding His Way to Tennis

Nick was born with arthrogryposis, a congenital condition that results in limbs being permanently fixed in a way that restricts movement. In Nick’s case, the restrictions are pretty severe. “I’ve never touched my foot with my hand in my life.” He can close his hands but he can’t open them. His arms barely move. His grip strength is very weak. He has no biceps. Yes, he has some triceps, but they’re not strong enough to lift himself out of his chair. Nick’s dad helps him with just about all of his activities of daily living, such as getting out of bed, brushing his teeth, and taking a shower. It came as no surprise to his parents that Nick needed a motorized wheelchair early on in life, when he was two years old.

Nick’s mom worked for Cessna, and his dad owned a property management company in Wichita. They also trained horses to compete in shows. When he was a kid, Nick was always at the horse barn. His parents joked that as they realized how much care Nick would need—he’s had more than thirty-five surgeries—he became the horse they had to train. Nick “the horse” Taylor. It has a certain ring to it, don’t you think?

Surprisingly, or not, Nick wasn’t into tennis that much when he was a kid. Soccer was his sport, in large part because he was an avid fan of the Wichita Wings, a professional indoor soccer team in town. Although soccer triggered his life-long love of sports, for a number of years he used his wheelchair as a deterrent from playing a sport. People like him don’t play sports, can’t play sports, he thought. It was in elementary school that he finally came to embrace the fact that he would have to use his wheelchair if he wanted to play sports. And it wasn’t long before he realized that he was good with his feet.

Nick’s path to the top echelons of wheelchair tennis began when he was in middle school. The trigger that propelled him forward was the trauma of loss, but not, as in my case, the loss of able-bodied functioning.  Like everyone I’ve talked about in this book, Nick had his day of reckoning, the day when the reality of the physical condition he was born into, a condition that arbitrarily befell him, hit him with such brutal violence that he couldn’t see straight. It was when he lost him mom and sense of family. His mother left Nick and his dad when he was twelve, which left Nick bitter and angry. If that wasn’t bad enough, soon thereafter his father was diagnosed with brain lesions. He would die in six months, the doctors said. What would Nick do without his father? “I was going to lose my way of life.”

Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives #17 On Blame and Punishment

 

grady

My second match was against Grady Landrum, who along with Nick Taylor organized the camp/tournament.  He welcomed me with a warm smile and a twinkle in his eyes that matched his mischievous wit. The match was in the morning on a shaded court. This wasn’t coincidental. Unlike me, Grady’s body can’t produce something that’s vital on hot days, especially when you’re exerting yourself. Because of his spinal cord break, he can’t sweat. Heat without sweat is deadly. That’s why Grady and many other quads spray themselves a lot with water during a match.

But why is Grady a quad? Before I tell you why, let’s talk about the concept of “blame.” When something bad happens, we want to point the finger of blame at someone or something. When we do that we may or may not go moral. When I became disabled because of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, I could point the finger of blame at GBS. It was to blame for making me a quadriplegic. It’s just a statement about causation. I did nothing morally “wrong.” I didn’t break any social norms. So saying something about my plight that might include the words “you shouldn’t have . . .” would seem, well, inappropriate. And stupid. I like stupid, so scratch inappropriate.

But what if I had been drinking heavily for some time, which lowered my immune system, which, in turn, made me vulnerable to GBS. Then we might start getting moral. Unlike saying GBS is to blame, we might point the finger at me. I’m sort of to blame for my disability. As a moral agent, I can deliberate and make choices. I chose to drink heavily. So when I drank heavily, I did something wrong. I chose to violate a social norm that looks down on heavy drinking. Then you might you might say, probably just to yourself, “That’s terrible what happened to you, but you shouldn’t have been drinking heavily.” What was that? You would never say that, even to yourself? You’re never judgmental? Are you some sort of monk or something? C’mon!

Let’s get back to Grady. Flash back to December 11, 1971 in Atlanta, Georgia. Grady was a 17-year-old senior in high school.  He went out with his buddies that night and had a few beers. Maybe more than a few. It was late when he drove his two-door 1970 Dotson station wagon home with his friend, Jake.  Speed: 100 miles an hour. Do you see it coming? Right. He lost control of the car. Grady’s door flew off and he went flying with it. “Snap” went his neck. Jake walked away from the accident. Grady was rushed to a nearby hospital.

He was unconscious for an entire week in the hospital’s intensive care unit before he came to with tubes stuck in him to drain the internal bleeding. He couldn’t talk. He thought he was tied down to the bed when in fact he was paralyzed.  The first doctor, who probably was a resident on a rotation, told Grady that he had broken his neck, but that he had a 60% chance of walking again. Really?

The next day, another doctor walked in and delivered the bad news, the news that would become the reality in Grady’s life: There was a 99.9% chance that he would never walk again. “Why am I not dead?” Grady asked. In his mind, people who break their necks die in ten minutes or less. But the doctor said that lots of people survive spinal cord injuries. The thing is that nobody can say how much function will return. Hmmm . . . Sounds familiar.

While Grady was in the ICU, a kid was admitted with a broken neck resulting from an intimate encounter between his car and a telephone pole. He told Grady his life was over. No goals or ambitions. Grady said to himself, “Let’s see now. Do something with my life or spend the rest of my life at home doing nothing. Hmmm . . . I think I’ll do something with my life.” And he did.

But, like many of us, he had to hit bottom first, he had to face and deal with the moment we subconsciously suppress until it explodes into our consciousness. The reckoning. It can happen any time. I know this. It took Grady about ten years after the accident, when he was 28-years-old, to reach that moment. It was a couple of days before Christmas in Lincoln, Nebraska—he moved there in 1981. His family wasn’t around. He was driving around town when it hit. He swerved over to the shoulder and slammed on the hand brakes. He screamed, “You know Grady, you’re so stupid! You really screwed up your life! Your life could’ve been totally different if you hadn’t gone out drinking that night! If you hadn’t been so foolish!”

Grady was in a totally moral space when he pulled over. He knew he did something wrong, he broke a social (and legal) norm when he chose to down the beers, when he chose to speed like a maniac.  When Grady met up with his reckoning it said to him, “You have no one else to blame but yourself. Point the finger at yourself.”

But here’s the thing. There was something else lying beneath what he said, a brutal subtext about punishment. When you break a norm, there are consequences. The more morally infused word would be “punishment.” The norm could be the social type. Let’s say you’re a new lawyer at some fancy law firm. You get stupid drunk at a dinner party hosted by one of the firm’s partners. You projectile vomit on the table before passing out and smashing your face into your slice of the gluten-free orange and almond cake with mascarpone. Chances are you won’t be invited again to that partner’s home. Maybe nobody at the firm will do anything social with you. Your job might even be in jeopardy. That’s your punishment.

There are legal norms, too. If you commit a crime and you’re found guilty, you may go to prison. That’s your punishment. If you break a civil law, say you commit a “tort” by failing to stop at a stop sign and cause an accident and you’re found liable, you’ll pay damages to the party that sued you. That’s your punishment.

In all of these situations, there’s the idea that the punishment should be proportional to the norm you’ve broken. Most of us would think it reasonable if the new lawyer became a social pariah at the firm. But taking away her license to practice law would be way out of line. Most people would be outraged if a person got a life sentence for shoplifting. And jaws would drop if you had to pay a million dollars for a simple fender-bender.

But there’s no such thing as proportionality regarding the loss of body function resulting from breaking a norm. The punishment is completely arbitrary. Grady could’ve walked away from the accident along with Jake. He could’ve suffered a couple of broken ribs. Throw in an arm or two. He could’ve lost body function below his waist—a paraplegic. But, no, he was sentenced to life as a quadriplegic. A huge chunk of his body was taken away from him.

Maybe that’s what really hit Grady like a ton of bricks when he broke down on highway shoulder. It was his brutal subtext. Sure, he was screaming that he had only himself to blame. But beneath that he was gripped by a violent rage at the inhumane punishment he received for having a few too many beers. For having a heavy foot on the gas peddle. For being young and foolish.

Maybe you remember Brian McMillan’s narrative, the guy who became a paraplegic after his motorcycle accident. He called it “the roulette wheel of hideous misfortune. The ball lands on your number and you can’t believe it.”  “There’s no second chance,” Brian told me. “You can drop out of school and go back again. You can get divorced and marry again.” There was no second chance for Brian, and no second chance for Grady, either. No way to appeal what was a completely arbitrary and staggeringly harsh sentence.

Grady’s reckoning lasted about ten minutes. Then it was done. The anger went away. He put the car in drive, checked the rearview mirror, and accelerated into the right hand lane. He kept driving . . . Eventually Grady obtained an undergraduate degree in Communications from Eastern New Mexico University plus a graduate degree from Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon, and got married to boot. He’s now the Director of Disability Services at Wichita State University. In the meantime, he fell in love with wheelchair tennis and became a highly ranked quad player. Right on, Grady!

I’m pretty sure it took longer than ten minutes for Grady to cope with the hammer blow of his reckoning. It takes years, if not decades, to come to terms with both the blame and the punishment that results in the massive loss of body function. I think that’s why Grady and all of us at the camp have a passion for the sport. Every time we roll onto the court for a match, every time we toss the ball in the air to serve, every time we push hard to the ball, and every time we hit the ball over the net, we’re telling ourselves that at least in those moments we can tell arbitrariness to fuck off.

Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives #16 The Lousy Student

Chapter Five

Wichita’s “The Air Capital Classic”

******

The plane touched down in Wichita at about noon on Wednesday, June 17. It was a sunny and really hot day. I didn’t check the forecast for the Air Capital Classic combined camp and tournament. Had I taken the time, I would’ve seen that I was heading into a typical Wichita summer: crippling heat–uppers 90s (like 98-99) and horrible humidity during the whole event. But that wouldn’t have stopped me. When I met Nick Taylor at the Cajun Classic and saw him again in Kansas City, he encouraged me to attend the tournament that he and Grady Landrum had put together for sixteen years in a row—the camp was in its third year. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to take my game to the next level, especially as a quad player. I also looked forward to getting to know more about the tournament’s co-directors. Like the “Wheel It Forward” tournament in Kansas City, I would once again be playing a round robin against three other quads: Nick, Grady, and Taylor Graham.

When I looked up the tournament on the USTA’s website, it was listed as “The Air Capital Classic.” It was a catchy title and it made sense because of the major aircraft industry in Wichita that dates back to the 1920’s—the city is known as the “Air Capital of the World.”  But if I had a hand in choosing a title, I might have suggested “The Wichita Meltdown” because of the insane heat. I suppose, though, that the “I-can’t-think-straight-because-of-this-friggin-heat” connotation wouldn’t draw many participants.

This would be my first camp. Nick and Grady came up with the idea for a camp/tournament combination when the tournament’s attendance got socked during the 2008-2009 financial crisis in the country. As the numbers declined, they thought of a way to bring them back up: a clinic before the tournament. With that set-up, people can put the skills they’ve learned in the camp into practice right away in the tournament.

There were forty-four players at the camp. The athletes came from all parts of the country with a full range of skills, from the most pathetic, me, to pretty advanced players. There was Lauren Haneke-Hopps (A division), a high school student from San Diego whose passion for sports extends to kayaking, rock climbing, snorkeling, and baseball. Paola Adams (B division), a Chilean strategy and operations consultant now living in Oklahoma—she had recently taken up the sport.  The C division included John Watson, a basketball and softball player who had just received his Master’s in Communications from University of Texas, Arlington and now works for Kansas University in Lawrence.

We all gathered on the courts of the Riverside Tennis Center Wednesday evening for the first session of the camp. The five coaches introduced themselves:  Jason Harnett, U.S. Quad and Men’s World Team Cup Coach; Paul Walker, U.S. Women’s World Team Coach; Jeff Clark, Pro Coach to Nick Taylor; Kevin Heim, Lincoln, Nebraska’s Wheelchair Tennis Coach; and, of course, Nick Taylor. A pretty impressive group.

After coach Walker reminded us to be good boys and girls and clean up after ourselves, we split up into groups and worked on forehands, backhands, and serves. My forehand stroke was pretty decent by then. But my backhand needed major work. For most beginning players, the backhand is the most challenging to master. For me, it was especially hard because I was learning the “inverted backhand.” Non-quads can move the positioning of their grip depending on whether they’re hitting a forehand or backhand. But for most quads who tape their hands to the racquet, they have to decide what grip they can use for both forehand and backhand without switching grips. Some use a grip that lets them play a regular forehand and backhand using a “continental” grip. But my wrist is too weak to do that. Given my semi-western grip (try picking up the handle from the floor), my coaches had me learn the inverted backhand. Instead of the palm of your hand facing inward on a backhand, the palm is facing away from you. The coaches had me imagine throwing a tennis ball across the net with my left palm facing away from me. It’s really hard. But I finally began to get the feel of it at the camp.

As the camp progressed the next day, we concentrated more on strategy. We worked on getting back to “the hub” after a stroke. As a refresher, the hub is the area about three feet behind the baseline at the center of the court. I’m a left-hander. So if I roll to my left to hit a forehand, after the hit I should instantly turn into the court and push back at an angle to the hub. If I roll to my right to hit a backhand, after the hit I should instantly turn out and get my butt back into the hub. And as I’m getting back, I’m supposed to look across court to see where the next ball will go. I felt I was going to hurl after doing that drill for about six hits in the searing heat.

As the day wore on, I realized that I was one of the worst players in the camp. I began thinking that the coaches were writing me off. A 58 year-old lost cause. Then it hit me. After almost thirty years, I was a student again. If that wasn’t bad enough, I was at the bottom of the pack. Me, a mediocre student. I didn’t like the feeling.

Actually, I hated it. The other players seemed to be getting the attention than I craved from the “professors.” They seemed to be receiving more compliments than I did.  It didn’t matter that I was misperceiving it all. I felt like running—rolling—to the Dean’s office to complain that my profs were violating every policy known to humankind and ruining my chances of becoming the next number one quad player in the world, thereby robbing me of millions of dollars and my own private island.

Then I came to my senses. The coaches were fine teachers who knew when to intervene to improve us individually and as a group.

Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives #15 The Reckoning’s Coming

 

If you go to a wheelchair tennis tournament, you’ll see us competing on the courts. When we’re not playing, you’ll likely see us engaged in animated conversations, often breaking out in a cacophony of laughter. But if you dig deep enough, you’ll find the scar tissue of a traumatic moment, a moment when each of us faced the inevitable reckoning with a body seemingly lost to us. You can’t prepare for the reckoning’s coming. When it does come, it hits you with such brutal force that you can hardly breathe. And yet somehow we survive to laugh again. Here’s the next excerpt from my book.

Chapter Five

Wichita’s “The Air Capital Classic”

“It’s unlikely you’ll ever walk again.” What Dr. Silbert said wasn’t registering with me. What?

Unlikely.

You’ll.

Ever.

Walk.

Again.

“Wait. Say that again? I must not have heard you right, doctor,” I said in a whisper.

It was mid-September, 1980, and I was sitting in a wheelchair in my room at Hook Rehabilitation Center in Indianapolis when those gut-wrenching words collided with my ears.

I had survived the summer of torture in Bloomington Hospital’s ICU. I was breathing on my own. Shallow breaths. But still, they were my own. They took the feeding tube out and I ate, with great difficulty, some sort of baby-food-like slop. I could talk, but only a little bit now and then, and only in whispered tones. Trying to coordinate my breath, jaw, tongue and lips to be able to speak was a gargantuan task. I had some movement in my shoulders and upper arms, traces in my forearms and hands. Same for my trunk. And if you stared hard and long enough, you could see my quadriceps flinch occasionally. That was it. There was nothing more they could do for me in Bloomington. It was time for rehabilitation.  To rehabilitate is to restore. To what, though?

******

 

There were two ways to take Dr. Silbert’s words. One was, “Don’t get your hopes up. Rehabilitation doesn’t mean we’ll get you back to where you were before you contracted Guillain-Barré Syndrome.” The other way was, “I’m saying this so that you can prove me wrong.” It was probably a bit of both. In any event, I didn’t have much time to dwell on the possible interpretations. As soon as I was admitted, the Hook staff let me know in no uncertain terms that I was in rehab boot camp. It went something like this: “You’re not in a hospital anymore, so get that out of your head, pronto. No more nursing gowns. You’re going to wear real clothes. You’re going to do as much as you can for yourself as soon as you can. You got that?” “Sir, yes, sir!” “I can’t hear you!” Uhh . . . that’s because I can hardly talk? “What’s that? Huh, you pathetic hospital junky. Now drop down and give my fifty!” Oh, shit.

The morning after I was admitted I was on the mats in the physical therapy room. To arrive at a baseline, the physical therapist carefully measured the weakness in every part of my body. She used some sort of numbered scale, but she could’ve saved time by just writing, “pathetically weak.” From there, I was off to the occupational therapy room, where I would learn once again how to take care of myself, from showering to dressing. After a break, they took me to speech therapy where I would learn to talk again. This would be my weekly regimen for the next five months. Training to be a Navy Seal? Hmmm . . .

******

“Tonight you’re going to feed yourself,” the occupational therapist told me. She helped me sit in the wheelchair, strapped me in so I wouldn’t fall, and wheeled me over to the table in my room. She then brought in a metal contraption that she secured to the right side of my chair. It was designed to allow people with very limited arm strength to feed themselves. She placed my right arm on the contraption’s arm rest, taped a spoon to my hand, and via a number of inter-connected rods I could swivel my hand to my mouth. Pretty cool!

She then placed a round sticky mat on the table and put a plate of food on it: squishy broccoli, some sort of pureed mystery meat, and mashed potatoes. My severely weak swallowing mechanism couldn’t handle anything else. “Have at it, Enrique!” She left the room. It was just me and the food. I was hungry after all the day’s therapy.

Using what little shoulder strength I had, I managed to get the spoon to the plate and scoop up some mashed potatoes. With a few more shoulder movements, I launched the spoon to my mouth and fed myself for the first time in six months. I was deliriously happy. I went for another scoop, this time the meat. Successful! Yes!

Then something happened with the contraption. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t maneuver my hand to the plate. I tried over and over again. No luck. I looked for the call button to get help, but it was sitting beyond my reach on the bed. I looked out at the hallway hoping someone would come in and check on me. No one, not even a passing visitor.

I was alone. There was my food, just inches away from me, and I couldn’t get to it. I couldn’t do something as basic yet vital for a human to live: eat. Just over six months ago, I never would’ve thought twice about being able to put food in my mouth.

It hit me so hard that I could barely breathe. This thing, this fucking syndrome, took my body away from me. I was a shell of what I used to be. All because I had the goddam flu. Who was I kidding? The doctor was right. I would never walk again, let alone run again. My hands, just skin and bones, would no longer be able to do the simplest things in life, like buttoning my shirt. Why? Why me? What did I do wrong? What horrible sin did I commit that warranted such a brutally harsh punishment, condemning me to life as a quadriplegic?

Until that point I was consumed with staying alive in the ICU, and then transitioning to the challenges of rehabilitation. That evening, alone, and unable to feed myself, I had finally confronted the reckoning that had been awaiting me. I wept uncontrollably. Wept for the loss of a life I otherwise would have had as an able-bodied person.

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.””