Category: On being a female law student–and Puerto Rican

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.


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 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.””


On Being A Female Law Student—and Puerto Rican #5 To Identify Or Not To Identify On A Resume, That Is the Question

“To be or not to be, that is the question.” In this over-used-I’m-so-sick-of-it-I’m-going-to-throw-up-but-not-before-I-have-a-second-glass-of-wine soliloquy, Hamlet ponders the dilemma that life might suck but that death by suicide might suck even more. Here, Kristymarie moves from the classroom to the process of applying for a job, starting with crafting a resume. The dilemma she faces is whether on paper she should identify as a woman of color, with the uncertain repercussions that might follow from doing so.

All of us are taught to craft a resume that it will stand out and survive the immediate toss into the trash can or, in today’s world, the delete button. As Kristymarie’s excerpt points out, law firms, especially the big ones are trying to diversify—have a look at my postings about the world of document review. This would suggest that highlighting yourself as a person of color would be a no-brainer.

But maybe not. Let’s just focus on Big Law. First, let’s understand an unassailable, even if a highly frustrating, truth: The big firms won’t give a rat’s ass if you’re a person of color if you don’t make their GPA cut-off, usually about the top ten percent of the class if you’re not at Harvard, Yale or some of the highly-ranked law schools.

So assuming you make that cut, do you, say, highlight that you were heavily involved in Latino groups and activities in law school? If you know the firm is really trying to diversify, of course you would, right? After all, all other things being equal, would a white applicant be able to compete with you? It probably wouldn’t be a good idea for that applicant to highlight his/her whiteness.

The white applicant may well resent that, especially in today’s world where there are too many lawyers and too few jobs. Would that resentment be justifiable? It sure looks like it.

But maybe your identity in this scenario is an asset that your white competitor doesn’t have. Perhaps, because of your life narrative as a person of color, you might bring perspectives to the practice that non-minorities won’t have. That’s bull, many might say. Okay. Question: Does the white applicant have an asset he doesn’t have to list on his resume? “If you’re going to bring up that ‘white privilege thing,’ I don’t want to hear it!” Oookay, then… Why don’t we watch the next episode of Game of Thrones?   You know, the episode where that white blond woman, what’s her name…Daenerys, right, liberates the dark slaves and then mingles with them, inspiring them to lift her up like she’s their rock-like savior in a mosh pit.

Let’s see what Kristymarie has to say about all this. A heads-up: When she mentions “covering” and “reverse covering,” she’s using lingo in Critical Race Theory: Covering is like, putting it crudely, saying to an African American, “You should try hard to act like a white person.” Reverse covering is like saying, “You should emphasize you’re an African American.”

“Should I Tell Them I Am Not White? Racializing the Resume

During law school, it is important to build connections and seek opportunities to stand out. In this process, identifying as a racialized and gendered candidate may be a double-edged sword. Although identifying as a minority may be an asset, highlighting one’s otherness nonetheless reinforces the line between candidates from the dominant culture and racialized and gendered candidates, further isolating them and blurring or erasing other facets of their identity.

Corporations are diversifying their workforces more rapidly than the law firms they hire.  Some clients demand that law firms they contract also strive for more diversity in their promotion practices. For example, Wal-Mart Stores pulled active work from two large firms that did not conform to Wal-Mart’s standards for diversity, even though they were exceeding work product quality expectations. To increase client satisfaction, many law firms are seeking to recruit more minorities.

Hispanics have suddenly become the “hot” minority. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that the Hispanic population of the United States will double by the year 2050, reaching over 106 million. Simultaneously, in part due to the growth in the Hispanic population, Spanish is the most spoken non-English language in the United States. However, not all Hispanic candidates fit the “desirable candidate” mold. Critical race theorist Richard Delgado and critical white studies scholar Jean Stefancic highlight the differential racialization that these shifting hiring priorities may lead to. Different minority groups are racialized differently as the labor market changes. Racial or ethnic markers that may have once been undesirable may quickly become an asset.

Trying to stand out through one’s racial or gender identity may be a double-edge sword because a résumé emphasizing the candidate’s racial or gender identity may quickly relegate the candidate to the “no” pile based on the recruiter’s assumptions regarding her cultural and social capital or competence. Therefore, a Hispanic and bilingual candidate must make a choice. Option one: highlight her identity. Option two: cover throughout her résumé to avoid being rejected because of the recruiter’s assumptions.

Option one may quickly lead to “reverse covering,” signaling or highlighting her otherness. An example of reverse covering is when a woman is required or expected to act or dress in a feminine way. Similarly, a Hispanic candidate is considered desirable if she fulfills the stereotypical expectation: being bilingual.

Option two is perilous. Before choosing to bury her otherness to get the job, the candidate must determine whether she would even like to venture into a workplace where her otherness will render her unqualified without further examination. While the legal market is a different arena, I believe the story of José Zamora is illustrative. Zamora’s story went viral in 2013 after he sent hundreds of résumés each week seeking employment and did not get a single response. Zamora decided to cover by removing the “s” from his first name, and resubmitted his résumé to the same companies for the same positions, now as “Joe Zamora.” A week later the responses started rolling in.”


On Being A Female Law Student—and Puerto Rican #4 The Duties of A Role Model: Are You Legit?

Here’s another excerpt from Kristymarie Shipley’s article in which she explores the complexities of navigating through the challenges of law school as a woman of color. In particular, she looks at “[t]he flipside of fear and anxiety of class participation [as] a sense of duty. This duty to participate encompasses a sense of responsibility to your own otherness that does not just stop with class participation but also bleeds into law school involvement, which may affect classroom performance.” As I read this part of her article and its focus on duty, I was reminded of the raging debate in the 1990s over whether persons of color should be role models with certain duties. I also thought about “the box.” What? Just wait. Concentrate on Kristymarie.

A.    Class Participation as a Duty

“Underrepresented students often feel a duty to achieve, not just for themselves, but also for those that come after. Barbara Smith, an activist at the intersection of race, sex, and sexual orientation, wrote that she was enraged when she realized that “black women writers, academics, and politicos who protect their closets never think about people like [oppressed students] or about how their silences contribute to the silencing of others.” This piece also inspired Angela D. Gilmore to share the anxiety she experienced in law school and in the legal profession as a lesbian black female constantly wavering between performing her identity loudly and remaining silent. Once again, these scholars reinforce the idea that participating and speaking up is a duty owed to others in one’s community, aimed at making sure they do not feel like that they must remain silent as well.

This concept of duty extends beyond that owed to one’s underrepresented community and those that will follow in one’s steps. It includes feeling responsible for enriching the majority’s educational experience. As Onwuachi-Willig explains, silence could deprive the conversation of a valuable fresh perspective.

Admitting token numbers of racially and gender diverse students belies law schools’ claims to prepare students for the work environment and also leads diverse candidates to feel isolated. “Critical mass,” or meaningful representation, is achieved when there is sufficient representation of underrepresented minority students to encourage their class participation and counteract isolation. The concept is that if underrepresented candidates are admitted in sufficient numbers, the educational experience of all candidates is enriched through exposure to diverse perspectives and cross-racial and cross-gendered interactions. Critical mass creates an environment that “promotes learning outcomes, and better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce and society, and better prepares them as professionals.” These interactions prepare all candidates to work in a global market and become good citizens. However, lack of critical mass often turns the duty of class participation into a spokesperson’s burden.

B.    When the Duty Becomes a Burden

We were sitting in class. Out of just under twenty students, only two of us would be considered minorities: a Korean man and a Puerto Rican woman. We discussed the calculation of remedies for wrongful death. I seldom speak in class. My feedback in the past had been somewhat quickly dismissed. On this day, the professor explained that, when calculating lost wages, if the victim is black, the defendant should be able to present evidence that, on average, black men do not live as long as white men. What I hear is: the black victim would not have lived that long anyway so his family should receive less in damages. I raise my hand. How is that fair?

To provide some context, this discussion occurred in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown. I argued that providing information on differences in life expectancy based on racial markers to a jury is more prejudicial than probative. It ignores the systems of oppression that result in such differences. A defendant should not benefit from those systems. For example, imagine that Police Officer Darren Wilson’s conduct had been determined to be willful and unreasonable (out goes immunity), and Michael Brown’s family sued for wrongful death (in this hypothetical he is gainfully employed and has dependents). Officer Wilson, as a defendant, should not be able to escape financial responsibility with an argument that black men die at a younger age, especially when actions like his are one of the reasons why black men die at a younger age. The professor characterized life expectancy differences as factual, and moved on to comparisons of obese black men to fit white men who live longer and why these numbers were important. I wondered, “How can they be important when you are comparing apples and oranges?” The class moved on but I was left reeling. The focus should have been on health or weight if that was the issue, not on race.

At that moment, I felt like class participation became more of a risk than a reward. The professor quickly dismissed my comment and I felt I had come off as too personally invested (since my husband is black) to have a conversation about the legal merits of a certain piece of evidence. Because I continued to bring the issue back to the racial component and whether the data was necessary, I felt I was coming off as combative. As I tuned out the rest of the discussion, I felt I may have come off as immature. Because my point was not coming across, or getting across, I went back to not speaking in class—to silence. Because I am personally invested, I thought of the perfect point: “Professor, you just said my husband’s life is worth less.” Because I am combative, I thought: “Professor, you have disregarded my point of view, diminished my racial and social concerns, and continually tried to reduce this issue to dollars and cents when wrongful death is about the life lost.” Even more I felt like saying: “Professor, when you ended the conversation by saying ‘everything has a dollar value, even human life,’ you were flippant about your student. While it might have been easy to discuss this man’s life in terms of dollars and cents because he is an abstract black man to whom you do not relate, that black man is someone to somebody.”

I stayed quiet because I felt naïve. I felt like the representative for all things minority. I felt like it was my responsibility to rescue the learning experience and I failed. I felt like I became the hypothetical.

A racialized and gendered candidate often becomes a spokesperson, or a hypothetical, rather than an individual. By challenging the authority figure in the room, I felt I had surely tainted the Professor’s perspective of who I was—a perspective that could leave the classroom and venture into the legal community. What might have been a regular class discussion to every other student was to me, a highly visible invisible minority, a failure to carry my burden as a minority student. I had failed to represent minorities by not having the legal wherewithal to convince the Professor that the data was prejudicial and not apt for a jury. I was left with a burden I did not feel I should have had to shoulder on my own. By simply not participating, I refused to take that burden on. In the process, I became isolated.”

Pretty compelling stuff, right? Kristymarie packs a lot of thoughtful points and observations into those few paragraphs. And lest you think she’s just baring it all like a pathetic Facebook posting looking for a thousand likes and a hundred comments, she’s effectively using the storytelling technique, used often in Critical Race Theory (CRT), to explore the multiple dimensions of a problem or situation, here a woman of color in law school, and in a classroom, who also identifies as a Puerto Rican and is married to an African American.

Now I said her excerpt reminded me of the role model debate back in the day and “the box,” Let’s have a look.

About two years after I made tenure in 1994, a debate arose in academia regarding the question whether persons of color should willingly be “role models” for their communities. Richard Delgado, a leading voice in CRT, said “hell no!” Well, he didn’t actually say that… But he could have!

In any event, the debate meant a lot to me—and to most persons of color—because of the various roles I played as a Latino. When I graduated from Georgetown University Law Center I was recognized for my work with the Latino law student group there. At Arnold & Porter, a large D.C. law firm I joined after law school, I established a mentor program sponsored by the firm that matched Latino/a law students in the area’s law schools with local Latino/a lawyers. When I joined the faculty at the University of Iowa College of Law in 1990, I did so not only as a budding scholar in international finance but also as a person of color with a record of engagement in the Latino legal community.

I never thought of myself as a role model. I was kinda busy with a bunch of little things. Like getting through law school just after becoming a quadriplegic, surviving in a Big Law firm where sleep is a luxury, trying to write pre-tenure pieces that would change the world as we know it. That sort of thing. But had I thought about it, I would’ve said being a role model was pretty cool. If what I was doing could inspire just one student of color—who may happen to be in a wheelchair—to follow in my footsteps, right on. I’ll take that.

But Delgado wasn’t down with it. He gave a number of reasons for rejecting the idea, such as uplifting “your entire people” is “tough,” “sweaty work.” Sweaty? First, the idea of a sweaty prof is gross. Second, I don’t see a prof working up a sweat while he’s typing away in his office, unless he’s writing an article that’ll decide whether he’ll get tenure and thereafter be able to do nothing more than stare at his navel.

Is it tough to be a role model? Hell, yes! And I really said that.

Delgado gave other reasons: As a role model you’re treated as a means to an end, even by your own people, e.g., you’re expected to give rousing speeches and serve on panels.  On top of that, you’re expected to do everything that your white counterparts do. Lots of stress and exhaustion. But the most biting criticism was essentially that role models are “flunkies for the man.” Well, he didn’t actually that… But it has a nice ring to it!

Really, though, he said whites use the role model concept to justify and prop up “majoritarian social mores,” and perpetuate the lie of equal-opportunity, a lie if you look at the actual number of people of color that have made it in the white world.

You can see these themes in Kristymarie’s excerpt. Was she recruited to the College of Law to be a role model, or at least to be groomed as one? Hmmm… She felt like she was “the representative for all things minority.” She felt like she had the “responsibility to rescue the learning experience.” She became “a spokesperson, or a hypothetical, rather than an individual.”  The duties became a burden. Is that tough stuff? Hell, yes! I know Kristymarie. I’m sure she did say that. And a few other choice words. You’re such a potty mouth, Kristymarie. Shame, shame, shame!

Seriously, though, my recall of the debate about role models led me to think about “the box.” Can you guess what that is? If you’re a student of color, you’re all too familiar with it: the box on the law school application where you can choose to check off an identity, such as “Hispanic” or “African American.” But the box is much more than a space you can check. The subtext of the box is far more important. What “lies beneath” the box is the violently complex world of affirmative action. What lies beneath are questions of legitimacy that surround being a role model, especially if you don’t abide by the duties of the title.

And here’s the thing: It really doesn’t matter if you actually checked it. Because of its existence, if you’re a student of color you’ll always be asked, in words or even in a look, “Did you check the box?”

Here are points when the question typically comes up. First, if you did check that box, I can assure you that faculty members sitting on a admissions committee will look at your whole application to see if you’ve done something for your Latino/a community or you otherwise show your “Latino/a-ness.” If you did check the box, and there’s nothing in your file about the duties you should’ve fulfilled, then why did you check the box? Are you a legit Latino/a? Hmmm…

And then you get to law school. The Latino/a student group tries to find all of the Latino/a students. They track you down. They want you to participate in the group’s activities, from periodic meetings, to bake sales, to volunteering in nearby Latino/a communities. You don’t want to be in the group, either because, say, they take political positions you’re not comfortable with or, more likely, you’re freaked out by, and are having episodes of projectile vomiting because of, the crushing amount of school work. Some of the students in the group look at you, eyebrows raised. Did you check that box? Why aren’t you fulfilling your duties? Are you a legit Latino/a? Hmmm…

Then you find yourself in class. You’ve always been quiet in class. And consistently gotten the highest grades in your courses prior to law school. There’s no box on the application that says “loudmouth” or “future gunner,” a term coined by students referring to students who can’t wait to be called on and dominate class discussion, usually with incredibly useless things to say.

Every time the class covers a case involving minorities you’re expected to say something. You don’t. Some white students look at you. “C’mon, say something!” they say to themselves. “She must’ve checked the box to be here.” You’re not fulfilling your duties. Are you a legit Latino/a? Hmmm…

It might not even get that far. Are you a legit student at this law school? Should you be at a lower-ranked school? These questions become more intense as grades are posted. It gets around that students of color on average got lower grades than their white counterparts. A student of color finds a post-it in her carrel: “You don’t belong here.” Or an African American finds a banana in his school folder. (This actually happened at American University recently.) Never mind that there are credible reasons for the disparity that have nothing to do with intellect and academic prowess. Have a look at one of my posts regarding document review.

Back to the classroom, the prof looks at you and wonders why, as Kristymarie observes, you’re not fulfilling your duty of bringing diversity to the learning environment, a goal the Supreme Court says schools can take into account, but very carefully, when considering race in admissions.  Are you a legit Latino/a? Hmmm…

Or maybe you decide to be vocal, but not the gunner type. Do you become racialized and/or gendered, as Kristymarie suggests? Do other students of color look at you as a suck-up, a Tio Taco, the equivalent of an Uncle Tom? Is your sense of duty messed up? Are you a legit Latino/a? Hmmm…

Then you meet with a prof in her office to discuss careers. You tell her that you’re from a small town in Texas. She tells you how admirable and important it is to work for a non-profit back “in your community,” helping disadvantaged Latinos/as. You tell her you’re interested in corporate law and want to practice in New York. She looks at you with a mixture of confusion and disappointment. “When I was on the admissions committee two years ago and had to review an insane number of applications while trying to watch Game of Thrones and eat my kale salad with walnuts, mandarin oranges and a touch of honey mustard dressing, I only voted in favor of students of color who checked the box and had strong ties to the community,” she says to herself in a really long sentence that triggers a migraine. Where’s the duty to your community? Are you a legit Latino/a? Hmmm…

I’m going to stop here. It’s your duty to think about this stuff. It’s my duty to pause Game of Thrones now and work out at my gym. Get sweaty. Yeah, TMI. Deal with it!

If you want to chime in on this stuff, there’s a comment box for your use. We’ll continue this conversation in my next post about Kristymarie’s article.

On Being A Female Law student—and Puerto Rican #3 The Subtext of Ora Williams

“Raise Your Hand: A Burden and a Duty”

This excerpt from Kristymarie’s article addresses the complexities of race and gender in the academic world, especially the classroom. Before we get to it, I want to share with you the complexities from my  end, the prof facing his students in class.

It’s really tricky raising issues of race and gender (and class), especially when the course appears to be completely unrelated to those topics, such as Contracts, which I taught for twenty-four years. There are, in fact, many cases that deal with important concepts of contract law within compelling narratives of race and gender (and class).

For example, there’s a famous 1965 case, Williams v. Walker-Thomas Furniture Co., that teaches students the concept of “unconscionability.” Now before I talk about this case, let me preemptively tell law students (and profs) who might be reading this to take a chill pill. I’m writing this for lay readers. We’re not in class, and I’m not giving a faculty talk. Okay? So back off!!! Thanks so much! Smiley face: 🙂It fixes everything.

The idea behind unconscionability (I’ve always struggled to spell that) is that a court can decide a contract, or a provision of it, should be nullified because it’s outrageous. Here are some of the facts, the “text” of the case’s narrative: The year: 1962. The place: Washington, D.C. Ora Williams bought some furniture from Walker-Thomas. She signed an installment contract with an obscure and incomprehensible provision that in effect allowed the seller to repossess all of the furniture she bought from the seller over the years if she defaulted on a payment for the furniture at issue in the case.  Ora did default and sure enough the furniture company went after all of Ora’s furniture from the store.

The trial court sided with Walker-Thomas. Ora then appealed to the higher court. That court condemned what Walker-Thomas did but said it couldn’t find any law that would allow it to nullify the contract. Ora then appealed to the highest court in D.C. and it landed on the lap of Judge Skelly Wright, a judge well known for fighting on behalf of the poor and marginalized. He concluded that the D.C. courts did have the power to nullify contracts based on unconscionability. He told the trial court to look for facts that related to the concept so that a decision could be made either way on that basis.

There’s the text—that most students easily focus on. And wish that was it. But I didn’t stop there. I was going to lead them into the case’s “subtext.”

And the class discussion would become both extremely fascinating and extremely uncomfortable for the students.

Please, no!

Too late to drop the class now. It’s mandatory anyway. So don’t even think about bolting for the door.

Does the opinion describe Ms. Williams? The students appear to scour the casebook but they’re actually praying I won’t call on them or they’re silently cursing me out. Most likely both. Regardless, they don’t look up, fearing they’ll make eye contact with me, which might lead to being called on.

Little by little, I draw out more facts in the opinion that they glossed over and push them inexorably into the subtext:

  • She received a “monthly stipend from the government.” She was on welfare.
  • She had to support “both herself and seven children.” She was a single mother. With seven children. Seven.
  • What did she buy? A stereo set from Walker-Thomas Furniture Co. for $514 (which is just over $4000 today). What again was the furniture in question? A stereo set. How much? $514.
  • Did the second court say anything about the relationship between the buyer and the seller? The judge said the seller knew Ms. Williams was a single mother with seven children and on welfare. And yet it sold her a STEREO SET! A $514 stereo set! The judge said, “We cannot condemn too strongly [the seller’s] conduct.”
  • What does the opinion say about the racial identity of Ms. Williams? They scour and scour desperately but can’t find the passage about her race.
  • Because it’s not there. Why not?
  • Does the opinion say anything the racial make-up of D.C. at that time? They scour. No. It was predominantly black.
  • Does the opinion say anything about the neighborhood surrounding Walker-Thomas? They scour. No. It was poor and black.
  • Was Skelly Wright white? Probably. Yes.

From there I facilitated what was always a difficult discussion, focusing on whether we should take into account the complex subtext. Does justice require this? Or does doing so turn Ms. Williams into an incompetent, irresponsible black welfare queen? Do you think Skelly Wright took into account Ms. Williams’ race? If he did, was he a hero for it? Or was he essentially a benign white administrator of a black colony—District (not state) of Columbia? “If I don’t strongly suggest through my ruling that this type of contract is unconscionable, we might have a black revolt on our hands!”

Say what?

Pretty head-spinning, right? So stressful for the students that they feared going into spasms.

You ain’t seen the half of it. What if you’re a student of color—and female (and/or gay, lesbian, trans, bi or queer)?

Here’s Kristymarie:

“My experiences as a racialized and gendered candidate are not unique. However, my intersecting identities further exacerbate the performance anxiety inherent in a competitive educational environment such a law school. My experience is that racially aware (or charged) commentary during class discussions or during faculty interactions may influence future references or the faculty’s impressions of the candidate. It may also expose the racialized—or racialized and gendered—candidate’s view to scrutiny, from the faculty and fellow students, which is often heightened by the speaker’s otherness.

The racialized and/or gendered other may see class participation as either a burden or a duty. The distinction is subtle: a duty is something one proudly undertakes because one feels a sense of responsibility towards the task. A burden is something one has to do, regardless of how one may feel about the task.

Class Participation as a Burden

In 2014, the UCLA Law School had 1100 students. Of those students, thirty-three, or three percent, were black. Some of these students came together and created a video commentary with the purpose of increasing awareness about UCLA Law’s lack of diversity and the burden of feeling like representatives for their community. The video went viral. Disconcertingly, the students’ feelings are timeless.

Supreme Court Justice and former women’s rights activist Ruth Bader Ginsburg explained that, as one of nine women in the 1956 Harvard Law School first year class of 500, “you felt in class as if all eyes were on you and that if you didn’t perform well you would be failing, not only for yourself, but for all women.” The burden is compounded when the candidate is not only gendered, but also racialized.

Peggy McIntosh, feminist and anti-racism activist, reflected that as a white woman, she “can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting [her] race on trial.” In contrast, Adrien K. Wing, professor and international human rights scholar, reflected on her first year of law school in 1979 and explained that she dreaded participating in class because, “[i]f [she] were found wanting, it might be that the white males would think all people of [her] race or gender were lacking.” However, a white male classmate would not feel the same burden because “[i]f one of them failed to handle the grilling, it would just be regarded as his personal failure.” Fifty-six years after Justice Ginsburg and thirty-three years after Professor Wing did, I experienced the same apprehensions.

Stereotype threat is one of the main factors that turn class participation into a burden. Stereotype threat is the situational predicament in which a racialized candidate fears that their actions will confirm negative stereotypes about their social group. Class participation, to a racialized and gendered candidate, poses the threat of “contempt, censure, judgment, recognition, challenge, annihilation, visibility.”

Lack of participation, however, may be equally harmful. While women of color may use silence strategically, it may negatively affect the educational process. Angela Onwuachi-Willig explains the effects of silence from the academic perspective. The majority members may erroneously interpret silence as a confirmation of the stereotype that women of color do not have anything to contribute to the discussion. Thus racialized and/or gendered law students and law faculty similarly feel a pressure, or a duty, to participate.”