Me as a new lawyer just sworn in at the Connecticut Supreme Court in 2016.
Yes, But Am I a Lawyer First?
I am a lawyer. I am also Black and female. Although my identity is made up of many things, those are the first three things that come to mind. What I find interesting is “lawyer” was only added to my identity two years ago. That means 27 out of my 29 years on this earth I have NOT been a lawyer. That said, it is clear to me that being a lawyer is a big part of who I am as a person. It was not until recently that I realized the reason why my identity as a lawyer is so important to me.
White Fragility At Its Best
This past weekend I spent the better part of my Saturday in a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (“DEI”) training. As someone who is Black and female, I have been to many DEI training sessions. The sessions can be beneficial for everyone, regardless of your race, sex, gender, or any other trait or characteristic. However, you have to be open to listening and learning to benefit from them.
In this session there were a fair amount of lawyers. Most of them were White and male, but not all. At one point we were asked to break into groups to start an activity. Before that, one of the White male lawyers raises his hand to speak. I was dumbfounded by the cacophony of words he uttered to the effect of “. . . my ancestors did not own slaves and had nothing to do with slavery.. . .” I remained quiet and resisted the urge to scream and storm out of the room. But the damage of what he said was already done. White fragility at its best.
For those who do not know, White Fragility is a title of an article written by Robin DiAngelo. DiAngelo, in part, defines white fragility as:
“a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. “
If you have not read it, you can read it here. The sad part is, White Fragility was something we were supposed to read in preparation for the training. “Negative Nate” clearly did not do the reading. “Negative Nate” was not there to listen and learn.
Why Is Being a Lawyer So Important to Me?
I learned at a young age that my identity was something that I could choose. Just because I was born Black or born female did not necessarily mean that I identified with those traits. In my case I do. That said, I could not choose my race as “Black” or my sex as “female” when I was born. However, I did choose to add “lawyer” to my identity. Why?
Later on at the same DEI training session, we were asked to write down four traits we identified with. My first three traits were “Black,” “female,” and “lawyer.” That is when it dawned on me. I was choosing to identify as a lawyer because I did not feel like being a Black female was “enough.” The value of being Black and female was not as much as the value of being a lawyer.
That Moment When…
. . . you realize your worth in the society that surrounds you. Obviously I do not consider myself worthless, but the realization was thought provoking. I have so many moments that just solidify how little value I actually have in the eyes of others.
Like that moment when . . .
. . . I showed up for a deposition and got completely ignored by opposing counsel who refused to introduce himself to me or shake my hand.
. . . I showed up for a deposition when there was already a court reporter present and the first thing opposing counsel says to me is “I guess there was a mistake and they sent two court reporters.”
. . . I sent an email to an expert witness with my name signed “Esq.” and yet, when I introduced myself to him in person mentioning I was the one who emailed him, he assumed I was the partner’s assistant.
These are just a few stories. I know I am not the only one. I also admit that I cannot say for sure these instances happened because of my identity as a Black female. What I do know is these instances would not have happened if the other person knew my identity as a lawyer. That is a problem. But that is the world I live in.
Being a Black female lawyer is hard, but I am appreciative that I have the opportunity.