This week we welcome guest writer and 2L Stephanie Nweke, to talk about some of the best ideas for supporting your friends of color as a law student.
Discussions on race, diversity, and inclusion can make people feel really uncomfortable. As a female, first-generation, and African American law student, I’ve had experiences with people who have negative stereotypes and unconscious biases towards me.
The best way to respond accordingly to discrimination and prejudice is to address it upfront. The legal profession has generally been slow to change, especially regarding matters of diversity and inclusion. A misconception is that the responsibility to provide more diverse and inclusive spaces is only for law firms and companies. Law schools are part of the problem by not being intentional about cultivating these environments for students of color to feel secure and excel. Law schools must also prioritize recruiting a diverse pool of talent, so that the ultimate goal of delivering quality legal services is fulfilled.
Instead of pretending that students of color don’t face external struggles with law school and their legal career, here are some ways to champion your friends and classmates of color in the legal profession.
Attend Your School’s Events Hosted by Different Diversity Organizations
Not only do you get exposure to students who may be outside your usual circle of friends, but you learn something new about the issues that are important to students belonging to these organizations.
Your presence at these events gives you the opportunity to connect with diverse students and learn more about how the practice of law impacts various areas of society. Diversity events are usually safe spaces to ask questions you may otherwise feel uncomfortable asking. Students in diversity organizations could even be your future colleagues, clients, employers, or judges.
Don’t wait until you make partner at a firm to get involved in your community and build a book of business. Diverse organizations you can join include Black Law Students Association (BLSA), Hispanic Law Students Association (HLSA), Asian Law Students Association, (ALSA), OutLaw (LGBTQ+ Alliance), and Association of Women in the Law (AWIL).
Don’t Wait Until Black History Month to Acknowledge and Address the Black Experience
This tip goes for any milestone date for any diverse group of people. Personally speaking, I think a major challenge for non-minority law students and legal professionals is coming to terms with the fact that Black history and the institution of slavery is deeply embedded in US history. To dismiss, overlook, downplay, or withdraw from this reality is to tell your black colleague that her experiences are insignificant and irrelevant.
This is why it’s not enough to speak about how many black friends you may have or only participate in diverse events during the month of February. I’m not saying wearing a Malcom X graphic tee is the solution. We need to do a better job of understanding the reality of the institution of racism. You can no longer ignore how racism has created prejudice in the legal profession and limited access to justice.
From Women’s Month in March to Hispanic Heritage Month in September, we should acknowledge the challenges minorities have faced and celebrate their strides throughout history.
Share Opportunities with your Friends and Invite them to Events
Networking opportunities are key to establishing a good foundation for a successful legal career. And sometimes, it’s not what you know, but who you know, especially in the close-knit legal community.
Anytime I get word of a great opportunity, I always pass it along to my friends who would be eligible and benefit from participating–even if I plan on applying as well. This is an important habit to develop. Serving others is the foundational block for a successful career in any space.
Service isn’t about being the saving grace. It’s about helping others to accomplish the goals they seek to align themselves with. The best lawyers are great listeners and communicators to their clients and colleagues. They are opportunistic–not just for themselves–but for the people they surround themselves with.
Always ask yourself, “Am I the only person who could benefit from this?” Successful lawyers are not self-made. They will tell you that their success is the combination of hard work, collaboration, mentorship, and sponsorship. You should have the same mindset towards your diverse friends in law school. Their knowledge base and personal experiences can create ideas that you may never be privy to.
Don’t Touch Our Hair
You’d be surprised at the type of comments people make about my hair or the questions they ask me about it. I thought I left that phase behind in middle school, but I still deal with it today. Asking something like “Can I touch your hair?” or saying “I like the pirate hat on your head” (if I’m wearing a headscarf) is a microaggression. Microaggressions can be disrespectful and inconsiderate because they usually stem from underlying negative assumptions you make about a person.
Asking to touch my hair is implying that my hair is so “exotic” that it must be unnatural and inhumane. Everyone has hair and everyone’s hair looks different. You should exercise a degree of sensitivity and think about how your comments about someone’s physical characteristics may be interpreted by another person.
Ultimately, I’m talking about not making assumptions. Tall and lean black men who are students are commonly asked if they play basketball. This question stems from the assumption that a tall black male student is only in school for sports. It’s the assumption that this man would have nothing else to offer the world around him but profit, entertainment, and fun.
Making assumptions about people of color is dangerous because you rob the person of the opportunity to demonstrate who they are and the value they add to the world. It can also lead to implicit biases that negatively affect the ways you deal with people of color, even if it seems harmless.
Although I don’t speak for every student of color, this post is a reminder that racism and prejudice are real, and we should talk about it. Our society is evolving. It’s not enough to be a bystander. Understanding the role of race, diversity, and inclusion in the law is important to be an effective lawyer. As law students and legal professionals, I believe we can, and we must learn how to be sensitive to these issues. We can be the change we wish to see.