NALP Bulletin, September 2020
By Alison Ashe-Card, Molly Stafford, and Nicole Netkin-Collins
Much work remains before the legal profession is diverse, equitable, and inclusive. Individually and as members of our law schools and firms, we all have a role to play in achieving these goals. While there are numerous approaches, we each must acknowledge and work to dismantle the system of racism and white supremacy that prevents the profession from realizing its ideals.
This work needs to occur at the personal and institutional levels. Sound like a tall order? It is! As anti-racism educator and author Layla Saad notes, "it is important to understand that this is deep, raw, challenging, personal, heartbreaking, and heart-expanding work…[but] if we are all committed to doing the work that is ours to do, we have a chance of creating a world and way of living that are closer to what we all desire for ourselves and one another."
This will be the first in a three-part series of articles addressing the need to dismantle white supremacy and systemic racism in the legal profession, both on a personal and an institutional level. We start in this article with a conversation about what "doing the work" on an individual level means. Our next article will dive deeper into the costs of not doing the work, particularly with regard to the impact on BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) law students and lawyers.
Laying the Foundation: Definitions
White supremacy is defined by Layla Saad as an ideology based upon the belief that white people are superior to people of other races. It is not merely an attitude; white supremacy extends to how systems and institutions are structured to uphold white normality, and thus, dominance.
For example, a dress code that excludes curly hair or beards is a manifestation of white supremacy that prioritizes white norms of "professionalism." White supremacy is a belief that may be held proudly (KKK members) but often is unconscious (many of us), making it even more insidious. White supremacy thrives on its invisibility to white people, who reap its benefits regardless of intention at the expense of BIPOC individuals.
If you're white — like two of the authors of this article — it might be uncomfortable to acknowledge white supremacy within ourselves and institutions. It may be tempting to get stuck in feelings of guilt, shame, and defensiveness. This is white fragility, a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.
As a Black woman, attorney, and the equal employment opportunity officer at a law firm, Jodi M. Savage writes that she has learned over the years that "…most white folks don't like to hear Black people's view about anti-Blackness and racism because it makes them uncomfortable and requires a level of self-awareness beyond merely saying, 'I am not a racist.'" This resistance does nothing to create a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive legal profession.
Racism, by definition, is discrimination plus power. So, while it may be redundant to say "systemic racism," doing so is an important reminder that when we're talking about racism, we're referring to a large-scale, institutional-level problem.
Doing the Work
While we cannot read ourselves out of racism, it is vital to this work. Self-reflection must be a process that is concurrent with the external work of dismantling structural white supremacy, which we start addressing later in this article, and will discuss in more depth in the final article of this series.
According to the National Museum of African American History & Culture, being antiracist "is different for white people than it is for people of color. For white people, being antiracist evolves with their racial identity development. They must acknowledge and understand their privilege, work to change their internalized racism, and interrupt racism when they see it. For people of color, it means recognizing how race and racism have been internalized, and whether it has been applied to other people of color."
The self-reflection process can include the following:
As Ibram X. Kendi noted, "No one becomes 'not racist,' despite a tendency by Americans to identify themselves that way. We can only strive to be 'antiracist' on a daily basis, to continually rededicate ourselves to the lifelong task of overcoming our country's racist heritage." The above suggestions can support your dedication — or rededication — to this crucial work.
Find Your Lane
Though many people want to jump to action sooner rather than later, action without beginning a robust self-education and self-reflection practice can unexpectedly reproduce the very power and privilege dynamics we seek to interrupt. These processes are intended to enable you to understand the context of your own actions and of the broader history of racism and white supremacy. The next step after educating yourself is to not stay silent about racial injustice. Your silence is consent. As Martin Luther King, Jr. noted, "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."
The final step is to engage in action. This can be the hardest part for individuals new to racial justice work; however, there is a place for everyone. Consider the following actions:
No Finish Line
Be accountable and embrace the discomfort. Continue to listen and learn. Anti-racism is life-long work for all of us; there is no finish line. As John Lewis said: "Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble."
About the Authors:
Alison Ashe-Card ([email protected]) is the Associate Director, Diversity & Inclusion in the Office of Career and Professional Development at Wake Forest University School of Law. Molly Stafford ([email protected]) is the Assistant Dean of Career Development & External Relations at the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law. Nicole Netkin-Collins ([email protected]) is the Director for Law Firms at the University of Colorado Law School. This three-part article series is submitted on behalf of the NALP Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Section.