Being Proximate and Uncomfortable in my Own Law School

Last month I wrote about choosing to make myself more proximate to and uncomfortable with injustice and its effects on the people and institutions I care  about.  That began for me by listening and observing and believing: Students, staff, faculty of color have been suffering at my law school — and I daresay at all majority white law schools — for years, decades, centuries.

[“Oh really? And you’re just now getting around to feeling like you need to do something about it?” Yes, I hear that voice too, and sometimes allow myself the luxury of white guilt, which I also call the shame slide.  But I don’t let myself stay there for very long, because white guilt and shame do less than nothing to address the terrible terrible problem my, and every other, majority white institution in America has with race.  So we can analyze my particular flavor of that guilt and shame at another time, in another place. For now, suffice to say my power and race goggles are on and I’m ready to get to work.]

At first, I thought being more proximate in my community meant infusing my teaching and writing with questions and projects that bring racism and white supremacy to the forefront.  Even using the term “white supremacy” seems a bit radical and risky.  And that is what I have been doing:  in Estates & Trusts and Trial Advocacy and Appellate Advocacy and Critical Lawyering and long paper and externship supervision.  Sometimes it is heavy-handed and awkward, increasingly, though, it feels not only natural but necessary.  If we aren’t, after all, raising issues about societal structures and how they became that way, what are we teaching our law students? What kind of lawyer will any of them be if they have never considered the role race and power play in our society?

In addition to my teaching, I joined our Directors of HR (white) and Equity and Diversity (African American) and the Diversity Working Group (mixed) in planning and conducting a series of “Tough Conversations” for faculty and staff, designed to lead toward a more welcoming and inclusive atmosphere at the law school.  Specifically, I acted as facilitator for parts of these sessions.

Familiar at first — standing up in front of adult professionals who are not there because they want to be is what I do for a living — this role pushed me more proximate to the injustice we are grappling with at the law school.  These weren’t, after all, law students paying me to lecture them; nor were they law professors choosing to come to a presentation or workshop facilitated by me.  These were colleagues: folks with whom I teach and serve on committees; who sign my checks and administer programs I am part of; my hall neighbors and tea drinking companions; my work family; my friends.  Who am I to lecture them, question them, challenge them? What makes me more expert in these issues than any of them? And indeed, the first session ended, I kid you not, in a shouting match between me (as facilitator) and a faculty member who challenged my “authority.”

I realized that working toward justice meant doing something different from what I am already doing.  While infusing my teaching with even more critical theory and practice, and expanding my involvement in institutional programs that address power inequality feels productive (better than just allowing myself to whoosh down the shame slide and do nothing), it does not feel significantly different.  Like when you know how much exercise you should get if you want to gain muscle and you think to yourself, “well, I am already doing basically all that so I guess I don’t need to do anything.” But you’re not gaining muscle doing “basically all that.” If you want to see different results, you need to take different action. (Isn’t one of the definitions of insanity continuing to do the same thing and expecting a different outcome?)

So what, for me, would something different look like? I checked back in with Bryan Stevenson and remembered the fourth prong of working for justice:  not being afraid to be uncomfortable.  Right! In my last post, I recognized that changing narratives and keeping our hope are two tools of working toward justice that I use often and with relative ease.  Doing something different would mean being more proximate — which I have described above — and more uncomfortable.

My comfort zone in public action or speaking extends no farther into my emotional life than talking about being a lesbian and/or a mom.  Sometimes I will reflect publicly about being an introvert, a jew, a New Yorker, a snob.  But those are well cabin-ed “revelations” designed — consciously or not — to create intimacy between myself and my audience.  Pushing myself outside of that comfort zone would involve revelations about my own privilege, racism, class-ism, etc, narratives much less familiar and practiced for me.  Now that would be something different.

Another thing that would be different would be to work on being quiet.  My personal struggle with race is not the point.  I am here to listen, observe, believe and amplify the struggles of those who are suffering.  My role can only ever be that of facilitator and messenger.  And that is a role I am quite comfortable with.  In order for it to be meaningful, though, I have to have skin in the game — yes, I meant to use that word. I have to be invested in the outcome as much as any of my black and brown and native colleagues and friends.  That means I have to engage emotionally and publicly in the project with authenticity and without ego.

Frankly, I have no idea what that kind of authenticity looks like in a professional and public setting.  But I think it starts with being honest about why I am doing this work at all.  At a Diversity and Equity working group meeting a couple of weeks ago, we were all asked to answer the following questions:

What is your personal goal? How will you know if you achieved? Do you have a goal as it pertains to your sphere of influence?

Here is what I wrote:

  • My personal goal is to act as a disruptor of racism whenever possible – naming it, challenging it, acknowledging my own.
  • For me, that means engaging with students and staff and faculty (and other people) of color in authentic conversations, with humility and honesty. I will judge my progress toward achieving my personal goal by assessing how uncomfortable I am, and how authentic the interactions feel.
  • My sphere of influence is my students, colleagues (broadly defined) and personal community.  My goal here is to engage in authentic conversations about race and racism, also with humility and honesty; with an eye toward collective and individual change within those spheres.

Those are this month’s marching orders.  It is still not clear to me what exactly this looks or feels like in practice.  So far, I feel awake — and also various combinations of overwhelmed, in despair and energized.  We are on a long painful march whose destination cannot be known.  And all we can do is keep walking, with humility and attention.


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