Lawyers: Let’s Talk About Race in America

In her best-selling novel, Americanah, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie relates a story about two Nigerian immigrants shopping in America. Her characters, Ginika and Ifemelu, go into a store to buy a dress. There are two sales clerks in the store, a black woman and a white woman. The white woman helps them find the dress. As they check out, the cashier asks Ginika which of the clerks helped them. Ginika doesn’t see either woman on the floor and she doesn’t know either of their names. Here’s what follows:

“Was it the one with long hair?” the cashier asked.

“Well, both of them had long hair.”

“The one with the dark hair?”

Both of them had dark hair.

Ginika smiled and looked at the cashier and the cashier smiled and looked at her computer screen, and two damp seconds crawled past before she cheerfully said, “It’s okay. I’ll figure it out later and makes sure she gets her commission.”

As they walked out of the store Ifemelu said, “I was waiting for her to ask, “Was it the one with two eyes or the one with two legs?’ Why didn’t she just ask if it was the white girl or the black girl?”

Ginika laughed. “Because this is America. You’re supposed to pretend you don’t notice certain things.”

talk about race

Race in America

For about five minutes on the night of November 4, 2008, America was a post-racial society. As the past year has made abundantly clear, America’s long struggle with race is far from post. And yet, many of us, lawyers included, prefer to treat race like that cashier in Americanah: talking around it, about it, near it, above and below it, but choosing not to directly engage in it. The store clerk could simply have asked, “Was the person who helped you black or white?” But since the words “black” and “white” are so charged in American mindsets, and asking if someone is “black” or “white” is fraught with perceived peril, we often do the same dance that the store clerk did – we talk about race without actually talking about race.

The reality has long been that Americans find it difficult to talk about race. Professor Derald Wing Sue of Columbia identifies several reasons why. They include (1) “the politeness protocol” – to preserve harmonious, interpersonal relationships, certain topics are taboo so we tiptoe around them in order not to offend others, and (2) “the colorblind protocol” – if you see color, it may indicate that you are racist and biased. What’s the result? “[People] pretend they don’t see color … When they talk about race topics, they stutter, they stammer, they tiptoe around them. They become very ambiguous about what they are saying.” That in a nutshell is what faced the store clerk in Americanah.

However, we aren’t blind to race even when we think we are or should be. We engage in microaggressions or implicit bias or simply stumble around when topics of race come up. Moreover our attempts to talk around the issue might leave others puzzled at best or angry at worst.

Unfortunately our tendency to talk around race in this country extends to the law as well. Legal organizations have done an admirable job increasing diversity training and awareness over the past two decades. And yet, either due to lack of resources or a fear of offense, much diversity awareness cannot get to the heart of racial issues.

Law Firms And Race

In her “predictions” for law firms in 2015, writer Vivia Chen poked fun at law firms’ approach to diversity:

Firms will make a big fuss about diversity. They’ll book Oprah for Black History Month; import sword dancers from Beijing for Asian- American Heritage Month; tap Jennifer Lopez to sing at Hispanic Heritage Month. Just don’t ask them how many diverse lawyers they’ll promote to partnership.

Joking, yes, but that too often is how diversity awareness goes. We pay lip service to it. Or we worry about making people feel too uncomfortable. Or, we just talk around the issue. Yes, talking about race can go wrong. But sometimes, talking about it can go right as well.

Here’s one example. Last week, the Black Women Lawyers Association of Greater Chicago (BWLA) held its 2015 National Summit in downtown Chicago. Titled Answering the Call (Part II): Owning Our Destiny, the Summit featured a wide array of men and women speakers focused on how black women lawyers could advance in their careers and, in fact, own their own destinies.

In a professional organization, the best way to move up is to find both a mentor and a sponsor. Need advice on how the firm operates, what projects will lead to greater career growth, who the good partners are to work for? Find a mentor. Want to know how to balance work-life, when to take parental leave, and which schools and neighborhoods are the best fit for you as a new attorney? A mentor is the one for you. To use a fire analogy, a mentor is a fireplace, a guiding comfort to help you find your way.

A sponsor, on the other hand, is a raging five-alarm inferno willing to blaze down a path for you to succeed. A sponsor isn’t grooming you to become the best; a sponsor only takes on the best. A sponsor will use their connections, both inside and outside the firm, for you to get ahead. They will defend you in meetings. They will challenge negative reviews. They will put you on plum assignments. For a sponsor, you are no longer a rookie learning the game. You are now a seasoned professional ready for the big leagues. Your sponsor is the one who takes you there.

Back to black women lawyers. In her book, Sponsoring Women, mentoring expert Ida Abbot explains succinctly why sponsorship is a problem for women of color:

White professionals are 63 percent more likely to have sponsors than professionals of color … Many women of color come from and have been shaped by vastly different economic, social, immigrant and cultural circumstances than the majority of people with whom they work … [they] need not prove just their ability and career commitment as women but must also overcome coworkers’, supervisors’ and clients’ negative assumptions and biases based on their race or ethnicity . . . They may be celebrated publicly for recruiting or business development purposes as evidence of the firm’s diversity but passed over internally for important projects or promotions.

If you’re a managing partner and you want to understand generally why black women aren’t advancing in the law firm the answer can’t just be found in why women generally aren’t advancing in the law firm. The discussion has to start with race – why are black women not advancing in the law firm. One answer: they often lack white, male sponsors. It isn’t the end of the story, of course, but it’s a start. And it’s only a start if we lay all our “race cards” on the table.

So lawyers, let’s lay our race cards on the table. Let’s talk about race in America. Our larger society is doing so. #blacklivesmatter. Law schools are doing so – UCLA most famously. Heck, even Starbucks tried to do so. There’s a national conversation about race going on ready and waiting for all of us to join in. Will talking about race make us uncomfortable? Very likely. But as one black woman lawyer said, “You’ll feel uncomfortable for five minutes. Then you’ll finally know how I feel every day of my life.”

Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

Former Diversity & Education Director at Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism

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Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

Former Diversity & Education Director at Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism

5 thoughts on “Lawyers: Let’s Talk About Race in America

  1. Very much appreciate your comments. I am a white senior partner of a Chicago law firm and the mentor and sponsor of a wonderful, talented African American attorney in my office.

    1. Thanks Bob for your hard work with mentoring, and sponsorship. Mentors are the lifeblood of our profession and we are always very happy to celebrate successful partnerships.

  2. I personal opinion is that racial issues will continue for many years to come as long as “We The People” does not take seriously the theme and start focusing it as a fundamental part of human dignity and fundamental right. I am Puerto Rican, and even some people argue that we the Latinos consider ourselves as “one race” that is not true. For bad or good I am a Latino dark skin, “a pure negro”; and even it could sound ridiculous I have faced racial issues in my own land. The reason just my skin color. I remember when I fill out my application to be consider for admission in the Illinois Bar there was not an item to check that include Latino or Hispanic, the closer one to my reality was Afro-American, and I am not Afro-American, so did not have other choice to described myself as “white”…I am not Caucasian, I am not white either. I just fell in the middle of no where.

    1. Efrain, I hear what you’re saying. My own children are bi-racial and I often have the same dilemma as you. There is much work to be done in the area of diversity and sometimes it does seem overwhelming, but I’m always hopeful that we will continue making progress forward.

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