Ashley Mitchell

This Bridge, This Back, This Baggage: Questions Presented

On more than one occasion, my father said, “if you have tunnel vision about reaching your goals, you won’t notice that people notice your race.” Yet in the study and the practice of law, to willingly ignore your otherness is a challenge. Success in the field is largely relative: law review membership, partnerships, fellowships, so on and so forth are as much about who achieves such positions as it is about who has not yet (or will never) achieve them. Rabid competition is the game, no matter how collegial your classmates are. Because exclusivity is an essential characteristic of this game, the concept of otherness naturally becomes a factor in the race to achievement for everyone and in every practice. Proof: An ABA-commissioned study on the challenges facing women of color in the legal profession.

In case I did not get the original memo about my otherness, law school put me on notice: you are a Woman. Of Color.

Not to be mistaken, I have never been naïve about my personal identity. Quite frankly, I have always felt empowered by it.

My mom loves telling this story, and to be honest, I like it too:

Busting through the door and to the back of the house, I could not wait to relate to my mother an epiphany that had occurred to me at school. I was absolutely fascinated by another student in my class. Throughout the school day, she would constantly tie up her hair in a ponytail, and then take it down again, only to redo it again in the same exact manner. I was fascinated because my hair was managed differently; it was tied up with clips and braids so as not to be removed for the day, so there was no taking down and tying up of ponytails for me. But I admired her freedom to do so. I looked around and noticed other girls were playing with their hair too… with their cool scrunchies! Then, it happened: I also started noticing the other ways in which I was different. I then started thinking about the why. And bingo, Watson! The epiphany. I proudly announced to my mother that I was the only person in my class with brown skin, that God gave me my brown skin for a reason, and that since such few people had brown skin, the reason was that, quite naturally, I was meant to be special and to stand out. Yep, that was it.

Replaying the memory is like watching a movie from a different era. I was eight, and it was pure brilliance, I say.

Feelings of disempowerment that sprung from my identity did not happen upon me until other people started drawing attention to my differences:

An elementary school teacher taking down and forcing me to redo the traced and cutout silhouette of only my face, which everyone had to make, because the size and shape of my lips made it look like I was kissing someone. That’s strange because this didn’t embarrass me then, but it certainly does now that I have to redo the project, making a concerted effort at tucking in my lips. And also, it’s my face.

Or exposing their prejudices:

A fellow student reporting to you that his parents told him that people like you were born in toilets. Well, that’s uncomfortable because you and your parents live about five houses down the street. Awesome!

Or when you get older, and it transforms into something that is not hateful, but your spirit is deflated just the same:

You are so articulate. And poised, says an interviewer. Pause the world and clarify! Articulate and poised as compared to my diverse peers or as based on whom I am because I’m not sure how to process this?

As complimentary as it may appear to the speaker, as to say, “you’re impressive!” it’s nonetheless soul-crushingly awkward for the woman of color. Understandably, this may be an understatement for some. And others may, obviously, disagree altogether. 

In any case, however, how does one respond to such a loaded statement? I still have yet to figure it out. But here are some options. You can respond with:

(A) Appreciation. Simply say thank you and rush the moment along. Feel the weight of the guilt – in not having an educational moment with the interviewer by stopping to mention the sociological implications of the statement – later.

(B)  Sarcasm. Respond, “thanks because my original idea was to throw my feet on your desk and rap about my credentials over some scratched records. Career Services told us to leave an impression, and I thought, hmmm, that’ll do it.”

(C)  Shock or Confusion. Blank stares. Maybe some nervous twiddling of the thumbs. Definitely some silence. Deafening silence.

(D) Agreement. Reply, “Why yes, yes I am. That’s exactly what I was going for,” while hoping that the interviewer’s statement meant that you were more remarkable than all of your peers.

Alas, none of these responses are appropriate, and most unfortunately, I'm not the Fresh Prince. See (B).

Yet despite any insecurity that I might have faced as a result of my experiences, I believed that education was the great equalizer. I would tell myself, “Aha! At least I’m smart. Nothing can take that away.”

So, as life goes, it got taken away. The year 2010 took it away. But I’m faithfully looking for it because I am certain that it is still here, around here, somewhere. In the meantime, 2010 brought to me this new law school environment that sent my inner stability haywire.

Open debate happened often, and every debate was like a sumo-wrestling match: who could throw their weight around better?

I would only enter a debate if it were on a day that my heart could bear it. Class-wide conversations overwhelmed me by setting off a firestorm of questions about how to proceed that had nothing to do with the law but remarkably resembled how to approach law school exams:

  • How loudly should I speak? Not too loudly, then you’ll live up to your stereotype; not too softly, then you’ll live up to your stereotype.
  • Is my opinion too strong? Don’t want to make it too strong. You can’t show that you take things personally. Women can be so sensitive. On the other hand, didn’t I come to law school precisely because I take these things personally? And dang it – I am sensitive. I was raised by a Pisces!
  • Should I speak at all? It depends. Is the topic about race? Then no. You don’t speak for an entire race. But perhaps yes. You should probably speak up for your entire race. Is it about sex and gender? No. There are more feministing types in the room; they’ll handle it. On the other hand, yes. You know? Because of that whole intersectionality thing; you should probably speak up for the entirety of women of your race. 
  • Do you have the right answers? Above all, you have to have the right answers. On behalf of your race. For all womankind!
  • Better yet, just keep all opinions to yourself. It’s for the best. Or is it?

That is how the questions were presented in my mind. It was exhausting. As a result, I spent a lot of time in law school, literally, sitting on my hands. I wonder if my classmates ever noticed?

I wish that I would have been reminded of that epiphany, depicted above, and the immediate aftermath of it; how it transformed the manner in which I thought about myself. My mother’s response was typical of a busy, I’m-only-kind-of-listening-to-you, mother type. She gave me the legendary yet dismissive: “Uh-huh.”

But in my newfound special-ness, I needed no affirmation anyway. In my Kanye West voice: “You couldn’t tell me nothin’!” Whatever it is - her feelings, her opinions, her experiences - that girl would have told this woman to own it.  She was always so much smarter than me. And braver too.

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