If you’ve been around me for roughly five minutes, you likely know that I’m pretty addicted to liveblogging. Make that ten minutes and I’ll probably start trying to talk to you about systemic inequality – particularly focusing on issues surrounding race and gender. #socialjustice. Thus there was an approximately 100% chance that I would update my Tumblr live from the dinner table at last week’s Paul Robeson Gala. I had expected to get inspired by some speakers (I did), celebrate BLSA’s accomplishments for the year (I did that too), and have a glass or three of wine (definitely did that). But those weren’t the things that made the blog. My concern lay instead with the glaring reality that I was sitting in this beautiful building that people who look like me couldn’t enter until very recently. Except maybe to clean it. As I looked around excitedly at the architecture and thought about how lucky I was to be there – at Columbia generally and at the Gala celebrating civil rights specifically – I couldn’t help but think about the risk of getting too caught up in the glamour of Low Library, and then failing to recognize how much work we still have to do.
And I’m not just talking about the work we need on the national, state, or city levels. (Those are givens. Voting rights, school to prison pipeline, stop and frisk? I’m looking at you.) I’m talking about right here at Columbia. Don’t get me wrong, I love Columbia Law School. But that’s why I want us as a community to do better, because sometimes y’all got a girl feeling like Drake in Worst Behavior.
By now, I think (or at least I hope) that many of us are familiar with the Three Percent video made by students at UCLA Law. The short video expounded upon their experiences as a severely underrepresented minority group, and the subtle discrimination they faced. That subtle discrimination very quickly became explicit upon the video’s release. In the aftermath of what can gently be described as the UCLA shitshow, most (not all) of the Columbia students I spoke to about it were rightfully outraged, and some of us probably shared my feeling of thankfulness for the community provided by BLSA, LALSA, and other such affinity groups. Among CLS students of color, there was also a great deal of empathy for students at Harvard, and the I Too Am Harvard campaign, which addresses the pervasive questioning and devaluing of Black experiences and the mere presence of Black students. It would be too easy, however, and a disservice to all of us to be only casually aware (or worse, not aware at all!) of what’s happening at UCLA and at Harvard. I don’t think we should take this moment to insulate ourselves from the realities of minority experiences here at Columbia.
Columbia is not an ideal, diverse utopia filled with liberal, race-conscious social justice folk. We are not free from micro-aggressions against minoirites. Hell, we are not free from macro-aggressions. We are not free from feelings of frustration, isolation, or the fear that we may not be truly welcome. I remember attending a lunch talk about hate speech and someone asking, “To what extent is the truth of the claim a defense to hate speech allegations?” I became instantly horrified about what kinds of things he thought were true across the board about ethnic groups. I remember seeing red when a friend expressed her joy at a pal of hers getting accepted into Stanford Law, and another student replied “Of course she got in; she’s Black.” Did he think that’s how I got in here too? I remember some friends dropping the n-bomb in front me and otherwise accessorizing with Blackness. At the time, I was incapable of responding because I was so shocked, and almost blamed myself because I wondered if I had done something that made them think that was acceptable behavior. I remember doing my best to politely explain to another student why something he said was racially insensitive, and being told that I was in fact too sensitive, and that people who take racially-charged statements personally are precisely the problem with today’s society.
Being called too sensitive might be the worst micro-aggression of them all. Because the person who says that somehow believes that s/he is more objective, and that the recipients of such statements are overreacting. It’s called gaslighting, and it empowers purposeful and “accidental” racists alike (and sexists, etc.) by letting them convince everyone, including victims themselves, that the person or group that is being victimized is just touchy, over-sensitive, even crazy. But perhaps they’re the ones who are not sensitive enough. When one claims objectiveness, minimizes peoples’ experiences and calls others sensitive, what one really says is “Know your place. You could have it a lot worse, so be grateful that it’s even this good. My privilege is more important than your personhood.”
But I do know my place. It’s right here.
All of our places are right here and we need to be cognizant of the real and daily effects of race, and how race interacts with the law and the legal profession, with gender, with class, with sexual orientation, and so forth. There’s a saying that’s been making the rounds on Tumblr: “My feminism shall be intersectional or it shall be bullshit.” The same applies to my legal education.
I want a wider community where we can openly discuss race and law. I want more people in the seats at the Paul Robeson Conference in addition to the Gala. I want to not have that moment where race and gender comes up in class and I look around and realize I’m the only Black woman there and just think
I don’t want my views to be held as representative of the race, or to be branded as the opinionated sassy Black chick when I speak up in class, although I will concede that yes, I am sassy, Black, and female, and I often think I’m right. Still, I’m not here to present The Book of Black People: The Gospel According to Madiba when the issue of race comes up in class. I want to be able to express my opinion as informed by my race and my gender without being stripped of other facets of my identity and relegated to the Black Girl View, and without being presumed to speak for the non-existent Black Hive Mind. I want more students of color. I want more faculty of color. I repeat, I WANT MORE FACULTY OF COLOR. While I adore the both of them, I don’t want CLS to have to trot out Ted Shaw and Olati Johnson every time we want to show off our diversity. I want at least one of the candidates for Dean to be a person of color – I don’t think I’m asking for much here – and I want him or her to understand why diversity is so critical to our education. I want race to be better integrated (ha) into the curriculum. I don’t just want more. I need more.
I need more, and we need more, because it is impossible to do justice through law without thinking about all of the spaces of injustice which surround us. This starts at home. As students at Columbia Law School, we are in a very unique position. And, it’s important to note, this privilege we’ve been granted stems in large part from the history and legacy of a country built literally on the backs of people of color – a country that has long explicitly and implicitly supported the racial injustice that it is our duty to address. We’re some of the best and brightest, and soon, some of us will be rewarded with power and influence. We’re going to have the opportunity to make lots of important decisions and lots of money. These decisions will impact communities of color. You will be working with people of color. You are presumably friends with some people of color. And it makes me a little sad, if not a lot scared, to think that we could be sending the leaders of the tomorrow off into society without them having ever thought critically about race. Because that critical thought is something our school, our city, our state, and our country desperately need. It is necessary for us to examine race and law in order to dismantle rather than perpetuate power imbalances and harm done to marginalized groups in society.
Columbia’s a good place to start.