Law in Contemporary Society

Achievement vs. Acceptance

-- By GabrielleStanfield - 11 Mar 2022


My professional experiences have been profoundly impacted by my experience as the only Black woman, let alone Black person in the room. While I have dedicated significant energy to navigating the discomfort of under-representation, I am cognizant of the fact that the reality of bias within the legal space is one that I cannot avoid.

My thought process thus far has centered on assimilation — lessons in etiquette and mastery of the skill of professionalism, all whilst stacking my resume with names and experiences to set me on the path to acceptance into top academic and professional opportunities. I felt the need to not only gain entrance but also to excel — working “twice as hard” as my white counterparts in order to combat the presumption of inadequacy that existed as a result of my identity. Occupying this space as the “only”, I suppressed the temptation of imposter syndrome, masking my discomfort as motivation to resist complacency and achieve to the extent that my work product was beyond any critique of laziness or unpreparedness. I was fearful of mistakes which meant that I was hesitant to take risks and sparing with my questions. Instead, I studied the tendencies and practices of those around me to avoid standing out.

Persistent microaggressions, however, provided stark reminders of the fact that assumptions based on my identity would precede any opportunity that I would have to convey my qualifications. Colleagues invested less time in their interactions with me, barely extending the minimum courtesy of remembering my name, and excluding me in seemingly unconscious but repeated incidents that revealed bias. While it was my initial inclination to brush off these instances, failure to confront these situations resulted in an exercise of self-doubt. I became obsessive overanalyzing people’s reactions to me to the detriment of my confidence. In each new opportunity, I started this exercise from scratch, constantly fighting to stay above the bar of low expectations that awaited.


As I have become more aware of scholarship and discussion surrounding the way in which “workplace culture” privileges whiteness, the unproductive and harmful nature of my approach to circumventing bias has become evident.

Take, for example, the notion of “respectability” — referring to an understood set of ideas about how Black people should live positively and about how Black American culture should be shaped around the goal to uplift the black community. In other words, an exercise of reforming one’s individual behavior in an effort to overcome white stereotypes through self-censoring and the curation of a “respectable image”.

The burden-shifting aspect of respectability places the onus upon Black people to change the perception of their White colleagues, classmates and peers. Therefore, it is evident why the politics of respectability are considered to be an ineffective and self-deprecating strategy for the political and social uplift of Black Americans. This rhetoric of personal responsibility reinforces the superiority of whiteness in American society by framing approval by white Americans as a goal of Black achievement. In adopting this mindset, I conflated my desire for achievement with a pursuit of acceptance. To what end?

It is clear that no amount of hard work, assimilation, or adoption of the norms of white-dominant spaces will place me outside of the grip of scrutiny as a Black woman so long as the legal industry continues on the existing track. In fact, we saw this on display in the past few weeks with the outrageous call for the LSAT scores of the outstandingly qualified Supreme Court Appointee Ketanji Brown Jackson.


Going forward, I am working towards an evolved thought process, rooted in authenticity. Though it would not be accurate to say that I am no longer motivated by the results that follow from hard work. As I prepare for my legal practice, I am inspired to pursue my interests without the constraints of acceptance or approval.

In law school, I hope to gain the knowledge and tools to achieve my goal as an attorney to carve out space where the perspectives and experiences of marginalized groups are amplified. Yet, the hurdle exists of an academic curriculum framed by rigid parameters which fail to take into account the emotional labor required by under-represented students in studying a legal system established to reinforce their inferiority.

I believe that the law school experience presents an opportunity to disrupt the cycle reinforced by the notion of respectability. In fact, it is the responsibility of leaders of the legal education field to dismantle systemic racism as the detrimental cycle of injustice for minority populations in our country is perpetuated, in large part, by a lack of diverse legal representation.

Law schools purport to endow individuals to serve as agents of justice. Or, to adopt the words of Charles Hamilton Houston, a lawyer maintains the power to be either “a social engineer or a parasite on society”. Presuming it is the goal of these institutions to develop social engineers, at a minimum, our legal education should provide the tools necessary to achieve this goal.

In my law school experience, I would like to see a shift away from the status quo benchmarks and practices which reinforce homogeneity in the field. To be specific, I believe courses should more explicitly confront and acknowledge the ways in which the law has historically enabled inequality and facilitated exclusion. A more culturally nuanced approach to legal education and training would place greater emphasis on the value of diverse perspectives — encouraging collaboration and providing space for students to merge the unique and distinct aspects of their background and interests with the study of the legal principles that shape our society.

As I seek to avoid the pull of respectability in my legal career, I view law school as a critical starting point and training ground to catalyze much needed change in the legal field. Ultimately, the onus is on the architects of the legal system to destabilize the centrality of whiteness and support the authentic experience of diverse practitioners in the field.

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r4 - 26 May 2022 - 01:55:13 - GabrielleStanfield
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