DEI: It’s Not So Black and White

Earlier this week, I decided to organize my files on my laptop and delete ones that I no longer need. As I came across my folders from 1L, I started skimming through my old outlines and class notes (ew) to figure out which files I could delete. Eventually, I came across my folder titled “1L Summer Applications.” It had 177 files. This folder contains various versions of my resume, some writing samples, and cover letters for all the jobs I’d applied for during my 1L year. I had hoped to secure a prestigious firm position for my 1L summer, but it didn’t happen. Although I don’t technically need those files anymore, I decided to keep them all. They remind me of my journey and growth since 1L. Today, as a 3L, I am grateful for ultimately having secured the position of my 1L dreams. To the outsider, it might appear that it was handed to me or that it came easy. But it’s not so black-and-white. 

From the start of my fall semester of 1L, I met with CSO often to strategize how and where to apply for 1L summer positions. I networked with at least 2 alumni a week, hoping to just talk to as many people and learn as much as I could about the industry. I spent hours weekly finding and applying to positions on my own. When my 1L summer goals didn’t quite work out, I was crushed. I was afraid things wouldn’t work out for me, ever (silly, I know). I began working even harder. In October of 2L, I ultimately landed the interview (and subsequent offer) of my dreams. But before I heard the “yes” from my position, I heard over 80 “no’s.”

I got my position through Boston Lawyers Group, an organization that supports the recruitment and retention of attorneys of color in the Boston legal market. Even though I know how hard I worked and how deserving I am, there are days when I question my own merits. Some of this doubt is self-imposed, as I’ll admit I do tend to get in my own head. But these thoughts were planted in me from somewhere. I know there are peers who question such diversity positions and who feel students of color reach their success easily because of these programs. When I think about this sentiment from some peers, the imposter syndrome creeps back into my head and I wonder, did I get this job because I deserved it or was I just ‘A Brown Person’ who checked the right ‘diversity’ boxes? Now, at my core, of course I know this isn’t true. As a 1L, I was convinced I would get a 1L diversity position at a firm because it seemed like there were so many open spots (and let’s be real, I was a little overconfident). Not until I applied to over 80 positions and got rejected from all of them did I realize that just like every other position ever, there are only a handful of openings and too many of us applying for one single coveted spot. 

If you’re a student of a marginalized group, and you need to shake that imposter syndrome, please hear this. And if you are a peer who finds yourself undermining the merit of students of color, please understand this, too: law students of color (and other student groups supported by such diversity initiatives) are not the problem. We are not shoo-in’s who somehow subvert the competitive law school admissions and legal hiring process. Most of us face the same rejection and hopelessness as every other law school applicant and job seeker before we finally land on our feet. Like the rest of our peers, some of us don’t ever get into the law school or obtain that job of our dreams. We face the same challenges because we’re in the same stressful and flawed system that is the legal profession. In that way, we are not different from our white peers and we are not the enemy.

The programs in place to support us do not take away from our merit: we get to where we are because we prove ourselves worthy. Our white peers aren’t in competition with us any more than they are with other white peers. We’re not taking anybody’s spots because we deserved this spot just as much as everyone else. Actually, assuming “our spot” belonged to white people is offensive because it takes for granted that our merit earned us our achievements. Our race and ethnicity is part of our core identity, but it is not the entirety of who we are, and it certainly is not the sole reason for our achievements. We deserve to find success and happiness just as much as our other peers, and happiness is not a finite resource such that ours somehow takes away from anyone else’s. 

This whole week, I was feeling overwhelmed with imposter syndrome and self-doubt, but I pushed myself to attend a lunch mixer event sponsored by LAHANAS, the overarching student organization that supports ‘diverse’ students at BC Law (I’ll discuss later my personal gripe with this word). After a challenging past few weeks, it felt really refreshing to meet my 1L mentees and catch up with old friends. I’m grateful for the community that LAHANAS has provided me throughout law school. Before even beginning 1L year, the retreat gave me the chance to connect with other LAHANAS students and form friendships with people who share similar backgrounds and experiences. In general, affinity spaces in both education and workplace environments are helpful for precisely this reason. In one study making the case for affinity groups in elementary schools, authors define affinity groups as “places where students build connections and process “ouch” moments from their classes,” with one of their purposes being “to provide a majority experience for students regularly who are in the minority at school.” 1 Through LAHANAS, I met people who got me, to whom I didn’t have to explain the pressures of being the older immigrant child and beacon for my family’s financial mobility. I made friends with people to whom I could openly talk about my imposter syndrome, of feeling scared I wouldn’t actually belong in Big Law. I actually did just that on Wednesday, and I left the lunch feeling better than I had in a couple of weeks. The healing power of a supportive community is beautiful like that.

I understand how, to an onlooker, race-based affinity spaces can seem like they create social silos. But it’s not so black-and-white. When a non-LAHANAS peer sees a LAHANAS gathering, they might perceive an exclusive space for a restricted group. What isn’t so visibly apparent, though, is the daily psychological and social toll that comes with being a minority student at a predominantly white institution. For me, the experience is a complicated one. In some ways, I feel hypervisible at BC Law. I can name the exact courses where I was the only student of color and I can still remember the intense uneasiness I felt speaking up in those classes, feeling acutely cognizant of my status as the only non-white person in the room. In other ways, my experience as a South Asian American woman here is also an invisible one: I often feel inexplicably different from my peers in ways that affect my sense of belongingness but that I don’t quite know how to fully articulate. 

That’s why the LAHANAS community is such a significant space for me: I can process these thoughts and feelings without having to explain myself because these friends get it. LAHANAS is not about separating students of color from white students. In fact, many of our events are co-sponsored with other organizations and are open to all community members. And the spaces that are sometimes closed are our places to process without the pressure of having to explain ourselves to others in an intellectual debate; sometimes we just want to be around people who get it, who get us. That shouldn’t be a problem to anyone. Like other student organizations here centered on shared interests, LAHANAS simply offers a space for students to connect over something they share so they can create a sense of belongingness for themselves. I wish for everyone a community where they feel comfortable, valued, and supported. It’s LAHANAS for me, and whatever it is for you, I sincerely hope you find and cherish it.

I mentioned above that I have an issue with the phrasing of “diverse students.” Although I greatly appreciate the initiatives that have supported me throughout law school, I do believe our societal understanding of DEI is incomplete and flawed, and I understand from where some resistance to such programs stems. When law schools refer to “diverse students” or firms refer to “diverse employees,” what do they really even mean? Generally speaking, in America, we tend to conceptualize DEI programming as initiatives tailored towards non-white males. Race and gender are two of the most visible traits, and they serve as “easy” metrics to track from an institutional perspective. Thus, many diversity initiatives are structured primarily on race and gender: “diverse people” are perceived to be those who are not white males. But it’s not so black-and-white. 

This binary characterization is problematic for several reasons. When we begin to refer to all non-white males as “diverse people,” we start to think of “diverse people” as a monolithic group. Shared spaces for racial and ethnic minorities are important in creating solidarity and a sense of belongingness, but Asian Americans have different experiences from Black Americans who have a different experience from Native Americans. DEI programs that categorize “diverse people” as a singular homogenous group gloss over this fact. Furthermore, this dichotomous classification creates an oversimplified black-and-white paradigm where we place people into one of only two categories based on just 2 factors: “diverse” or not. Diversity encompasses so much more than race and gender. By overemphasizing only certain characteristics that can be neatly captured into visible boxes, institutions fail their students of other demographics who also need analogous support. 

For example, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds often face similar barriers as their peers who are captured by traditional DEI programs. They may feel socially alienated and they lack the access to informal networks that are more readily available to their upper-class peers. For first-generation students, lack of role models and personal experience with lawyers can lead to “emotionally taxing moments of miscommunication with faculty” along with difficulties in understanding the metrics by which professors evaluate student work.2 Yet, in 2011, just 1% of students at America’s top ten law schools came from the bottom 25% of socio-economic status.3 Although a more recent study at this national scale is unavailable, data as recent as from 2017 demonstrates that “law schools remain overwhelmingly upper-middle class,” and that only 5% of students at elite law schools come from families in the bottom 50% of the socioeconomic spectrum.4 Of course, there is intersection between race and class, but as law schools have become more racially and ethnically diverse over the years, socioeconomic diversity — rather, the sheer lack of it — has remained stagnant. 

Along with socioeconomic status, other less visible groups, too, remain underserved by law school diversity efforts. According to a recent NALP report, law school graduates who reported having a disability were the least likely to be employed after graduation compared to men, women, minorities, or graduates identifying as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Nearly 20% of the American population reports having a disability, yet only 0.39% of associates and 0.30% of partners in 2015-2016 reported having a disability.5 The issue here is multifold: there are evidently not enough practicing attorneys with disabilities. In addition, many attorneys opt out of reporting their disabilities in fear of prejudice. Both the stigma of having a disability and the need to hire more attorneys with disabilities are concerns that should be addressed in DEI initiatives. 

An incomplete institutionalized conceptualization of diversity leads to unfortunate consequences for everyone involved. People with experiences and systemic challenges that do not neatly fit into the race and gender focus of DEI initiatives feel overlooked and neglected. This might aggravate their questioning of diversity initiatives in general. Unfortunately, this animus and “us vs. them” mentality can become misdirected at students of color who are the focus of these programs, rather than at the institutions whose conception of DEI is flawed to begin with. What these students might really be getting at is, “I need additional support, too.” Instead, it comes across as “the other students who are receiving support don’t deserve it and don’t belong.” 

Facing this resentment from their peers, students of color who are traditionally captured under the DEI umbrella are attacked. They are undervalued when other students undermine their intellect and question their worthiness. They begin doubting their own selves, wondering whether they are being tokenized simply for their skin color. In this system, no one “wins.” This myopic formulation of DEI creates polarization among social groups who develop an “us vs. them” mentality against each other when in reality, the groups’ shared contentions are actually with the flawed system that harms them both, albeit in different ways.

In her famous Yale graduation speech, Marina Keegan described how the “opposite of loneliness” is what she sought in life. She wrote how this feeling was “not quite love and…not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together.” At the end of the day, I think we all want this feeling– to be seen and heard, and to be surrounded by people who accept, value, and care for all that we are. Recognizing the particular need that students of color have for this sense of belongingness, diversity initiatives at law schools and law firms help to provide this feeling for the students whom they target. As necessary and helpful as these programs are, their overemphasis on certain traits leave other groups underserved. Groups become polarized and people start viewing others different from them as the problem. This binary model of DEI efforts is neither accurate nor effective. 

All of us at BC Law are here because we belong. We all want the positions of our dreams, and I sincerely believe we each deserve to get them. We are all intellectually qualified and capable of excelling, both here in school and in our future careers. We all contribute to this vibrant community and we each have something distinctly valuable to offer. We don’t need to see peers different from us as a threat, nor do we need to “other” them. If we break free from our “us vs them” mentality, we can see that beyond what divides us, we ultimately want the same thing: the feeling described above, that there are people in this together. To all my peers at BC Law, we are in this together.  I know the law school journey is tough for all of us, but let’s not tear each other down, throw our peers under the bus, or question each other’s merit in the process of getting to where we want to be. I truly believe there’s room for all of us to succeed. Until we all get there, I will cheer each and every one of my peers through the rocky journey and I will be there to celebrate their successes. Because we all deserve to feel supported in achieving our goals and living happy, fulfilled lives. That, to me, finally feels pretty black-and-white.


Footnotes

  1. Julie Parsons and Kimberly Ridley, Identity, Affinity, Reality: Making the Case for Affinity Groups in Elementary Schools
  2. Amy H. Soled and Barbara Hoffman, Building Bridges: How Law Schools Can Better Prepare Student from Historically Underserved Communities to Excel in Law School
  3. Richard Sanders, Class in American Legal Education
  4. Caroline Kitchener, How the LSAT Destroys Socioeconomic Diversity
  5. Jason Goitia, Improving Disability Diversity and Inclusion in the Legal Profession

Roma Gujarathi is a third-year student at BC Law. Contact her at gujarath@bc.edu.

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