Commencement Advice for Outsiders: Now and Then, Let Go of Resistance
I was invited to speak at a gathering of women of color graduating from law school, and I said yes. Many of the women had been my students. I looked from the podium to their brown and golden faces, their hair long and black, kinky and short, in braids or shorn, their minds enriched with the powerful architecture of a first-rate legal education, their futures open, and my heart really did sing.
I’m a happy lawyer — if my daughter someday wants to attend law school, I’ll encourage her to. But there are grim and entrenched ways that the law, and therefore law school, is hostile to the views and even existence of the marginalized. This is unsurprising: American law is profoundly path-dependent, dedicated to honoring logic, values, and decisions formed decades or centuries ago. It is also steeply hierarchical — laws are the codified opinions of people in power, opinions that almost always protect their interests regardless of whether those interests honor the wider range of human experience and need. Consider this foundational characteristic of the law — deference for decisions made long ago and almost exclusively by a tiny handful of people (white, financially-secure men) with immense political and social power — and it is easy to see why women of color, and other groups that have been systematically disempowered, can find themselves struggling even to breathe in the legal world, let alone thrive. This struggle is not about intelligence, merit, or effort — it’s about the environment.
With this in mind, I wanted to honor the work — extra work — that women of color so often put into earning their law degrees. But I wanted to caution them, too; if we’re not careful, that work can take on a life of its own, molding us into a posture of servitude rather than service, drawing our attention away from our divine and unsullied spark.
Here is what I said to these beautiful, brilliant women of color. If you’re a marginalized person, it may resonate with you, too.
“Many of you are familiar with Toni Morrison’s piercing observation that ‘the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.’