Being a Black Student in Law School
Author: Adrianna M. Laforest
"Am I really the only Black person in this class?"
"You're not like other Black people!"
If you have attended primarily White institutions, "PWIs," as I have, you probably have heard this phrase more times than you can count. Apparently, my peers believe that I am not like other Black people because I speak "proper" English, because I occasionally straighten my hair, because I have a common name, and because I am not like the Black people they show on TV. They think that if they ask me to define slang terms or show them how to twerk, I will not be offended. But I will be. Though I may appear unaffected, I wonder why they decided to ask me and not any of the other 50 people at the event.
Or the timeless favorite that happens every February when professors discuss slavery in class, and everyone looks to me to impart some wisdom on them about the topic, or look at me for confirmation as to whether what they are saying is right or wrong. It fills me with so much pride that my classmates look to me for guidance on topics of slavery. Because I was there, right? Furthermore, when I get 'compliments' like "You're pretty, for a Black girl" or other microaggressions like that, I don't know what to think. Should I take it as a compliment, or should I take it as an insult?
I survived being a Black student at a predominantly white undergraduate institution. After that grueling experience, I believed that I had been through the worst of it until I started Law School. Since people of color are such a small percentage of the people who attend Law School, I knew I would have some challenges feeling comfortable in my new environment. But they couldn't be THAT bad, right? Wrong.
On my first day of Law School, I was extremely pleased with the diverse population I saw on our campus. In undergrad, I could count how many Black students were in my classes on the one hand, but for the first time in my educational career, that was not the case. This experience won't be so bad, I thought.
When I received my first batch of grades from my first semester back, I was extremely pleased with my results. I've never been one who brags or boasts about grades. I take my victories in silence and share them with my family and close friends. As I was basking in the glow of my honor roll, I saw a group of students making a commotion in the front of the library. They were upset about their torts grades. I told myself to keep walking and not stop because I did not want to be in that conversation. During my speed walk into the library, I could hear that they had begun bashing the teacher.
Just as I was about to escape, I heard, "Hey Adrianna, come here!" I reluctantly went over there in time to listen to the group of White students say they were planning to appeal their grades. They had all gotten Cs and Ds and said that they know they deserved an A. I silently listened to them vent. They turned to me and said I need to appeal as well, and they believed that I definitely earned at least a B-. A whole letter grade less than them. Though it may not seem like much, that was how they viewed me. As less than. Not as intelligent as them. At that point, I picked my head up, looked them all in the eyes, and said, "I won't be appealing because I got an A- in Torts," and gathered my things, and went to my study room. The looks of shock on their faces are something I will never forget.
My second significant instance occurred at the end of my 1L career in my criminal procedure course. I started to realize the casebook seemed to omit the parties' demographics in the case, specifically the defendants. I thought this was strange, so during class, I began researching Terry v. Ohio, Tennessee v. Garner, and others to confirm my suspicions. They were all Black. I waited until we received a break, and I approached the professor asking questions for which I already knew the answers. I asked him the race of the defendants and why the casebooks don't share that information. He was flustered and uncomfortable and told me that the casebook aimed to teach the law. So I left it alone. After the break, he addressed my question with a more polished answer while pointing me out to my peers, discussing it, and lightly touching on the criminal justice system's racial disparities. I heard whispers from my peers saying, "Oh, so I guess she's woke," and "Oh, there's always one." Even after class, other students approached me with comments asking why I felt the need to bring race up.
As a Black student in higher education, there is no escaping this reality. People look at our skin, our names, our hair and decide on our value. It is a steep uphill battle. Like those that have come before us, the only remedy is to remain strong and determined to meet our goals. You have to realize that being Black at a PWI is going to fill you with many memories. Some of them may be strange, like a peer asking if they could feel my hair. Some may cause anger, like trying to explain the idea of privilege to a group of your peers. And some experiences will fill you with pride, like walking across the stage to receive your diploma. A diploma does not discriminate.
I am not saying it will be easy. You may encounter people who claim that they don't see color and take the color-blind approach. But in reality, I am Black, not invisible. As Black students, we need to use this knowledge to help us further establish our identities in these historically White spaces.
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Joseline J. Hardrick is the Founder and President of Diversity Access Pipeline, Inc. She is also an author, professor, and lawyer and resides in Tampa Bay, Florida. Guest bloggers are students in the Journey to Esquire® Scholarship & Leadership Program.