I’m a huge fan of TV and am always excited about the new fall line-ups. I am doubly excited this year that a new show starring a very funny Latina comedian will be on ABC. Cristela Alonzo will play a law student, and that makes me excited to think that perhaps there will be a storyline on t.v. with which I can actually relate!
One scene that immediately struck a chord with me was the promo where a white woman misidentifies Cristela repeatedly (around the 30 sec mark). First, as the cleaning crew; then as support staff. The punch line happens when the lady asks Cristela (who she assumes to be an admin) if she can validate her parking ticket. Cristela responds that it looks like she’s been validated enough. That line rang so true to me because most white female attorneys have been validated and accepted into the profession (lucky them!), but most Latinas are still looked on as the other.
Being confused for an interpreter, paralegal, staff, or even the defendant (!), is almost a rite of passage for Latina lawyers. But it’s a really sucky one to have to experience. When opposing counsel, judges, or clients misidentify us as non-attorneys it’s an underhanded reminder that we are outsiders to this profession.
These types of micro-aggressions can cut deep and make us question our capabilities and professional worth. It also reinforces the structured privilege of the legal profession (with white males on top and women of color at the bottom). It is demeaning and frustrating to have to constantly prove your ability.
Unfortunately, you can’t control how people react to you. Some may do this to get under your skin, and they use these tricks to try to get an upper hand in proceedings. Others are asking out of genuine ignorance.
When I have been misidentified or someone seems incredulous that I am actually an attorney, I try to not show a reaction at all. That way, if their intent was to rile me up, I want them to see that they failed. Then I make sure I show my capabilities so that if it was ignorance, they learn a lesson to not presume.
However, it’s frustrating to let people have free reign to act ignorant and out of pocket when all I really want to do is call them out on their stupidity. At the same time, we can’t show too much anger or emotion because then we become the “hot-headed” Latina, right? I mean, sometimes we just can’t win. I still haven’t perfected my response. How do you react to this type of question? Should you call people out when they mislabel you or just clarify nicely that you’re the attorney?
While in law school, I heard my favorite reaction to this dumb question from a criminal defense attorney. She described when a judge rudely questioned whether she was really licensed (and didn’t question the male opposing counsel), she whipped out her bar card, placed it on the bench, and then told the judge there were such things as Puerto Rican attorneys. She didn’t care if he was questioning her out of malice or ignorance, instead she called him out on his inappropriate behavior. That attorney is now a circuit judge in my county.