Issues,  Legal Practice

Play to Win: Using Respectability Politics as a Tool

I think one of the biggest things I struggle with here is how much I seem to push assimilation and accepting business norms. I dislike that I do it because when we abide by certain business norms set by those in power, we may end up believing (or portraying to others) that those norms are better than our own cultural standards. Or worse, we fall into a trap of believing that we’ll be accepted by those in power.  I try to find a balance of discussing how most norms and ideals are created and enforced to advance those in power while at the same time, I take up a lot of time providing ways to abide by those norms. Issa contradiction. I know. Why do I talk about the second part? Why do I think there are times to assimilate when many of us hold Lorde’s belief that the master’s tools can’t dismantle the master’s house?

Honestly, I wish I could tell you to be you 110%, fuck all the haters, woo woo woo. But I feel that if I did that, as empowering as it may feel, it would be a disservice. First, the legal field is just different than other professions. I discuss ways to assimilate not because those standards are better (they’re not), nor am I under a false impression that if we all just “act right” we’ll be accepted by those in power (we won’t). But rather, I know that “acting right” is still the quickest way to gain positions of power within systems that try their best to exclude us. Having access to those positions is important because they control so much–they control policies imposed on us, the quality of life for our community, legal standards, etc etc.  At the moment, Latinxs make up such a small amount of legal professionals that the reality is that we’re not at a place where we can gain those positions without playing the game and primarily abiding by these conservative business norms.

Ok, yes, there may be some lawyers (and I know a few) who are their 100% unapologetic, radical, genuine selves. They eschew the norms most of us abide by and have found success. But if we’re keeping it real, those lawyers are few and far between. They live in mostly major cities, and work in progressive nonprofits or are in the solo prac. sphere that sometimes allows that type of freedom. Not all of us will find those positions available to us (or want them). So the reality, for the vast majority of us, is that to achieve career success we have to understand the rules and know when to abide by them.

It is demoralizing to behave in ways or to support systems that disempower us. But our goal should be to do what we needs to get done to gain those positions of power in order to help our communities. My favorite example of this is Kimberly Foxx, the current Cook County State’s Attorney. As a black woman, she most definitely had to learn the rules and play the game to be accepted into a conservative office (as all prosecutors’ offices tend to be) and then she had to abide by those norms to move up the chain. But now that she holds all this power, what does she do? She has started to make big and small changes to disrupt and end policies within her office that disparately impacted communities of color.  That is major.

Another reason why I discuss ways to abide by these norms is that as an attorney, you don’t work in a vacuum. We represent someone or something. We are entrusted to represent their interest—not our own. You can’t just put your beliefs and desires above your clients because it’s not fair to them. When I represent someone, I want them to get the best outcome possible and I use all tools at my disposal. If that means wearing pricey suits even though I work just as fine in jeans or if it means learning power poses so white men don’t think I’m vapid, then so be it. If I know I can get my client more by acting a certain way, dressing a certain way, etc. etc., I’m going to do it. It’s called zealous representation bb and when you rep marginalized communities like I do,  you can’t hustle backwards just because you want to prove a point.

Of course, I can’t tell you to just grin and bear it when you have to experience microaggressions or feel like you have to temper yourself to make others comfortable. All of that sucks. The constant code-switching takes its toll.  But, for me, remembering that what I’m doing is a tool to get me to my end-result, which will be an ability to make serious, long-term changes makes the grinning a little easier to handle. And you don’t have to wait until you’re the state’s attorney! As you move up in your career, you gain goodwill capital that you can use to make changes. I do that now when I seek out diverse candidates as interns or make connections for other attorneys of color*.  Ultimately, there is a way to create a balance–it may not always feel that way, but if we’re playing to win then it can benefit us to learn about these norms and view using them as a tool to advance, rather than some huge proclamation that you’ve fallen for the hype.


*Feel like I need to disclaim for any Abigail Fishers out there that of course I also support white attorneys/students who are skilled and qualified.