Note from the editor: This post is the first in a series featuring the experiences of black girls doing grad school across various disciplines.
“Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half- hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, how does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town…or, do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, how does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.
And yet, being a problem is a strange experience,–peculiar even for one who has never been anything else….”
–W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk
How does it feel to be a problem? I started law school on August 24, 2016 and in each of the 63 days since then, I have been confronted with this question in one form or another. It’s in the way that I am simultaneously the most visible and invisible I’ve ever been. It’s in the way a white man turns to me to ask me to clarify something the professor said and then in the middle of my explanation, finding it inadequate, he turns instead to two other white men to get the answer because there’s no way I could know. It’s in the way that when discussing the readings or the lecture in a group, I am almost certainly interrupted each time I open my mouth. It’s in the way that someone makes a joke about “house slaves” while we’re talking about a school-wide auction. It’s in the way that everyone shifts uncomfortably in their seats when the 13th amendment comes up. Or the way that your professor casually throws out the term “Nigerian scammers” to illustrate a point about contract law. It’s in the way that when you read the cases, you, and people who look like you, are either absent or construed as deviant misfits, incapable of following the law and unworthy of its protection. How does it feel to be a problem?
It’s in the way that a professor completely avoids talking about an affirmative action case although we’ve talked at length about all of the other cases and instead, to demonstrate the concept, he shares an anecdote from his time at a firm. It’s in the way that after a discussion on Stand Your Ground Laws, someone thinks it appropriate to ask the question “But what if statistics were to show that Black people really do commit more crimes and are more dangerous, then fear of them would be founded right? (Read: Black people are decidedly more dangerous and criminal than others and therefore them dying at the hands of vigilante justice or state sanctioned violence is justified). It’s in the way that in an environment that prides itself on collegiality, I’m afraid to say “Hey! My colleagues are hurting me and I really don’t think they’re trying to be my colleagues at all and some of them kind of suck as people.”
How does it feel to be a problem? As I wrestle with this question, I wrestle with myself. I wrestle often and in silence. I shrink. I hide myself. I have moments where I feel less than (I get over those quickly though; Mom and Dad didn’t raise no fool). I find myself trying to be “less.” Less vocal. Less woman. Less hurt. Less loud. Less real. Less Black. Less…me. And that, my friends, is a mistake of monumental proportions. Because the world, and certainly the legal profession, needs less people who struggle to see the humanity in Black life and more people like me. I thought by exercising silence in the face of not-so-micro-aggressions, I was practicing, preparing myself for what life as a Black woman in the legal profession would be. I was content to “get used to it.” I was content to let myself be turned into a white man. So often as people of color, we believe the only way to get where we’re going is to appeal to white sensibilities. We call this “playing the game.” But sometimes I think that we’ve forgotten it’s a game. Sometimes I think it stops being a game and becomes the accepted way of life. We begin to believe that there is no power, no success, and no value in being just who we are. And that’s scary. Because by believing and continuing to act as though the only power worth having is without, we render ourselves impotent, forfeiting the power within. I’m gonna get a little gospel here for a second but when God has prepared a seat at the table for you…He didn’t prepare that seat for who you try to be or who other people want or expect you to be. He’s called you to that place and that time to be just who you are and just who He made you to be.
With this in mind, I turn my thoughts toward a new inquiry: How does it feel to be a solution? I ask this recognizing that I am both problem and solution, existing all in one. See…Harriet Tubman was a problem. Ida B. Wells was a problem. Fannie Lou Hamer? Problem. Ella Baker? Problem. Marcus, Martin, Malcolm? Problem, problem, problem. Each of them and certainly the names of the many, many, many other Black people who refused to “get used to things,” were seen as problems by a society who desperately wanted them to be complacent and accept the status quo. Instead each of these individuals and the many faceless people behind racial progress in this nation, insisted on being a “problem.” Despite all that it cost them, they understood that the cost of complacency was far greater.
Because of them, I can. We can. When Martin had a dream, he didn’t have it for himself, he had it for his children and their children and their children. Now, I’m certainly no Martin (my policy on nonviolence: he who throwest the hands may also catcheth the hands…God is still working on me though), but I do have to hold on the hope that my dream and my presence in a space that was never intended for me, will make it easier for my children and their children and their children. Make no mistake, we are in perilous times in this country. We are living in a time when people are desperately trying to cling on to the “great American past” (Read: the time before Black people and women were recognized as full human beings…although sometimes its questionable if we even think that now but…I digress). This desperation has expressed itself in dangerous and frightening ways. There are days when I feel utterly hopeless about the state of race relations in this country (a lot of days in fact). But we cannot afford to be hopeless. We cannot afford to be silent.
We cannot afford to be complacent.
About the author:
Kelsey. First year law student at the University of Virginia. Lover of all things pink. Always in an empire state of mind (even though I’m in my fifth year of living below the Mason Dixon). Whitley and Dwayne are my fave. My parents are pretty cool, too. Dwell in possibility.