Sunday, April 15, 2012

Law School, White Privilege, and 21st Century Taxonomy

What follows is a moderately-edited version of a short essay I wrote for a Critical Jurisprudence class. One of these days I'm gonna write a 4,000 word essay on what it is to be hairy and American, aiming to Take Back the Swart. Until then, here's this.      

      A legal education is a factory of privilege. In the same way an English commoner could turn unwieldy gains into a baronetcy or lordship in the 18th Century, Americans today can choose to give large sums of money to a school in exchange for a title. Imperialism of any sort requires a cocky bureaucracy. Hopefully a job as well, but the past few years have given promise to an excuse to hold one's head high, not an expansive house full of down pillows on which to rest it. The legal education system exists not just to train us but to transform us, to form a corporate bureaucracy of middle-aged white men, in thought if not in features. As the son of a lawyer who has met many a leery and leering firm partner, I thought I would be prepared. I was not.
            Intersession is home to the most overt of the indoctrination. Not home of classes per se, but rather home to auditorium talks on topics such as “Professionalism in the Law” and “Ethics in Daily Life.” Prim and overeager guides explain to the moon-faced masses on how to pass. One must drink. One must talk sports or shopping, depending on target's gender. I recall my relief at avoiding and shame in recognizing a woman's tightrope between slut-shaming and enforced enthusiastic attractiveness. The rules of the game are long and arcane, but I'd have been much better at remembering them if I knew my identity within the system. I'll admit that unfortunately, I knew no such thing.
            I realized not long after the category was reified in the fall of 2001 that I fell into the raggedly-determined class of Swarthy-American. With olive skin and a nose like a scimitar (even our hypocatastases get shipped out to the Far East), a stranger would seem to need to engage in conversation to get to know me. The polite Tennessean wanted to make sure that didn't have to happen.
            “Keep your hair short, and make sure you never have a beard.” Okay, this is easy enough. “Do you drink?” Well, from time to time... “Then great! Keep a beer in your hand. Wouldn't want people to jump to conclusions!” Wait, who wouldn't? What people? Which conclusions? The kicker, however, was the clincher. “Never do anything in front of a client you wouldn't do at an airport.” Ah, so I figured it out. I must assuage their guilt of association while letting them brag about meeting an Exotic.
            Was this a bad time to mention that I avoid ties, as they are symbols of Western Masculine Imperialism? Of course it was, but at least I got to leave the conversation with my head up high, observing the letter of the first law while violating all of its assumed prescriptions. I was late to the realization, much to my eventual depression, that I wasn't being interviewed for what made me unique. I was being taxonomized, with the passive tense construction very much emphasized. The interviewing process was not to learn about my taste in music or self-styled skill in the kitchen, it was done to pin me on the wall as Juris swarthica, to prove my worth on the right collector's tableau and to emphasize my harmlessness in the tap room as opposed to my prowess in the courtroom.

            Ian Haney Lopez is a professor of race and constitutional law at Boalt Hall. Haney Lopez wrote “The Social Construction of Race” in 1994, before the political creation of the Swarthy-American. Back then, my grandmother said I looked Mexican instead of making the airport security jokes she would a decade later. Haney Lopez would certainly enjoy the further vivisection of race that the new century has given us. Lebanese Christians are welcome into the fold and can become mayors of major midwestern metropolises without a thought. Lebanese Shi'a will receive more references to Khomeini and Nasrallah in their profiles than Daley or Giuliani, politics be damned. In re: Halladjian, from 1909, is telling. It’s the story of Armenians trying to circumvent the United States’ race-based immigration quotas of the early 20th century by asserting that they are white and European, not swarthy and Asiatic. They succeeded. Hailing from the Caucasus, which we now know to most emphatically not be the homeland of the white race, they would seem to be a shoo-in case in 1909. Would they be the same in 2014? Many will tell you the difference between an Armenian or an Iranian, a Georgian or a Turk, an Azeri or a Kurd isn't biological but theological. If those immigrants had the wrong God, would they have the right race?
            The taxonomy I experienced was at the heart of the practice of scientific racism that gave a veil of approbation to last century's imperialism. Haney Lopez' historical discussion of the formation and perception of a Mexican race is telling; they were only formed negatively and construed in relation to their peers in subservience. La Raza Cosmica only came later. His social construction theory still relies on an extrinsic force, a need for sorting through a rainbow of rank-and-file to allow the lily-white cream to rise to the top. Haney Lopez would probably be curious to hear a good friend of mine who works at a church nearby. She looks eerily like me but has never, for whatever reason, been subject to this century's imperialism and its racial profiling. In a similar setting to mine, would she be told to show some arm and to live her life hat-free? Or would the very act of earning her bread at a house of Jesus act as a get-out-of-Guantanamo card? She admittedly has a better smile than I. Is my scowl a shot across the majoritarian bow?
            The very fact that I must ask these questions, that I am discomfited by the orders given to me in school show the cracks in the square-peg system. Haney Lopez’s article discusses the failures of a race-based system in dealing with shades of grey. He talks of passing, of the ability to go between races via a Clark Kent phonebooth. He hints of the shame that this brings, of the moment one realizes that the true self is not going to get the job.  The New York that Haney Lopez grew up in is not the city it is today. He would likely cackle with glee if he of Dosa Hunt. If he knew that a South Asian Musician-led tour of the city's South Asian food would include a Mexican collaborator solely because Alan Palomo's band is named Neon Indian. I would like to tell Haney Lopez that within the Swarthy community, we light the racial barriers on fire. He would likely reply that unfortunately, we are still kept in the barn made for us by the folks like the aforementioned Tennessean, who haven't yet decided if they can trust us.

            Peggy McIntosh’s famous “White Privilege and Male Privilege” explicitly describes what is received by the individuals fortunate enough to be beyond race and past gender. The article is in many ways a laundry list of what we students hope to earn by completing JD coursework. McIntosh might say that the intersession classes were not there to only tell us what to do and say for promotion and acceptance, but also in order for us to ascend to our roles as Privileged White People with grace and aplomb. We may not be the Landed Class of centuries before, but we aspire to act like them, to be the Privileged Class of today.
            Admittedly, I have no need of ascension, I came here from the suburban land, where I played lacrosse and rowed crew. From my perspective, McIntosh's article is a clarification of my feelings of shame and hints on how I could use these feelings for an appropriate cause. It is more interesting to use McIntosh's article to study the Tennessean's perspective.
            The taxonomist saw me and saw a stubbly-faced man in an ill-fitting jacket. She believed that when she was telling me to act White, she was doing me a favor.  She wanted to aid me in dressing for success, for the job I want to have, and all the such and sundry delimitations of action. The Tennessean, McIntosh could say, was giving me a glimpse through the keyhole of the Secret Garden that lay ahead of me if I could keep up the act. Maybe she had read some pop literature, she may have intoned that perhaps Rhonda Byrne's true Secret is that if I act white, people will treat me as if I am white and I will be able to accrue privilege. It is a privilege, not a right, to avoid security hassles, to not be asked where I'm really from. And if I act like I “deserve” whiteness, McIntosh would say, then I might just “earn” it. All of these scare quotes are sadly necessary.
            While reading her article, I took my usual frenetic and navel-gazing notes. These included my name in four different scripts, part of my frantic investigation on what is appropriate for me. Haney Lopez says that it doesn't matter which, that it is all up to chance anyways. McIntosh might agree, but she'd emphasize how much it darn matters to everyone who looks at me. It’s hardly a rough-and-tumble world out there for a young man with a law degree. I will not make any pretensions towards the contrary. The bottom has dropped out of the markets of legal employ, however, and we are all careening towards the abyss. The only ones who disagree with this are our Career Services offices. As we tumble down, our White Privileges can do as much to save us as our class rank or legal aptitude. Today we have to choose between resignation to the Empire or a prison of debt. A beard and open collar is the garb of only the most honorable of fools.

1 comment:

  1. Personnely, I avoid ties because they are uncomfortable. To each his own I guess.