When I was applying to law school, I was so far removed from the world I was getting into that I really believed I’d be expected to wear a suit to class every day; because, well, I would be training to be an attorney and attorneys wear suits… duh. It sounds ridiculous to me now, but considering some states require that you sit for the glorified hazing known as the bar exam in “court appropriate attire,” it turns out my mistake wasn’t that far-fetched. Still, I was clearly entering an unknown universe, and that first year I was given many opportunities to doubt whether I belonged.
To be clear, I absolutely loved law school. I never intended to be a courtroom lawyer, or any version of a lawyer I’d ever seen on TV, so it didn’t faze me too much that I didn’t quite fit into the picture they were trying to paint for me. Mind you, my class was over 50 percent women and, as I remember it, pretty racially diverse so — on the surface at least — there was no reason I should instinctively have felt so out of place. But I have tattoos I don’t try to hide; I talk with my hands and eyes as much as with my mouth; hoop earrings are an essential part of my wardrobe, professional or otherwise; and to this day, I’ve never met a business suit that doesn’t feel like a costume. In short, I don’t look, speak or sound like a lawyer, and yet here I am, a whole lawyer, looking, speaking, and sounding like me, in spite of the many times I was advised to stop doing so for my own good and for the good of my career.
What good is diversity if the goal is that we all end up the same?
This phenomenon is, of course, not limited to the legal profession. In the past several decades, as the country has grappled with how to redress the diseases of patriarchy and racism from which our nation sprouted, much has been made about the need for diversity, be it in the workplace, in schools or in our media. This vision of diversity usually refers to race and gender (and only race and gender) as a way to account for and balance out the overwhelmingly white, male voices that have almost exclusively controlled our institutions for far too long.
If you ask the internet, you may notice that almost every major company and certainly every major university now has a page, and sometimes even a whole department, devoted to DEI, which stands for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. That’s all well and good, but the problem that I’m noticing more and more is that these measures are only welcomed as they relate to taking a person of color and shaping them — mentoring them if you will — into the white heteronormative ideal. How boring, no? And how dismissive of the wide variety of individual experiences that shape each of us and which have the potential to enrich any profession we choose. Diversity, especially the diversity of experience, is what we should now be embracing. Not in order to push any political ideology or agenda, but rather because it benefits all of us to learn from as wide a variety of perspectives as possible.
A Facebook acquaintance recently shared that he’d just been accepted into a masters program that would prepare him to better serve underrepresented members of his community. But he openly worried that his past criminal history would set him apart in a negative way, and that it might ultimately be a hindrance to his success. I completely understand that feeling. The imposter syndrome that kicks in to make us question what we could possibly have to contribute when our backgrounds don’t include fancy schools, financial security, or any other kind of traditional stepping stone.
We ourselves tend to dismiss the very experiences that got us to this moment, to this opportunity. And yet how much more of an impact can we make if we allow ourselves, and allow others, to bring the entirety of their lived experience to their craft? In the case of my friend, his background makes him more, not less, valuable to his chosen profession. He’ll be better able to relate to his clients one day, even if he doesn’t quite relate to his colleagues — and that in the end is what I hope he holds onto. The program is lucky to have him because of his history, not in spite of it. Why should he have to hide it or be ashamed?
This is not all to say that progress hasn’t been made. Of course it has. Representation matters. Recognizing something of yourself, be it your gender, your race, your queerness, or whatever makes you special, in someone who holds a position of authority or power, is nothing short of life-affirming. It shows that there is a path for you, as well, even if you can’t yet see it. But forging that path shouldn’t require that you hide or disguise your differences, the very things that make for the diversity we claim to seek.
Why you all wanna look and sound the same, anyway? Wear your hair how you want, put on those hoops and the Selena-red lipstick, use the language and words that you’re comfortable with. Or don’t. But don’t begrudge others for being their whole true selves when it is clear that that’s the only way we’ll ever be truly free and equal.
Martha E. Menendez, Esq. is the Bernstein Senior Fellow at the UNLV Immigration Clinic.