Being black in predominantly white spaces can feel like drowning. Not only do we feel isolated because of our status as a minority, but we feel erased by the persistent and often ambiguous use of “people of color” to address so many struggles that it addresses none. The relationship Black people have with the world is anything but vague. The systems that oppress back people all over the world are specific.
And as law students, we have a window into one of the institutions that have oppressed black people the most: the law. And yet, the law has also been an instrument of much positive change for us as well. We read cases saying black people can’t be citizens of the United States, and cases less than a hundred years later saying that racism is only a problem if we make it one. But there are cases recognizing the institutional racism black people have faced and realizing the need for affirmative action and change.
These contradictions, among others, can sometimes feel like they’re pulling us from every angle. And that’s before we even take our obligations as law students into account. As a result, we can feel mentally and emotionally exhausted.
Despite this exhaustion, we often feel that we are unofficial representatives of our race. When we’re in class thinking about the abstract racial implications of the law. . . they don’t always feel so abstract. And someone has to pitch in then the conversation sways too close to offensive generalization. Someone has to speak up in rooms where there have never been black students before. Someone has to go for the positions that have never been held by a black person. Someone needs to excel so that everyone knows that black people can.
When all of those someone’s are you, and you are working twice as hard just like you were told, remember this: you are capable of doing everything you want to do, but you do not have to do anything you don’t want to. If you don’t want to be that someone, and you just want to be a law student, just be a law student.
We will always be black, and we will carry with us all that being black comes with. But we don’t have to act on those burdens unless we choose. The profession is still woefully underrepresented when it comes to black people, but we are changing that just by being law students and by becoming lawyers. You’re making all those who came before you proud by being here and being your best self.