[CONTENT NOTE: racism, sexism, other -isms. names have been changed.]
Longtime Loyal Readers™ may recall that once upon a time, I was a legal secretary. I toiled for years at NYC law firms—and, with apologies to my veteran friends—for what we in the staff ranks called “combat pay.”
The gig pays much better than average in part because it requires a specific skill set that includes fluency in legalese (and esoteric dialects thereof), software proficiency across the entire MS Office suite, superhuman abilities in deciphering truly horrendous writing (“make the edits I wrote with the giant green Sharpie and the smeary red Flair pen, but not the ones in pencil or blue fountain pen ink, plus add the purple crayon edits but only the ones circled with the orange highlighter not the yellow one”), and so much more. But let’s face it: that job pays well because lawyers.
Lawyers are the butt of many a nasty joke, and I can assure you this is justifiably so. Quite. Although firm cultures vary and some are better than others, they all were (and still are) strictly dominated by an Old Boys Club. This manifests in various ways, the most obvious being that the biggest rainmakers, their favored protégés and those in firm management with real power are overwhelmingly, indeed almost exclusively, white men. Thus it should surprise no one—and it will not in fact surprise people of color, women and other minorities—to learn that I regularly witnessed sexism and racism (and etc.-isms) more times than I can count. Just off the top of my head:
- At a group meeting of attorneys that included only one woman, who was not among the most junior people in the room, she is the one asked to get coffee for everyone while the men get down to work.
- Male lawyers routinely entertaining firm clients at strip clubs on the company dime, thereby effectively blocking client access to their female colleagues.
- Being expected to cover for men’s extramarital affairs: once after a close call, one Big Willie told me that if his wife ever found out about his mistress it would cost me my job.
- Male partners regularly returning from lunch completely smashed and saying all kinds of inappropriate shit to the staff, like telling my black co-worker who had a gift-boxed liquor bottle on her desk, “Whoa Yvonne! I didn’t know you were easy! Heh-heh-heh,” and then continuing to “flirt” with her until finally giving up and staggering into his opulent corner office.
- Senior male attorneys becoming bitterly exasperated because a female subordinate left to pick up her sick child from school, when they themselves had never missed a single second of work in their entire careers due to childcare responsibilities: they had wives and nannies for that.
Most of this crap naturally went unreported; it was clear that except in the most egregious cases, little if anything would ever be done beyond a Very Stern Talking To™, followed by some hearty back slapping and then perhaps some scotch and cigars. But raising such issues could impact the career of the troublesome, humorless and oversensitive tattletale, if not the perpetrator. Only once do I recall anyone receiving serious consequences for inappropriate behavior: it was a senior associate attorney who constantly stared at women’s breasts when he talked to them, although he looked men right in the eyes. It was so flagrant that even d00d lawyers noticed it (Oh man, what’s up with that Dave guy staring at you ladies’ chests?”). After many complaints from women—plus the apparently required corroboration from men that this was (a) really happening and (b) disturbing to them—someone finally gave Dave the Very Stern Talking To™ and told him to knock it off. He didn’t, and eventually got fired. (I just googled him: he’s still practicing law, at a firm where women make up about 15% of the attorneys.)
Also—and this is not just my observation—the kinds of (male) lawyers who go into private practice, especially litigators, tend to be
preening, vicious, chest-pounding apes alpha types: domineering, entitled, quick to anger, narcissistic. Many are verbally abusive to those they consider beneath them—which, at the end of the day, is pretty much everyone.
Still, over the course of all that time spent in the
trenches cubicles, I met a handful of truly wonderful and extraordinary people, some of whom became very close friends. Including, as fate would have it, My Amazing Lover™. I point this out because a recent conversation led me to write this very post.
PARTNER: I have a mandatory diversity training class tomorrow at one.
IRIS: You could probably teach it.
PARTNER: It seems like they’re always scheduled after some incident happens, not before. More like law firm CYA than “hey, we really want to be more inclusive and here’s how we can do it.”
IRIS: Sounds about right. So who failed How To Be a Minimally Decent Human Being 101 this time?
PARTNER: [White male partner.] Apparently he told a black secretary who just had her hair done in short braids that she looked like Buckwheat.
IRIS: Jeezus fucking Christ.
IRIS: Just imagine the kind of fantastic bubble you have to maintain for yourself in order to live and work in Manhattan, and feel free to say that. To a black woman. At her job.
IRIS: Well you enjoy your How To Be a Minimally Decent Human Being 101 Class tomorrow, my love. I hope they bring in a nice catered lunch at least. And I hope it’s all ethnic foods.
[The next evening.]
IRIS: How’d it go?
PARTNER: It was terrible. Really poorly done.
IRIS: Oh no!
PARTNER: I went in hoping to learn something, even if some of my partners probably wouldn’t. For one thing about half the time was taken up by one of my partners who just wouldn’t shut up. He kept interrupting, and talking over people.
IRIS: Let me guess—it was a white d00d.
PARTNER: Why yes it was.
IRIS: And the presenter didn’t put a stop to that? That’s just…bad presenter skills. You have to politely shut that shit down as soon as it starts, maybe repeat yourself once, and then escalate your tactics if necessary—you sure as hell don’t allow it to continue.
PARTNER: They were two women law professors, and they used a lot of jargon and buzzwords that went right over most people’s heads.
IRIS: Like what?
PARTNER: Like “microaggressions.”
IRIS: Very important concept. Did they define them, and show you the research about what happens to people as a result?
PARTNER: Not really. There was a one-page handout with some examples. You’re not supposed to tell women they look pretty, or ask Asians for help with math, things like that. But, we never discussed it. It was as if they were talking to a class that was already familiar with it, so it just seemed…mostly incoherent. And the microaggression thing is just one example. It went on and on like that.
IRIS: Holy shit. What a wasted opportunity. The very people in that room are the people who most need to hear and understand this stuff. Did they cover heterosexism? Or gender? Like trans antagonism?
IRIS: WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK.
This epic failure bugs me for many reasons, mainly the enormous waste of an exceptionally rare opportunity. Then there’s the fact that when this sort of education is done badly it risks backfiring, and people end up more closed off to learning than open to it. I started thinking about how I might engage that particular audience in a discussion about diversity. I mean besides making that one d00d STFU 4EVAH, obviously. I might even turn him into a teachable moment, by asking everyone to just imagine a woman (or a person of color) constantly interrupting the presenters, talking over everyone else and expecting to be the center of attention at a presentation about diversity. Nine out of ten times (and I think I’m being generous here…) the person who does those things in a diverse group is going to be a white man. Maybe we can all ask ourselves why that is.
I perused the Palace Library and came up with a few resources I would tap into with respect to discussing microaggressions, which seems to me as good a place to start as any.
1. This Psychology Today article. It’s a decent 101-level explanation of microaggressions that summarizes key research findings:
- although they may appear insignificant or trivial, studies reveal that microaggressions may be more harmful than overtly bigoted words and actions.
- microaggressions have been found to:
(a) affect mental health
(b) create a hostile, invalidating work or school climate
(c) perpetuate stereotype threat
(d) create physical health problems
(e) saturate society with cues that signal devaluation of the group
(f) lower work productivity and problem solving abilities
(g) be partially responsible for creating inequities in education, employment and health care
- most people harbor unconscious biases and prejudices.
- getting people to realize they are acting in a biased manner is a monumental task (for many reasons, see e.g. Study: White people react to evidence of white privilege by claiming greater personal hardships).
2. The Tumblr Microaggressions. There are so many excellent examples here it would be hard to pick just a few, but I would include some of the images from a photography project dealing with racist microaggressions by Kiyun and her friends at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus:
2. This 2 page pdf entitled Making the Invisible Visible: Gender Microaggressions (via the University of New Hampshire). It looks like a handout from a (good) presentation. Ostensibly focused on gender, it’s a nice primer on microaggressions generally.
4. As I was thinking about all of this, right on cue came a very interesting article from The Atlantic: The Odds That a Panel Would ‘Randomly’ Be All Men Are Astronomical. Mathematician Greg Martin worked out the odds that speaker panels at tech conferences would be all (or overwhelmingly) men: next to zero. Martin concludes that “any such conference without any female speakers must have come into being in a system that does not treat gender fairly.” He attributes this effect not to deliberate sexism or misogyny, but to unconscious bias. He also notes “how truly dismissive and defensive people get when gender disparity is pointed out.” Martin hopes his work can counter the stubborn illusion of meritocracy with a reality check—or as Lauren Bacon puts it, “Greg has found a way to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.”
Other findings that cannot so easily be explained away by those who may prefer to remain in denial about how human culture and human brains work:
- Black men with no criminal record applying for jobs treated the same as white men fresh out of prison. (Just let that sink in.)
- Black teens who commit a few crimes go to jail as often as white teens who commit dozens.
- Black prisoners are given longer sentences than whites for the same crimes.
- Black people are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people despite comparable usage rates.
- Black Woman Locked In Psych Ward For 8 Days Because Cops Couldn’t Believe She’s A Businesswoman.
- Negotiators (regardless of sex) are more likely to deceive women in order to seal a deal.
- What I Learned From Tweeting With A Black Woman’s Avatar For #RaceSwapExp. (“The level of hateful tweets went from zero to off the charts.”)
5. This is probably a bit advanced for a 101-level presentation, but perhaps it would be worth including either as a handout, or on a list of suggested further reading: White Fragility. DiAngelo, R., International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol 3 (3) (2011). (pdf) If you haven’t seen it, it is a beautifully written, jargon-free academic paper that has received heavy traction in social justice circles since it was published. It occurred to me when I first read it that one could do a search-&-replace with sexist (or heterosexist or virtually any other axis of privilege) terms and the analysis would be just as powerful, interesting and accurate. Really an excellent read. From the intro:
I am a white woman. I am standing beside a black woman. We are facing a group of white people who are seated in front of us. We are in their workplace, and have been hired by their employer to lead them in a dialogue about race. The room is filled with tension and charged with hostility. I have just presented a definition of racism that includes the acknowledgment that whites hold social and institutional power over people of color. A white man is pounding his fist on the table. His face is red and he is furious. As he pounds he yells, “White people have been discriminated against for 25 years! A white person can’t get a job anymore!” I look around the room and see 40 employed people, all white. There are no people of color in this workplace. Something is happening here, and it isn’t based in the racial reality of the workplace. I am feeling unnerved by this man’s disconnection with that reality, and his lack of sensitivity to the impact this is having on my co-facilitator, the only person of color in the room. Why is this white man so angry? Why is he being so careless about the impact of his anger? Why are all the other white people either sitting in silent agreement with him or tuning out? We have, after all, only articulated a definition of racism.
Now that I think about it, opening a presentation with this story or something similar (along the lines of “unfortunately this is what we often hear whenever we talk about these issues with audiences like this one…”) could potentially tamp down this reaction in the first place.
It seems to me that microaggressions would make a very good starting point for a discussion about diversity, before launching into some broader concepts like privilege and intersectionality, and ultimately discussing effective ways to leverage some of these principles in the real world. I wouldn’t expect to have much of an impact in an hour and a half session; for one thing this stuff takes time to process, especially if you’ve never been exposed to it before. And of course there are some people who will never, ever be reached—they’re too closed-minded (fragile?) to tolerate even a hint that their behavior is ever anything less that unimpeachable at all times (despite evidence to the contrary). I have to admit I find it darkly funny that if we take the research findings seriously, my presentation would have the most impact if the person giving it is were a white, straight, fit, able-bodied, heterosexual male. But I do think a reasonable goal would be to get some peoples’ gears turning, such that they take better care with what they do and say, and begin to notice problems and issues that they did not see before. This is especially important, because once you see privilege operating, it becomes difficult to unsee it. I know from my own experience that this awareness is only the start of a personal journey. It will take many, many personal journeys to make meaningful progress.
But if there are people who genuinely want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem—and I believe that there are—they have to start dealing with reality somewhere, sometime. That means they have to be willing to confront facts and ideas that will almost certainly make them uncomfortable and defensive. I figure they may as well start with the kick-ass slides and handouts I would make for my (hypothetical**) awesome and wildly infotaining diversity presentation. I am the fucking Priestess of PowerPoint™. FYI.
Look, I drew a bobblehead of Sam Harris. In PowerPoint. For no reason.
*You probably think I’m kidding, or at least heavily exaggerating with the image of that draft markup. Nope.
**I’m semi-seriously considering putting something like this together. Thoughts?