Troubling Thought

Here’s the first of my #NaNoWriMo posts…

Last month, I attended a CLE seminar on diversity in the legal profession. During a panel discussion with five representatives of various marginalized demographics, a question asked the panelists to tell of a time when they experienced trouble in their job because of their minority’s identity. Several of the women of color described being assumed to be secretaries, prostitutes, or mothers of their clients by judges and court personnel. The discussion turned to their coping strategies and what things they did to avoid those assumptions. All of the women on the panel, including the gay white woman, talked about making great efforts to present a professional appearance, especially having a good hairstyle and always wearing a suit jacket to court and meetings. These were acknowledged by the panel as the most direct measures to avoid negative assumptions by people who “naturally” rely on prevailing stereotypes about women’s roles. 
Then a self-acknowledged straight white man who spent 20+ years in the US armed forces, commented that his experience in uniform taught him that “dressing the part” was often the best way to achieve a goal and earn the respect of those involved. 

I was stunned by the level of agreement this remark drew from the audience. 

Perhaps I look at the thing with undue prejudice, given that presentation, gender identity, authenticity, and validation are all closely, inextricably linked in my head. But even so, I cannot help but think that telling people who are marginalized in large part by their appearance that the only way for them to succeed or advance is to assimilate the appearance of those who marginalize them, is dangerous and damaging. 

“Fake it ’til you make it “, “dress the part”, “grin and bear it”, “pay your dues”, and lots of other pithy, glib, over-simplified adages all tell the same story: you’re not (yet) enough and you’ll only ever be enough if you become (or appear to be) something else. 

In a room full of lawyers voluntarily learning about the vital role diversity plays in making our profession, our justice system, our society, and our world better for us and future generations, I judge that man’s comment, and the sentiment and connotations it carries, to be wholly unworthy, erasing whole swaths of identities, and undoing any positive messages that the seminar did impart to the non-marginalized attendees. 

But what other advice could he have given that would be more helpful? 

If looking mainstream provides the relief necessary to get you to a position that allows a more authentic presentation, how is that a bad thing? Conforming for safety, personal and professional security, or as a step among a progression…isn’t this the definition of maturity, of growth? Is it possible to balance authenticity and conformity?

Lots of questions and few answers. 

What do you think?

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2 comments so far

  1. colormeanew on

    I know my wife is having problems with balancing her butchliness with safety concerns. Do you have any insight on clothes preference and hair cuts?

    • Searching4Self2013 on

      That’s all pretty much personal choice and circumstances. I like short hair, dress shirts, bow ties, and oxfords. I find that correlates to my identity and is within the zone of safety for my job and community. I suggest you and your wife try to find that balance for her.


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