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Excerpted From: Njeri Mathis Rutledge, Walking the Tightrope: Reflections of a Black Female Law Professor, 43 Campbell Law Review 233 (2021) (39 Footnotes) (Full Document)
In a sobering moment, I realized that my success (and that of many people of color) stems from our ability to normalize daily racism--Njeri Rutledge (2020)
As a Black female law professor, I often walk an invisible tightrope, carefully avoiding any misstep for fear of falling. The problem of racism makes that tightrope particularly difficult. There is a misperception that racism does not impact successful people, but only those who are uneducated or have a low socioeconomic status. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a Black professional woman, I deal with racism constantly.
I walk a daily tightrope where I must appear as though all is well despite the barrage of images of unarmed Blacks being killed, racist attacks, and the growth of white supremacy. Even the legal academy fails to provide a haven from racist attitudes. My career as a law professor has spanned fifteen years. I love teaching and mentoring students. I must teach my students to review the law objectively. When race is germane, I must have the courage to raise it, and when it is not, I must have the courage to raise that as well, while defending my choice. I must serve as a role model without favoring my minority students, although I vividly remember being in their shoes. I know what it is like to sit in class when a controversial case about race comes up in property, contracts, constitutional, or criminal law. As a professor, when the topic of race is raised, I have to cautiously navigate giving my minority students the freedom to speak and the freedom to remain silent, knowing that few people embrace the burden of serving as a mouthpiece for an entire race.
In 1895, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote “We Wear the Mask” based on his reflections on racism in America after the Civil War. It reads:
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,--
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
I reflected on Dunbar's powerful poem after George Floyd's tragic death and the subsequent outcry and protests around the world. As horrific as Floyd's murder was, it was a watershed moment for many Americans to pause and reflect on racism in America. For me, it was an opportunity to reflect on my frustration with how racism has impacted my own life as a Black female professional.
Floyd was the Black male victim, but I was haunted by thoughts of his Black mother. Within the week, my own daughter woke up crying and asked me if the police were going to kill us. Initially, I was speechless; then, I felt hurt to be forced to have such a painful conversation with my ten-year-old daughter. I wanted to be immune from talking to my daughter about the reality that good and bad police existed. I wanted to reassure her that of course the police would never kill us, but sadly, I also needed to reassure myself.
For some, the term racism refers to an abstract idea from the past that is overused. For others, racism is an evil that must be dealt with daily. For me, racism is not theoretical--it is personal. I attended Spelman College and Harvard Law School. In spite of my achievements, racism constantly impacts my life. My Black husband has green eyes and we both have a light skin tone, which poet Caroline Randall powerfully describes as “rape-colored.” Our very appearance is a constant reminder that our ancestors' American experience included the violence of slavery. Whether I experience it directly through individuals or indirectly through oppressive systems, racism constantly seeks to attack my peace and often succeeds. The pain is compounded by the long list of victims of police abuse.
Police violence has not been limited to Black men. It has also impacted Black women and children. The countless victims, like seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, Atatiana Jefferson, and Breonna Taylor, all remind me of friends and relatives. The violence committed against them, the growing list of new victims, and the inequities in the criminal justice system are traumatic. Sadly, for too many of us, when the police kill another unarmed Black person, it is no longer shocking--it has become commonplace. Racism is “[s]o interwoven in our nation's fabric, its pervasiveness has made it seem normal--hence deniable. The normalization of racism props up a powerful façade of acceptability, even to its victims.” Killing a child who is playing in the park with a BB gun or sleeping on her grandmother's couch should not be a regular occurrence. Neither should the acquittal or mistrial of the police officers who shot them, yet we know it is becoming normalized because it continues to occur. Cell phones and body cams allow Americans to become unwitting witnesses to police violence on a regular basis.
The killing of George Floyd felt different, partly because of the global pandemic, partly because of the unsettlingly calm demeanor of the officer who pressed his knee against Floyd's neck--it was difficult to look away; you could not avoid the pain Floyd's death invoked. It is traumatic seeing and knowing people suffer because they share your race, even if you have never met them. Hearing Floyd cry out for his deceased mother struck a haunting chord in the hearts of not only Black mothers but mothers everywhere. The burden of reassuring Black children while warning them to be careful, respectful, and a list of other rules when interacting with law enforcement is yet another tightrope we must balance. Yet, even after watching a blatant disregard for Black life, society expected Black people to operate as if Floyd's death was just one of countless others. We were called to return to wearing our masks and act like normal in the midst of trauma. James Baldwin said to be Black in America “and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time.” The National Alliance on Mental Illness referred to racism as a public health crisis that impacts the mental health of Blacks. That trauma is compounded for Black women for Black women have to navigate sexism and racism. Minimizing the trauma is a matter of survival. The only other option is to live stuck in anger and fear.
In spite of my many life experiences, when a fellow law professor asked me if I had ever personally experienced racism, I instinctively and without thinking denied its existence in my life. I realized in that moment that I had normalized and ultimately minimized my experiences as a coping mechanism. Each day, I must choose either to confront covert racism and be labeled as angry, or to smile, ignore, and pretend it does not impact me. Either choice is exhausting. Navigating the tightrope of asserting myself without being labeled with the angry Black woman stereotype is frustrating, particularly when that anger is justified.
Over the years, I have become a master of wearing the mask Dunbar described in his poem. At any point during a single day, I may be teaching and writing as a law professor, counseling and encouraging as a mother, or analyzing and arguing as an attorney. During all of those moments I am always a Black woman and that identity is an important part of who I am. Legal scholar and professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality to refer to the unique position of those of us who must confront issues related to both gender and race. Being both Black and female has shaped who I am. It is through this unique lens that I perceive the world, and through which the world sees me.
Society constantly depicts Black women using negative adjectives and stereotypes--angry, hypersexual, gold diggers, mammies. Black women are also frequently disrespected and undervalued. In 1962, Malcolm X called the Black woman “[t]he most neglected person in America.” After nearly six decades, we still have the highest maternal mortality rate and a greater likelihood of being murdered in an abusive relationship. COVID-19, police violence, and mass incarceration disproportionately impact Black women. Racism's cuts and bites are never-ending. Sometimes the racism is overt and other times covert, but sadly it feels ever-present. The stakes may be higher for me, as a professional Black woman, but the tightrope is the same for all Black women.
[. . .]
Microaggressions in the professional realm come with the territory for many people of color, particularly Black women. If you're successful, there may be increased motivation to “put you in your place.” Early in my legal career, I was tasked with representing one of three named parties in a mediation. At the time, I worked at a large law firm. I was the only woman and the only person of color; the other lawyers were all white males. During the mediation, the plaintiff's attorney leaned over, and pointed at me, and said, “I am never going to negotiate with you.” I was both stunned and shaken by the vitriolic tone that accompanied his words. It felt deeply personal; however, I did not respond. At the time, I felt the extra burden of wondering if my very personhood may have disadvantaged my client. I was eventually successful in getting the case dismissed. Long after the case ended, the memory lingered.
I reflected back on that moment when watching the vice-presidential debates. When Kamala Harris reminded Mike Pence that “I'm speaking,” she was not just asserting her right to be heard. She was asserting her right to be treated with respect. Her assertion resonated with many. I recognized the tightrope Harris walked during the debate because I have walked that same thin line myself. Harris balanced the tightrope by firmly standing up for herself. In that moment, she stood up for all of us who have been silenced or underestimated.
The inequitable treatment directed towards Harris has been traumatic for many Black women to watch. Many see the attempts on Harris to silence and banish her to obscurity as an attempt to put her in the same obscure place that they have tried to relegate other Black women to. Misogynoir, a term coined over a decade ago, aptly describes the challenge faced when sexism and racism collide to target Black women. Black women live with these collisions every day. Unsurprisingly, misogynoir has been on bold display during the 2020 election season. Even before Joe Biden announced Kamala Harris as his running mate, the negative comments towards the Black women candidates on his shortlist became more focused against Harris. One example of misogynoir at work was criticism that Harris had the audacity to be too ambitious. Biden's decision to consider primarily Black women and ultimately choose Harris was an important step towards giving Black women a place at the table which they helped build, knowing the road to the table has not been smooth.
In preparing for the debate, Harris had to consider an issue that no prior vice-presidential candidate had ever dealt with before: countering the angry Black woman stereotype while keeping her seat at the table. Watching Harris has been a painful reminder that education, success, and money do not exempt a person from racism. But watching Harris take her oath as the 49th Vice President of the United States is an inspiring reminder to keep pressing forward.
Black people--and Black women specifically--suffer from ongoing racism and trauma. It is time to stop normalizing racism in everyday life. It is time for the masks to come off and for survivors of racism, and all society, to stop minimizing the pain and the trauma that racism inflicts. It is time Black women gained the freedom to step down from the tightrope.
Professor of Law, South Texas College of Law Houston.
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