Foreword

By Johnson, Alexsis M. | Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, Summer 2018 | Go to article overview

Foreword


Johnson, Alexsis M., Columbia Journal of Gender and Law


For those living in the United States, race and gender exist as consequential factors in daily existence. Individuals project race and gender onto others and perform and internalize race and gender themselves. American society's ascription of hierarchical value to race and gender (1) also gives rise to the possibility of an identity misalignment of sorts: what a person knows to be true about themself might differ vastly--and often does--from the stereotypes and assumptions society maps onto that person based on their gender and the color of their skin. W.E.B. Du Bois termed this phenomenon a "double-consciousness." (2) He described it as "a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks in in amused contempt and pity." (3)

Indeed, for women and girls of color, the consequential nature of race, gender, and the double-consciousness the stereotyping of those social constructs necessitate, permeates the abstract boundaries of the personal sphere, and travels with us into classrooms, courtrooms, and boardrooms. (4) Though scholars and practitioners began developing entire bodies of theory and legal strategies around this observation decades ago, (5) a layperson might conclude otherwise upon reading Supreme Court cases decided in the same span of time. (6) The Supreme Court rarely engages directly with race and the particular way it informs and impacts individuals' experiences. Instead, the Court often discusses issues related to race in terms of abstract legal principles that require one to read between the lines to understand the real impact of the Court's decision on the lives of people of color. (7) A few recent exceptions appear in dissents written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor--the first and only woman of color to serve on the Supreme Court to date--acknowledging a dual reality in which minority Americans enjoy a more limited set of constitutional protections than non-minority Americans. (8)

As such, for women of color who make it their lives' work to examine, debate, and engage deeply with the law and legal institutions, Du Bois' double-consciousness takes on even more complexity. (9) Not only must women lawyers of color negotiate the "two-ness" of both their own self-conception and the conception the world then projects onto them, (10) they might also need to balance and, at times, subordinate this double-consciousness to a third consideration: zealous representation of their clients. Women lawyers of color must also undertake this disparately onerous task in a context that avoids directly naming the very reason for their dual realities--a context that instead prefers "neutral" terms and measures of merit that in reality may more deeply entrench and obscure inequality. (11)

The third annual conference of Empowering Women of Color (12) (EWOC), Double-Consciousness: Women of Color as Advocates for Ourselves and Others, gathered law students, practitioners, and academics together to discuss and strategize around double-consciousness as a phenomenon shared among women lawyers of color yet unique to each person's idiosyncratic and multi-faceted identities. The conference sought to address ever-present questions of balance: How do we balance our reality as private citizens who are subject to the law with our role as advocates armed with the power of the law? How do we balance our individual professional pursuits with the quest for collective advancement of our identity groups in society?

In her opening keynote, the Honorable Sheila Abdus-Salaam of the New York Court of Appeals, Columbia Law School '77, shared her journey to the bench from the racially segregated public schools she attended as a child. (13) Judge Abdus-Salaam shared her own double-consciousness of aspiration and self-doubt, and remembered the allies and personal ethics that helped her rise to her full potential and become the first African American woman to serve on the highest court in the state of New York in its 169-year history. …

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