Success, with Style

What to do when you have a “ghetto” name

Posted on October 6, 2015

It wasn’t until law school that someone told me to my face that my name, Takeia, was considered “ghetto.” Until that point, all I knew was my name and that I required people to pronounce it correctly if they were going to talk to me. Five-year-old Takeia held lessons in classrooms and on playgrounds on how to pronounce my name: Ta-kee-uh. When I was younger, I don’t think I knew why I demanded that recognition, but now I know: your name is often the first glimpse into your identity that people have.

 

 

As the poet says in the video, I demanded that people pronounce my name correctly or not say it at all.

 

In law school, when professors would call on me, they would say my first name. They almost always got it wrong the first time. I corrected them, and would not allow them to move on to whatever question they had until they got my name right.

 

Yes, I had the audacity to require recognition before I proceeded in any relationship with you, even if that relationship was for three fleeting minutes in which I presented the facts, issue(s), holding and reasoning of a case. For those that persisted in incorrectly pronouncing my name, I let them know they have the option of calling me Ms. Johnson instead.

 

Although I have a decidedly Black-sounding name, I have still achieved numerous goals. I can’t say, however, what levels of success I might have reached or what opportunities were foreclosed to me, simply because of my name. Even though I can’t identify where I have been denied access and opportunity because of racism, research shows that people with ethnic-, and in particular, Black-sounding names are treated differently and ultimately less favorably, because of the race and ethnicity attributed to their names.  See, e.g., “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination.”

360iak

We live in a world in which the politics of identity means that there are social forces always working to ignore, deny, and denigrate individuals and groups based solely on their identities – whether it is based on race/ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or any number of other identifiers.

 

Marlo Stanfield said it so succinctly on The Wire: my name is my name. It is the world’s first entry into my identity and I demand recognition.

 

Butch Dress-for-Success

Posted on August 8, 2015

Yesterday, I presented workshop called “Butch Dress-For-Success” at the Lavender Law national conference, presented by the National LGBT Bar in Chicago, Illinois. The workshop seemed to be well-received. I have wanted to do a workshop like this for some time because it provided the thus far unprecedented opportunity for me share what I have learned in my style, success, and personal journeys. Yesterday, I was able to talk to women and men who, like me, must navigate their careers while presenting gender expressions that do not conform to society’s norms. Like me, they have to decide every day just how much of themselves they will allow the world to see while being prepared to suffer the consequences and reap the rewards of doing so.

lavender law

One of the themes that arose in yesterday’s workshop is that butch women are often gender-policed while on the job. We heard tales of how mock jurors told a woman lawyer that she was not feminine enough: she should do “something” with her hair, she should wear different, more feminine suits and shoes, and that she would be taken more seriously if she were prettier. Women who experienced similar criticism echoed their dismay and solidarity after hearing her story.

We also tackled the difficult issue of balancing our own need, and right, to be just who we are, while also zealously advocating on behalf of our clients. What do you when a judge has a known policy of kicking lawyers out of his courtroom because they fail to adhere to his arcane and misogynist dress code? There is no single solution for us because our experiences and jobs are all so different. One thing was clear, however: as a lawyer representing a client in that judge’s courtroom, you must put your client’s interests first. That could mean that when appearing in that judge’s courtroom, you wear the required black skirt suit. It could also mean that you send a colleague in your place to appear before the judge so as not to compromise your own identity and ideals. It could also mean that you seek to have the judge recuse himself or that you request a change of judge. All of these options have consequences. How you choose to proceed, how you balance your own interests against those of your clients (which should come first), and against the political and social landscape that you may be trying to change require each of us to do the hard work of figuring out what works best for our own lives and careers.

gender policing image

Another theme that arose out of yesterday’s workshop is that a change in the culture of the practice of law must occur, and that includes a shift in social notions of gender and professionalism. I have chosen to take on the hard job of promoting and pushing that shift. But, we don’t all have to do this work. Each person has a particular role that we must play and duties that we must fulfill. Some of us are change-agents while some of us reap the benefits of change. Either way, everyone wins. There is nothing wrong with this arrangement. As I emphasized yesterday, you can’t guilt someone into doing the hard work of being freedom fighters just like you cannot guilt someone into coming out as LGBT.

I am a visible Black gender nonconforming lesbian because I want to be and because I want to work to help ensure others may also safely and happily choose to be out and visible. As long as I am able, I will continue to do this work, which includes publishing this blog. In that regard, I am happy to be back here doing what I love. DSC_0076

Diversity and Inclusion: Dealing with Gender Norms at Work

Posted on March 12, 2015

Law schools should stop reinforcing gender norms by telling women to wear dresses and skirts to job interviews and to work.

When I was a law student preparing for On Campus Interviewing (“OCI”), the law school administrator gave tips on how to dress appropriately for interviews. She told the men to wear suits and told the women to wear what has traditionally been deemed “feminine attire” – dresses and skirts. She made these advisory statements without regard to the individuals in the room, without regard to the effect that her reinforcement of gender stereotypes would have to at least some of the students who looked to her for guidance.

It’s not just law schools that stifle individuality and try to force diverse students into bland boxes. Work environments, particularly within the legal profession, do it too. Employee handbooks often have guidelines for what constitutes proper work attire. These guidelines usually divide employees into categories of men and women and then proceed to tell the men what is acceptable to wear, e.g., on Fridays in the Summer, it is appropriate to wear short sleeve polo shirts with khakis. For the women, they advise us not to wear skirts, dresses, and shorts that are too short, not to wear open-toe sandals, and to keep our shoulders covered.

You cannot promote diversity and inclusion if, at the same time, you reinforce gender norms and stereotypes. The way to effect change is to actually change

  • PRO TIP 1: Revise employee dress guidelines to remove the arbitrary divisors that distinguish between what men and women should wear. Employers can just as easily provide guidance on professional attire without ascribing masculine and feminine gender norms to entire categories of workers.
  • PRO TIP 2: Have confidence in the people hired to fulfill the organization’s mission. Employees are hired because they are believed to be competent. As an attorney, I can say that lawyers are usually hired because, at the least, they are intelligent, communicative, and know how to think critically. These people don’t need employers to tell them when and how to conform to gender stereotypes and norms that they may not subscribe to.

Your ability is not determined by whether you wear dresses. 

I got jobs and did well at interviews by being my self: skilled, engaging, inquisitive, creative. I kept jobs by working hard, anticipating needs, and engaging with my coworkers and employers. I received positive feedback from employers by performing my duties well. Not once did I wear a dress or skirt to work or to an interview. 

Related: 5 days of dapper in the workplace
Related: January Look Book Pt. II – I Define my Dapper
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