#lawschoolproblems Racism

When I started to draft this essay, I hesitated. This hesitation was unsettling. I enjoy writing and in particular, I enjoy writing self-reflection pieces. When I finished my chart, the source of this hesitation became clear. The “cultural competence” section in my chart remained empty for about a week. What do I put into this section when the Law Society of Upper Canada (LSUC) remains largely silent on cultural competence?

This silence speaks for itself especially as the profession remains (mostly) tacit when it comes to the latent racism in law school and the legal profession itself. I want to interrupt this silence. I want to speak back to the legal profession in its attempts to establish itself as an ethical and fair profession. For this essay, I will argue that the profession needs to address its silence on cultural competence to move forward as a more inclusive field. Utilizing Patricia Monture-Angus’s collection of articles based on her experiences in the 1980s, I will highlight that little has changed since the publication of her works. Second, I will discuss the importance of making visible the issue of racism in this conversation. Third and final, I will suggest some ways to move forward.

Monture-Angus details her law school experiences in her collection of essays in her book entitled, Thunder in my Soul: A Mohawk Woman Speaks. I refer to a specific collection of essays under the subheading, “Flint Woman Speaks.” Together, these articles call attention to the complex issues that, I, as an Indigenous woman, still battle with while in law school today: racism.

My indigeneity is visible. I recognize both the benefit and the struggle in this visibility. Nobody questions whether I am Indigenous. Yet, I do not enjoy the benefits of White privilege. Interactions with my non-Indigenous peers are markedly different. I am both visible and invisible. This (in)visibility is sometimes my solace. However, it has usually been an area of difficulty for me.

Similar to Monture-Angus, I understand the significance in naming these incidents and “writing them down” (p 54-55). Monture-Angus writes, “[t]hings happen and I write them all down [and] writing—talking back—is the process through which I come to terms with my pain, anger and emotion” (p 54). I call attention to these events in law school to talk back to these truths to break the silence.

Monture-Angus published her collection in 1995 and she began her law school endeavours in the 1980s (p 54). In her first article, she eloquently describes the instance of being the only Mohawk woman at a legal conference (p 23). I have similar experiences sometimes being the only visible-Anishnaabe kwe in my classes. Remember this context when I describe a troubling incident.

During midterms, I posted a quote on Facebook referencing the work I do for the communities I represent. The quote must have caused some displeasure for my White peer as she claimed I did not care about the most marginalized or vulnerable people in society. To the contrary, of course, I care about the most marginalized and vulnerable people in society, because as an Indigenous woman that is the definition I am born into. I fight to overcome this definition. On this day, however, my refusal to back down to my peer’s discontent with my position on the issue of sex work did not bode well with her. “Just because you think you are an Aboriginal, don’t think that you can run your mouth,” she wrote. Surprising, but it is nothing new. Still when these very personal and very racist attacks occur, it hurts. The solution to this comment was that I delete all my peers from my Facebook to protect myself from any further comments and gossip. This move ultimately caused me to feel more isolated and alienated from my peers.

When January came around, it was unclear how the term would progress. Admittedly, I did have some anxiety about the upcoming January term. My anxiety stemmed from the idea of being placed in a team with the above peer. Except for one instance in class, I only had to interact with her once. In recalling being the only Mohawk woman at a conference and encountering racism, Monture-Angus maintains, “[f]or what had been done to me that day was violence” (p 20). Even today in law school, the on-going racism and all of its alienation and isolation that I continue to face, I name this as violence too. I plan my day just to avoid this peer. And in case you missed the notice, it is now 2015. Monture-Angus documented her experiences from the 1980s and published them in the 1990s (p 54). Monture-Angus contends that it is vital to change things for the children of today and tomorrow (p 23). I am one of those children that Monture-Angus refers to in her piece. But today is now yesterday and nothing has changed.

A Toronto Star (The Star) article entitled “Discrimination a daily reality for visible minority lawyers in Ontario, report says” highlights an LSUC report investigating the discrimination that legal professionals endure in their work environments. The Star’s chosen title of the article and the title of the LSUC’s report tells us plenty in its choice to use deceitful term to silence the hard issues. While it is only briefly mentioned in both sources, the term racism remains mostly hidden from the discussion of discrimination against racialized legal professionals. Who benefits from this erasure? Certainly, the legal profession does not benefit from this silencing and erasure of an issue that continues to exclude the same people it claims to embrace.

In discussing this same erasure and silencing, Monture-Angus asserts, “In law, we do not discuss racism. We discuss discrimination” (p 37). True to form, even the LSUC Rules of Professional Conduct refers to discrimination but not racism when talking about lawyering responsibilities to our peers, our clients and “any other person or in professional dealings with other licensees or any other person.” To distinguish between the two concepts, discrimination is the visible actions and racism is the invisible thoughts, feelings or beliefs which structure our worlds (Monture, p 40). In calling racism merely discrimination, the regulatory body that governs the legal profession prioritizes one world over another, and thus, it contributes to this silencing of the realities of racism. In this silencing, the legal profession refuses to confront the underlying issues that cause discrimination.

As someone who wants to eventually enter the legal profession, I refuse to remain silent. I do not want my truths erased from these discussions because they are real and they impact both my learning and work environments. Just because a legal institution makes space for Indigenous peoples, specifically Indigenous women, it does not mean that these spaces are safe. Frank and honest discussions about these issues that cause people like me to feel alienated and isolated from these spaces need to take place. This reluctance to address these issues represents a missed opportunity for the legal profession.

In naming my experiences, I talk back to them to overcome my pain and anger. I will never forget these words. And from elementary school to law school, the patterns and experiences remain the same. While calling attention to these events are principal in ending the silence and ultimately ending the alienation, isolation and exclusion racialized and Indigenized peoples endure in the legal profession, Monture-Angus suggests that “[w]e must do more than offer our pain […] we must also offer our visions on what must come” (p 29). I agree and as I offer my pain, I have a vision for the future.

Some of the steps we can take to make this profession inclusive begin the law school classroom. In the short term, I suggest incorporating a day dedicated to culture which includes someone from the Algonquin community to acknowledge the unceded-Algonquin territory the University is built on and acknowledge the history and culture of the Algonquin peoples. Other Canadian law schools can follow suit. Schools can also be pro-active and adopt social media policies to address racist behaviours outside the classroom. In the long term, perhaps the LSUC can stop referring to racism as discrimination and challenge the feelings, beliefs and thoughts embedded within Canadian society. Like Patricia Monture-Angus stated in 1995, we have an obligation to the children of today and tomorrow.

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