Lean Into That Sense of Discomfort

Ariel: I still remember sitting in class while my section discussed the place of environmental deprivation in criminal law. Of course we should consider this, I thought. As my brain scanned every example that popped up in my mind, I started doubting the relevance of my lived experiences. They didn’t carry the same cold, neutral tone of our cases and readings, and I started to wonder if the discomfort in my voice when discussing these issues would expose my working-class background. Before I could even resolve this tension, my professor interrupted my train of thought and asked, “Ms. Stone, what do you think?”

Kamala: I spent hours upon hours of my 1L year learning how to cook Filipino food. I bought my own wok and claimed way too much space in my dorm’s communal kitchen for ingredients from the local Asian grocery store. I wrapped dozens of lumpia when I should have been working, and experimented with four different types of pancit noodles. I even called my friends over in the middle of one night to try pan de sal fresh out of the oven. I’ve always loved Filipino food, but I never had any interest in cooking it myself. Before law school, I had always been around other Filipino people. At HLS, I was the only Filipino person I knew.

Ariel: When I arrived at Harvard, I was pretty certain that I wouldn’t find anyone who shared my ethnic background. After all, how many other Indian Jewish people would I find here? Unsurprisingly, I found none at the law school, so I reluctantly bifurcated my own identity for the sake of finding a supportive community. I tried to deemphasize my ethnic background in Jewish spaces, but my brown skin undercut my attempts. I received comments about “Indian Jewish loopholes” to Jewish traditions, questions about whether I went “back to India” for my holiday break, and suggestions that Stone wasn’t even my “real” last name. The next day I would see these people walk into my classrooms and hear them claim to be allies of every marginalized group under the sun.

Kamala: In the summer after 1L, I realized that all the struggle and self-reflection I’d experienced during the school year made me a more compassionate and effective advocate. I worked with homeless individuals in San Francisco, and connected with my clients quickly. One client, for instance, brought me a local Filipino-American newsletter every time we met. Another, when she learned that I was a hapa, gave me a piece of her art. Queer clients opened up to me about discrimination they faced when I mentioned my own queer identity. When clients yelled angrily at me after I told them there wasn’t a legal solution to their problems, I was open and honest about my own frustrations at the law’s inadequacies. My outrage over the law’s failures motivated me to master the law.

Both: As women who are ethnic minorities, working class, mixed race, or queer, we possess multiple identities that are often the subject of legal controversy. And the tension between leaving our identities outside the classroom door and being forced to confront issues relating to our identities during class discussions pervaded the 1L experience. The law school pedagogy — the façade of neutrality and cool, logic and reason — can feel acutely painful.

But we are learning to channel that pain into strength and resilience. We are learning to examine the ways our identities shape our thoughts on the law rather than discounting these thoughts if they differ from those of our peers. We are learning to speak our minds and take special delight when others disagree with us. We are learning to recognize our own power and privileges and the ways in which we are complicit in unjust legal institutions. We are learning to view our legal education as a tool for empowerment, not a road to achievement. Ultimately, we are learning that these moments of reflection make us better students and advocates.

To all 1Ls who at any time feel alone or out of place, feel like they’re sitting under a spotlight during lessons about Obergefell or Loving, or feel that uncomfortable twist in their gut when their lived experiences are presented as arcane, abstract thought exercises, know that we have been and still are there. If we could give you only one piece of advice, it would be to lean into that sense of discomfort. Take pride in it, value it, and learn to use it as an advocate. It’s hard, we know. We’re still struggling to feel proud of our identities. Yet, we also know that law is more than cold reason, and that it shapes and is shaped by lived experiences. This, we believe, has the power to make us critical, kind, and determined attorneys. And we are so excited to welcome you — the next class of critical, kind, and determined attorneys — to Harvard Law School.

Ariel Stone and Kamala Buchanan are 2Ls. They are the social chairs of Lambda.

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