The privilege in the room was suffocating. I felt out of place. I felt lost. I felt alienated.
Of course, it was an honor to be invited to a summer law clerk dinner held by one of the most prestigious law firms in Miami, and I am grateful to have been afforded this opportunity, but I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable in my surroundings. As soon as we arrived, we were greeted by the Host, one of the most powerful men in Miami. Innocently enough, we were ushered outside to watch the tennis tournament, but something didn’t feel quite right. I wasn’t at ease. Perhaps it was because I was only an undergraduate at a networking event catered towards law clerks, or perhaps it was because outside of my cohort, I could count the number of people of color on one hand.
My discomfort only escalated when the tournament was over and we were guided back inside. It was finally time to network at the networking event. The awkward small talk was inevitable, and I dreaded it – not because I am uncomfortable speaking to adults, but because I knew that I had to present my most posh and gentlemanly side. At that time, I was not merely representing myself, my university, and my cohort, but I carried the weight of being the only Vietnamese-American in the room. Out of a hundred guests, there was not a single Asian-American attorney. I had to perform a certain identity, an identity dictated by white norms and generations of cotillion. I had to perform that identity to prove that Asian-Americans belong in this space – the upper echelon of law firms.
This identity performance manifested itself in code-switching to the language of the 1%. While in line to pick up my dinner, I tried to keep to myself and avoid conversations with the attorneys in case I misspoke. As someone who isn’t white, as Ceci explained to me, it’s difficult to amass the same cultural capital as someone who is white, hence my discomfort in a setting dominated by white people. When someone did engage me in conversation, they were polite and would ask me questions about Duke and my internship, but the name Catholic Charities Legal Services was met with condescension. “Thank you guys. Somebody has to do that work.” To the wealthy practitioners of private litigation, immigration law, especially immigration law offered at low costs, might not seem very lucrative or worthwhile.
After getting my food, I darted towards the table where the rest of my cohort was sitting. As we stared at our BBQ ribs, drumsticks, and corn on the cob, it seemed impossible to eat our food civilly with a fork and knife. Around us, white men were digging into their food, licking the BBQ sauce off of each rib without any fear of judgement. In contrast, at our table where everyone was a person of color, nobody dared pick up food with their hands, a privilege that people in positions of power possess.
While everybody I spoke to at the event was nothing but courteous to me, I still felt out of place as a person of color. In a city where only 11% of the population is white, I was shocked to see how few people of color were in the room. Is this a reflection of what the field of law is like? At Catholic Charities Legal Services, a majority of the staff are people of color, and over half are women. My fear is that the dinner’s guests were more of a reflection of corporate law and the privilege of the 1%.