I spent the first five years of my life in a foster home run by a white couple in affluent Chino Hills, California. I lived in a large, luxurious house and attended a prestigious, predominately white elementary school. I recall learning about shapes and colors, and enjoying playtime with my friends. I was oblivious to the fact that I was a different race than my foster family and classmates.
At 5, I was adopted by a Black single mother in Carson, a city in the South Bay region of Los Angeles. She was an older woman who had dedicated her life to raising foster children of color, after being raised by her grandmother, a former slave. After the move, I was enrolled in a now-defunct elementary school in Compton. The lessons I learned in class were starkly different from those I learned in Chino Hills.
During and in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, my new classmates and I passed a number of burned storefronts on our way to school each morning. My teacher tried to explain the chaos we witnessed. She told us that a Black man, Rodney King, had been brutally beaten by police officers and that none of the officers went to prison.
When we did not understand why the Rodney King case led to some of our favorite stores being burned down, my teacher paused for a moment. After a thoughtful silence, she said that Black people have always been treated unfairly in this country due to the color of our skin. Our community was angry, tired and hopeless. Some people in the community expressed their frustrations by rioting because it seemed that Black people would always be treated as second-class citizens who did not belong and did not deserve justice.
The lesson that day was a tough pill to swallow. Prior to my adoption, no one told me I was Black or that I could be subject to disparate treatment. It was jarring to learn that because of the color of my skin ― something I could not control ― the world would perceive me as a threat, inferior and unwelcome. I was terrified to think that I could one day be subjected to violence like Rodney King was ― or even killed because of the stereotypes associated with my Black skin. I was even more saddened to think that people who looked like my former foster parents, whom I had called “mommy” and “daddy,” might discriminate against me because I did not look like them.
In my predominately Black school, our classroom dolls and action figures had white skin and straight, blonde hair. In our textbooks, I noticed that the illustrations were of white parents, students, teachers, professionals. In history classes, I took note that every single president of our country had been a white man.
When I celebrated those presidents during holidays ― or saw their names on our schools, bridges and tunnels ― I became uneasy knowing that many of them were slave owners and believed in the inferiority of my race. I was confused to learn that a number of states proudly raised flags and erected monuments to honor the very Confederacy that fought to keep my ancestors enslaved. I was confused not only because Confederate monuments felt aggressive and disrespectful to Black people, but also because it seemed counterintuitive to celebrate the losing side of a war.
“Prior to my adoption, no one told me I was Black or that I could be subject to disparate treatment. It was jarring to learn that because of the color of my skin ― something I could not control ― the world would perceive me as a threat, inferior and unwelcome.”
In my adolescence, I noticed how purportedly “flesh tone” everyday items such as bandages, hosiery and undergarments were manufactured in white skin tones. Until about five years ago, most mainstream makeup brands did not make products for brown skin tones (and most luxury brands still don’t). Commercials for hair products featured white or fair skinned models with straight hair, signaling that those products were not for kinkier, Black hair textures. When interviewing for jobs, I was advised to straighten my hair because my natural hair texture was seen as “unprofessional.”
As a young adult, I held a few internships in corporate offices of large companies. It quickly became apparent that corporate America was predominately white, especially at the executive level. During law school, it was disconcerting to realize that the law profession is especially white.
There are so few Black lawyers that it is apparently difficult for many people to register that I am a litigator when I walk into a room. I am constantly ignored in hearings and conferences until I advise fellow lawyers that I, too, am an attorney. I am regularly mistaken for the pro bono client in court, or for the paralegal or assistant in depositions. Despite my education and professional success, I am still followed around stores when I shop, or ignored when I seek sales assistance in high-end boutiques.
Every day of my life, I have experiences that infer Black inferiority and anti-Blackness. It is exhausting to wake up each day and convince myself and others that I belong, that my life matters and that I am capable, despite being surrounded by social, cultural and professional cues that suggest otherwise.
No matter how subtle or seemingly innocuous signals of Black exclusion and inferiority are, they diminish Black people’s dignity and humanity, erode our identity as Americans, and reinforce decades of stereotypes and discrimination intended to cement our status as second-class citizens.
The prevalence of, say, white skin-toned bandages or dolls may seem inconsequential to some in the fight for racial justice. However, recall that in 1954, the Supreme Court was persuaded to desegregate public schools in its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision largely based on the findings of Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s doll experiment. The study showed that Black girls preferred to play with white dolls because they thought that Black dolls were inferior. The Black girls’ inferiority complex demonstrated how even seemingly trivial Black subjugation and ostracization inhibit diversity, racial equality, racial equity and inclusion.
“Anti-Blackness and Black inferiority are so ingrained in American culture that over time, some people cannot recognize acts of discrimination and brutality against Black people.”
Societal projections of anti-Blackness and Black inferiority are also embedded within imposter syndrome, from which even the most qualified and distinguished Black people can suffer. I am often saddened when brilliant, hard-working Black lawyers question their entitlement to raises, bonuses and promotions. After years of being harshly critiqued, cut off while speaking, ignored in conversations, excluded from casual networking outings and denied opportunities, they feel ostracized, silenced and inadequate. They’ve watched other Black colleagues struggle to get a foot in the door, only to quit or get fired under the weight of being unseen and unheard in the workplace.
Often, imposter syndrome causes many talented Black lawyers to accept far less than they deserve because they are taught to feel lucky to be “one of the few.” Instead, we should be valuing ourselves as assets to our firms, as our white colleagues do.
Anti-Blackness and Black inferiority are so ingrained in U.S. culture that over time, some people cannot recognize acts of discrimination and brutality against Black people. Worse yet, many Black people have accepted such disparate treatment as an unchanging reality with which we must simply cope.
It has been difficult to achieve progress with a boot or, say, a knee, on our necks. For far too long, the onus has perversely been on people of color to include ourselves in predominately white professions and communities. We should not be doing the work to diversify these spaces and achieve greater equity when we do not have seats at the table to make the decisions necessary to implement change.
Now, many are finally starting to get it. Six years ago, employers did not concern themselves with how the video-recorded death of Eric Garner traumatized their Black employees. White colleagues did not inquire about how the lack of charges in the Eric Garner case opened old wounds of racial injustice. But today, some of the world’s largest, most influential companies have openly denounced the recent slayings of Black men and women and have proudly stated that “Black lives matter.” White people around the world are protesting alongside people of color and are as vocally outraged as we are at the disparate treatment of Black people in this country.
However, to obtain systemic change in our society, the movement must expand beyond the protests. White people must become active voices in their communities, workplaces and social settings on a regular basis. This will not be easy. Some may be uncomfortable speaking up because they don’t believe this is their fight. Others may be scared of inadvertently saying or doing the wrong thing in the era of #cancelculture, or frightened of being derided as “social justice warriors.”
To my white colleagues, I say discomfort be damned. While the recent protests and commentaries on racial injustice are encouraging harbingers of change, they must be followed by concrete, consistent action. I particularly challenge white people to lean into the discomfort. When you hear a friend, colleague or relative say something racist, don’t ignore it or gossip about it behind their backs. Confront the behavior, tell them it is unacceptable, and educate them on why the behavior will not be tolerated. When you notice something unjust or discriminatory in your community or workplace, speak up.
“To my white colleagues, I say discomfort be damned. While the recent protests and statements on racial injustice are encouraging harbingers of change, they must be followed by concrete, consistent action.”
When professional groups and associations of color welcome white colleagues to join our events, you should attend. Otherwise, we are left preaching to the choir. When we post articles and commentary about our experiences with racial injustice, we should see likes, shares and comments from the same white colleagues who privately tell us they found the post moving.
For white people in positions of leadership, create policies that require all employees to participate in diversity, equity and inclusion training. Give business to people of color. Mentor people of color. Sponsor people of color. Network with people of color. Hire more people of color. Retain more people of color. Promote more people of color.
Remember that growth always requires some growing pains, and that these actions will not be easy. Your white friends, relatives and colleagues may even become angry. But also recall that, every day for the last 400 years, Black people have been made to feel uncomfortable by constant exposure to the anti-Blackness and Black inferiority embedded in nearly every aspect of American society.
I believe that change is possible and that change is imminent. I am hopeful that someday, Black children will not need to be warned about Black inferiority and can move through life expecting and receiving the same opportunities as equally qualified white people. I hope that Black children can one day bask in the same innocence that white children have always enjoyed. I want Black children to see themselves reflected in textbooks, toys, everyday personal items and mainstream American culture and society. Because they, too, are American.
Black children should see streets, schools, buildings and bridges named after accomplished Black people whom they can admire. Black children should see a succession of American presidents that is as diverse as the American electorate. They should see monuments and currency reflecting the many Black people who have contributed to our society. And when future Black students are finally taught about anti-Blackness, Black inferiority, police brutality and racial injustice, it is my hope that those lessons are taught in the past tense.
TaLona Holbert is a lawyer at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP in New York City, where she focuses on a wide range of litigation disputes. She is an active pro bono counsel, volunteer and mentor.