Like many of my peers, I began articling at the end of the summer of 2012 at a law firm off Bay Street. I had heard the horror stories of the 10 month articling period from many as I neared the end of law school— the dwindling social life, the late night assignments, the one heinous lawyer who would drop a research assignment on your desk at 7pm due the next morning. What was absent from those conversations was a discussion of what it would mean to be a woman and a person of color at a largely white male practice- and an articling student no less.
I receive assignments from lawyers who are ostensibly committed to my advancement; who work alongside women and yet, would refer to opposing counsel as “broads” and, on some occasion “bitches.” In my first two weeks at the office, I would hear words like “cunt” and “queer” thrown around the lunchroom without any kind of reaction. On one occasion, very early on in the year, I went to speak to a lawyer about a judge who had been particularly harsh with respect to my motion materials. In an attempt to be helpful, I assume, he referred to her as a “little ho” and told me not to worry about it. My own position as a woman was irrelevant, it seemed. There was an entire lunch spent debating which actress at an awards show the night before was the most fuckable. Conversations regularly turned on the dinners being made by the wives of lawyers when they got home. The stories go on. I have shared them with many a fellow articling student, and all are equally shocked.
Some relevant factors: I am a woman of color. I identify as a feminist. I went to an undergraduate institution with leftist politics and an emphasis on women’s rights, and took classes on advanced feminist theory and transnational feminism all the way through my master’s and even in law school.
Perhaps for that reason, what has been more troubling to me than the overt discrimination in my work environment has been my growing complicity with the kinds of attitudes and comments that circulate on a day-to-day basis.
Where once I would think nothing of telling people know where they could go with their bigoted views, I have found myself, on virtually every occasion, remaining silent. Outside of the office, I have turned these stories into conversation pieces, even party tricks. But in my white-washed, predominantly-male work environment, the need to conform has assumed paramount importance. I realize that these past few months have also been about a kind of erasure: my willful dissociation from my race and gender-those parts of me that might be perceived as threats- in order to make myself palatable.
A few weeks back, a staff member was talking about his upcoming trip to India. One of the lawyers joked that he would step off the luxury train in which he was traversing the country to be greeted by a “village man who would offer him 100 goats to marry his daughter”. Everyone laughed. The punchline was clear: India was backwards and uncivilized. These comments bear directly on my own heritage, a heritage I grew up with, and love, and which continues to shape my identity. And yet, in that moment, I said nothing.
On one occasion, I did confront a lawyer who made a particularly sexist remark about my future career options. I later approached him to smooth things over- the absurdity of my concern for his well-being given his apparent disregard for mine is not lost on me. He was fine, it seemed. “We’re bros”, he said. I felt oddly relieved. Thinking on it later, I realized his comment- humorous without the context I’ve sketched out- is an apt reflection of my experience and the tensions underlying it. “You’re one of us”, it says, “but on our terms”. “You are not different.”
I wonder sometimes, about the greater impact of this environment on me and, more importantly, my silence within it. I wonder if, by the end of these 10 months, I will have erased so much of my “difference” that I will be unrecognizable.