In recognition of Black History Month, Morgan Lewis’s Black Lawyer Network hosted a panel discussion on the concept of Black exceptionalism and how to navigate the workplace as a Black professional. The event, moderated by Senior Director of Diversity and Inclusion Malaika Lindo, included insights from partner Russell Franklin, associate Sariyah Buchanan, Senior Director of Firm Administration Beth Jeffries, and Morgan Lewis alumnus David Bowman, who currently serves as director, associate general counsel and global head of employment investigations at Meta.
“Simply put, Black exceptionalism is the concept that Black people who do not fit the negative stereotypes ascribed to their race are viewed or perceived as rarities as compared to the general Black population, and therefore deemed to be exceptions to the racialized stereotype,” Malaika shared. “The issue with this notion is that articulate, intelligent, and poised Black people are not rarities, but may only seem to be exceptions due to biased and negative stereotypical depictions and narratives of Black people.”
Russell: The thrust behind Black exceptionalism is that, on average, Black people are less qualified, or less capable than the majority, and those who do not fit that stereotype are the exception. Because “Big Law” is an experience-based business, regardless of whether Black Exceptionalism is actually true or not, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If it is assumed that Black lawyers are less capable and, as a result, Black lawyers aren’t provided with the opportunity to take on leadership roles on the matters they work on, aren’t provided with the opportunity to work on the matters that are truly important to the firm, or aren’t provided with a range of matters that allow them to develop a well-rounded set of skills, if that goes on long enough, at some point these Black lawyers actually become less experienced, and thus less qualified than other people who have been provided with these opportunities.
Beth: Many years ago, I started my long career in HR management. There were not many Black HR professionals around that time. There were no role models to look to, and a few of the professional organizations didn't provide the information I needed. I didn't feel connected, nor did I have a trusted advisor to bounce off questions. There were a few of us that started a small group of Black women in HR; we supported each other, and we helped each other as we maneuvered in a culture that really wasn't quite ready to see Black women in these roles.
Sariyah: I have definitely been advised on the need to navigate stereotypes generally, and racial stereotypes specifically. I don't know that I was always prepared for it, though. I have learned that people may assume things about me and my abilities, without knowing much, if anything, about me. I have also learned that it is important to try to figure out how to fit in places where I may stick out. I didn’t have the language for it when I was younger, but we talk a lot about intersectionality today—I’m black, I'm a woman, I’m a parent, I have a working-class background in a professional setting, I live up north and have a southern accent – I could go on. There are all of these different layers that make me who I am. Today, I still try to navigate, “how do other people perceive me? And how do I make sure that I still keep showing up authentically, and unapologetically, as who I am?”
David: There’s four things that I think about when navigating biases. First, I try to focus on the things that I can change, and I can't change what other people's biases are. The second thing I try to do is to remind myself that their biases are their baggage, not mine, even though their biases may negatively impact me. Third, I reset myself routinely by connecting to those areas of my life that are supportive and enriching. For me, that space is my family, my close friendships, and my personal interests. As Black professionals, we have to be able to reset ourselves back to our communities, because it reaffirms who you are as a people. Lastly—and this is particularly important for Black associates—the social connections are really, really important. You have to be able to build social connections outside of your comfort zone AND you have to surround yourself with people who are just as willing to build those relationships with you.
Russell: It was mentioned earlier that many of us are taught that we have to work twice as hard in order to get to the same place when compared to the majority. Ironically, this mindset can handicap Black attorneys, as many of us are laser focused on getting the words right on the page and get to a certain point in our careers where we realize that we have mastered the basic blocking and tackling of being an attorney, but haven't spent sufficient time building meaningful relationships, or ensuring that we have had access to the right opportunities, or on how to build trust with our colleagues and clients. In the end, this is a people business—getting the words right on the page may be necessary, but it is almost never sufficient. However, there is a flip side to that coin. As you try to build that toolkit of all the skills that you're going to need in order to be a successful attorney, you are inevitably going to make a mistake or two. The million-dollar question is: what happens next? Having the opportunity to make a mistake and not have your intellectual capacity, your capabilities, or your skillset questioned is something that's necessary in order to really maximize your true potential. The goal has to be to create a space where all lawyers (including those who are Black) are allowed to take those bumps and bruises, make those mistakes, and get back up and continue to truck on.
Beth: Early on in my career I was a little timid; I didn't want to make waves. I would let things roll off and sometimes conformed to how others thought I should be. Now having much more experience, I don't take things personal—even if they are—but I do speak up. And I will politely let people know if what is being said or done to me or others is offensive, disrespectful, or just inappropriate. That it’s unacceptable. Most people are genuinely good, they may just not be aware of their actions and words, because they never may have had this experience before. So, it’s important to speak up.