Tear Down This Wall: Reflections of a 3L on Diversity and Belonging

Nabila Pirani (3L)

I have never been made aware of my racial and ethnic difference more than during my three years at U of T Law. It’s not that I grew up in a bubble, not knowing that my skin colour and experiences were different from the white norm. Rather, I grew up in a family that was well-aware of its difference, and that had experienced racism first-hand. My family came to Canada as refugees, fleeing persecution in Uganda. I grew up with stories about my grandfather’s imprisonment in Idi Amin’s infamous military prison, Makindye, and about the racism always just underneath the surface in 1970s Vancouver.

But not even that, nor the years I spent living just outside Harlem, prepared me for the stark whiteness of law school. I remember calling a fellow student a few months after starting 1L because I was flabbergasted by the lack of diversity around me. I remember chatting with a graduating 3L that same year, and being told that no one wanted to chair the school’s Muslim Students’ Association because it would “look bad on their resume.” Last summer, I wore blacks, greys, and other neutrals—not because I don’t like colourful clothes, but because I was hyper-conscious of my positionality as a woman of colour and was afraid of standing out even more.

By all accounts, I should fit right in at U of T Law and in the legal profession. I went to a private school. I spent my summers playing tennis. I have an Ivy League degree. But I don’t, and I have spent the past three years trying to figure out why. For the first few months, I thought it was just me. Now, I am convinced otherwise.

Our profession and our law schools have a serious diversity problem. This is both a pipeline and a retention issue. Not enough diverse peoples enter law school; not enough stay around to become partners. As a result, students like me are made aware of their difference at every stage of the process. Whether or not I wear my South Asian identity on my sleeve, I cannot change the colour of my skin. And so, almost every time I shake a partner’s hand, I am made aware of the differences between us.

That’s not all. There have been moments when I have realized that I have more in common with the cleaning staff than with the lawyers and law students around me. Some of you know exactly what I am talking about. That mix of guilt, shame, sadness, and responsibility that comes with the realization that you are in an expensive suit and that the cleaning lady could have been your mother if your family had not been as lucky.

The legal world, perhaps without even knowing it, forces racialized minorities to downplay or whitewash their difference. At law school, I have come across numerous such examples: from consciously removing diversity “indicators” from resumes, to making names more palatable to anglicized tongues, to purposefully keeping ethnic identities hidden away in the private sphere. This isn’t just about tweaking one’s resume, or deciding not to correct the improper pronunciation of one’s name. It is the active elimination of one’s identity.

Finally, law firms and our school use the word “diversity” a lot, but don’t seem to do much about it. Our administration has agreed to revisit its “deemed days” policy next year, so there is some hope that things can change through constructive dialogue.

On the flip side, students have been asking the administration to release—and collect—more detailed data on the student body’s racial and socioeconomic background. Progress has been slow on this front, to say the least. Law firms have signed statements attesting to their diversity-friendliness. But how many have actually implemented robust policies to help diverse peoples navigate the profession? Or held (potentially difficult) training sessions to foster meaningful dialogue and inclusivity?

I recognize both that the above does not paint a rosy picture, and that things are much better on the diversity front than they were even a decade ago. But that does not mean we rest on our laurels. Indeed, for non-diverse peoples, it means taking a step back and recognizing and encouraging the multiplicity of identities and perspectives coming through the pipeline. For diverse peoples, it means continuing to bang on the wall—regardless of what side we are on—until it is torn down.