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Identity, Social Justice, and the Law

Akhila Kolisetty, HLS ’15

By most measures, I am incredibly privileged. I grew up in a safe, relatively affluent upper-middle class family in the United States, which places me squarely in the “one percent” globally. I benefited from a supportive family and had the chance to attend a private undergraduate school. And now, here I am at Harvard Law School—perhaps the epitome of privilege and power in this country.

Despite all this, I have often felt like an outsider. I am an immigrant, of South Asian descent, and a woman. In her piece, Máscaras, Trenzas, y Greñas: Un/Masking the Self While Un/Braiding Latina Stories and Legal Discourse, Professor Montoya describes her childhood process of cultural and linguistic assimilation into the dominant culture.[1] Professor Montoya writes, “Rather than admit to eating caldito (soup) y tortillas, . . . I regaled the class with a story about what I assumed an ‘American’ family would eat at lunch: pork chops, mashed potatoes, green salad,  sliced bread, and apple pie.”[2] As an immigrant from India to the U.S., I recall struggling to assimilate in much the same way. Often, this meant disavowing my Indian culture, refusing to take my mother’s homemade food to school, insisting on dressing a certain way, watching certain television shows, and attempting to make friends who were “American.”

Like Professor Montoya, I grew more comfortable with my dual identities—as both Indian and American—as I approached college. And yet, to this day, I feel certain tensions beneath the surface that rise up from time to time. I feel tensions as an Indian-American in law school, where there are few South Asians and fewer South Asian women. As Professor Montoya describes, I often feel timid to raise my hand in class, to voice my opinions when faced with a sometimes seemingly hostile classroom environment where my classmates appear far more composed, prepared, and eloquent than I could ever hope to be. [3]

Perhaps most of all, I feel tensions as an Indian-American woman focusing on public interest law, particularly addressing issues of feminism, gender-based violence, and poverty. Within the community I come from, these issues are simply not addressed. They are taboo, “family affairs” to be kept within the home. For my family, too—like many other immigrant families—life has been about upward mobility; in such a context, focusing on social justice issues, foregoing a potentially large salary to do grassroots work, is often seen as going backwards, heading away from the “American dreams” our parents came here to provide us. To one community of which I am a part, the pathway I am taking in life is jarring, out of the ordinary.

In law school, too, I sometimes feel like I am on the outside: grappling with various identities, struggling with a constant balancing act. As a woman and South Asian, how can I bring my perspective to the public interest community, while also acknowledging the need to “shatter the ceiling” in Harvard’s institutions, such as the Law Review? As someone who came to law school dreaming big—hoping to work in post-conflict access to justice and perhaps eventually start my own non-profit—how do I resist the pressures to pursue a more traditional legal path, whether public interest or private? On the one hand, it is a matter of pressure: subtle pressure that you need to apply to Law Review, or secure a clerkship, or at least try out working for a law firm. It is also a matter of time: do I dedicate the little time I have to “changing” the makeup of the Law Review, or do I simply choose to stick to my passions at the law school and beyond? It is impossible to be everything at once; it is impossible to be superhuman. If I want to stay proximate to the things I am most deeply passionate about, it probably means stepping aside from any traditional conception of success and prestige in law school. If I want to work at the grassroots level, it means working with small non-profits and foregoing the chance to say I work at the UN or the World Bank. If I want to create a life where I stand by my ideals, it means continuing to do so in this very moment, in the face of a race to the most prestigious clerkship or comfortable firm job. It starts today.

And yet, where does this leave us in shattering the ceiling, if more women and minorities choose to take this path less traveled? These are difficult questions, and the answers are often hidden behind a murky fog. The solutions are not always immediately apparent; is it up to women and minorities in law school simply to take a more active stance? Or perhaps, must we shape and bend the institution of law school in a way that better accommodates this university’s deeply enriching diversity, that better encourages a multitude of perspectives, that is less about fitting a certain “law school” mold and more about welcoming a range of perspectives? Regardless of how the law school experience is shaped by and for future generations of Harvard Law School students, I am heartened by the fact that we are having this conversation, this profoundly important conversation about law, race, gender, ethnicity, diversity, and social justice—and how we can all work together to improve even further and challenge this status quo.

[1] Margaret E. Montoya, Máscaras, Trenzas, y Greñas: Un/Masking the Self While Un/Braiding Latina Stories and Legal Discourse, 17 Harv. Women’s L.J. 185, 188-189 (1994).

[2] Id. at 188.

[3] Id. at 208.

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