On Being Female, a Lawyer, and Black

Many industries once dominated by white men are gradually changing their racial and gender makeup. But institutional practices often persist in the workplace despite these changes. Tsedale Melaku, a postdoctoral researcher at The Graduate Center, CUNY’s Institute for Research on the African Diaspora in the Americas & the Caribbean, saw that firsthand in law firms.

Before earning her Ph.D. in sociology in 2016, Melaku considered going to law school, but a friend encouraged her to work at a law firm first and see if she liked it. She didn’t. “After about six months, I said, ‘No, I’m not going to law school,’” she recounts. “This is not the life for me.”

She switched to a smaller law firm that allowed her to continue working full-time around her Ph.D. program, and soon she found her interests aligning. “Once I started the program, another wise person told me, ‘Hey, I know you love looking at race and gender and sexuality, but did you ever think about the space that you work in?’” she recalls. “I was always talking about the firm and what I saw. It was my life, but I never thought to marry the two. I turned my gaze to the firm and I couldn’t stop.”

The result of that gaze is her new book You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gendered Racism, which explores the ways in which black women face a double bind as a result of their race and gender.

Melaku interviewed an array of black female associates about their experience, eventually narrowing her subjects to the 20 included in the book. “We’re talking about it, but we’re not talking about it in a way that creates substantive changes,” she explains. “We talk about it and then it becomes part of the discourse and then it fades because you get so used to it. I just thought, why not ask the people who are experiencing it directly?”

Melaku framed their experiences through critical race analysis, which she used to develop two theoretical concepts: the invisible labor clause and the inclusion tax. The former deals with the “added invisible labor” black female associates perform in order “to navigate their daily existence,” while the latter pertains to the “additional resources spent to be allowed in those institutional spaces.”

Although Melaku focuses on the legal industry in You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer, she quickly saw a broader scope for her audience. She was originally supposed to produce a monograph, but given the high price point which would have limited the work to libraries, she instead pushed to make the book general interest. “‘You don’t look like a lawyer’ could be ‘You don’t look like a professor’ or ‘You don’t look like a doctor,’” she says. “People can relate to that.”