This article was written by Blanche Helbling L’21, an alum of “International Women’s Human Rights,” taught by Senior Adjunct Professor of Global Leadership Rangita de Silva de Alwis.
In “Black Women Leaders’ Health Silently Suffering: A Call to Change the Legal Culture,” Simone Hunter-Hobson L’23 introduces a crucial conversation about the ways in which persistent patterns of racism and sexism within legal academic institutions negatively affect Black women’s health.
Hunter-Hobson’s research is part of a collection work entitled “A Place at the Table,” produced by students in Associate Dean of International Affairs Rangita de Silva de Alwis’s “Women, Law, and Leadership” seminar. Collectively, the report explores the ways in which gender and intersectional biases impact women, especially as they advance in the workforce and occupy positions of leadership.
“This brief report explores the health consequences that Black women endure as a result of the racism and sexism that still prevails in the legal field, particularly in the law school environment,” Hunter-Hobson writes. “This report intends to encourage the legal community to not only acknowledge the health hardships that Black women face but also diligently work towards creating an inclusive culture for all Black women, because Black women have continued to serve as brave leaders and change agents in the legal world.”
In her piece, Hunter-Hobson, who is the president of the Black Law Student Association, analyzes the results of a survey of 34 Black women law students from across the country. Notably, Hunter-Hobson found that 88% of surveyed participants reported that “their law school experience has greatly or severely impacted their health.”
The Painful Experience of Invisibility and Constantly Proving One’s Worth
In Part 1: The Painful Experience of Invisibility and Constantly Proving One’s Worth, Hunter-Hobson describes several racist and sexist patterns reported by Black women wherein they felt they were undervalued, unseen, and/or out of place in law school environments. Survey participants described feeling that their contributions were neither heard in class discussions nor respected by their professors and peers.
the inaugural Lawrence D. Biele Professor of Law at Harvard Law School Kenneth W. Mack, current Partner at the Carlyle Group who has served as a trustee of MIT, Harvard Business School, and the Julliard School Reggie Van Lee, Former Dean of Duke Law School Kate Bartlett, and national expert on intersectional bias Joan C. Williams.In illustration of how these norms continue to affect Black women throughout their legal careers, Hunter-Hobson’s research includes reflections from several of the course’s guest speakers, including
Black women lawyers experience many of the same discriminatory challenges as Black women law students. As Khiara M. Bridges, who is a Black female professor at UC Berkeley School of Law, summarized, the exclusion of Black women from legal academia promotes the notion that, “[w]omen, especially nonwhite women, could not become experts.”
Survey participants also indicate the disconnect between their lived experiences as Black women and legal academia’s omnipresent focus on a white, male perspective. One respondent noted that the ubiquity of that perspective, to which she could not relate, contributed to significant feelings of self-doubt.
“The consistent centering of the white male perspective in the legal doctrine must change, because the law does not solely impact white men; in fact, the law leads to grave effects for minorities and women, particularly with abortion rights, equal protection discrimination, and mass incarceration,” Hunter-Hobson writes. “Furthermore, the continual denial of Black women’s existence and intellectual contributions in the classroom causes many Black women to work ten times as hard compared to their counterparts just to prove their worth, and ultimately leads to serious health concerns, such as anxiety, loss of appetite, and self-doubt.”
The Heavy Burden of Educating Others About Racism and Sexism
In Part 2: The Heavy Burden of Educating Others About Racism and Sexism, Hunter-Hobson reports that many Black women law students feel pressured to serve as racial educators in law school classrooms. That pressure contributes to negative health outcomes, as well.
During an era marked by heightened societal anti-Blackness and several high-profile occurrences of Black men and women being killed by police officers, Black women reported a distressing lack of discussion related to contemporary events.
“Many participants have expressed that professors in the classrooms have failed to adequately incorporate issues of race and gender into the fabric of the course material and discourse,” Hunter-Hobson writes. “For example, when police murdered Walter Wallace, Jr. just a few minutes away from Penn Law’s campus, several professors did not discuss or even acknowledge the tragedy that weighed heavily on the hearts of many Black students.”
During instances where race was discussed in class, many participants described the burden that came with being expected to take the lead on those topics, just because they were one of a few — or the only — Black students in the room.
“Many Black women struggle with anxiety and depression due to this overwhelming responsibility of effectively educating and informing law students, who will soon become powerful prosecutors, judges, and legislative members,” Hunter-Hobson writes. “Instead, law schools must build an environment in which all students and professors must serve as active participants and allies, so the massive burden does not fall on one group of people.”
In the Appendix of her report, Hunter-Hobson includes her survey respondents’ written responses to the inquiry of how their emotional, mental, and physical health has been impacted by the experience of navigating law school as Black women. Their voices serve to further Hunter-Hobson’s poignant assertion that “[c]reating change in legal leadership must start within the legal institutions that educate and mold our future attorneys, because Black women deserve to continue to lead our communities without sacrificing their health in return.”