I am always looking for a great new book to read, add to my collection, and purchase for friends and family members. Luckily, I have discovered Tsedale Melaku’s recent book, “You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gendered Racism.” Just the title alone brought back so many memories (some from just last week) of people telling me that I do not “look like a professor!” I constantly receive this underhanded statement and try to brush it off, but it is loaded with institutional and systemic assumptions, discrimination, and centuries of racialized and gendered exclusion. I am so pleased Dr. Melaku has written a book that contextualizes the institutional and oftentimes discriminatory practices that are commonplace for so many professional women of color across the country.
In this groundbreaking book, Dr. Melaku documents, “how systemic gendered racism and white racial framing deny access and advancement to partnership for Black female lawyers, but her assessment and analyses of Black female lawyers can be transferred to include Black females in professions across the board. Drawing from narratives of Black female lawyers, their experiences center around gendered racism embedded within institutional practices at the hands of predominantly white men. In particular, the book covers topics such as (1) appearance; (2) white narratives of affirmative action; (3) differences and similarities with white women and Black men; (4) exclusion from social and professional networking opportunities (the Boys’ Club); and (5) lack of mentors, sponsors and substantive training.”
After reading “You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer,” one walks away with a better understanding of the often-hidden mechanisms elite law firms utilize to perpetuate and maintain a dominant white male system. Throughout this intellectually sound and completely accessible book, Dr. Melaku weaves the narratives of Black women and leaves the reader having been exposed to the exclusive elite environment experienced by Black women. Her work demonstrates the rawness and reality of Black women’s experiences in white spaces. Finally, we get to hear the voices of Black female lawyers (and by proxy, Black professional women) as they tell their stories and perspectives on working in a highly competitive, racialized and gendered environment, and the impact it has on their advancement and beyond.
Dr. Melaku states, “The ‘You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer’ phenomenon is one that is all too familiar in various professional settings for many marginalized individuals. Readers will be able to connect with the ways in which Black women are constantly made to question their ability, ‘fit’ and ultimate path to success in predominantly white institutional spaces.” It is my sincere hope that those interested in the topic will purchase this important book (available on Amazon) for themselves and the other Black women in their lives.
Christina Greer, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Fordham University, the author of “Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream,” co-host of the new podcast FAQ-NYC, and the host of The Aftermath and The Counter on Ozy.com.