Law in Contemporary Society

Forming identity through relating experience to craft

-- By DawitAklilu - 22 Feb 2021

Section I: Introduction

Identity. The formative themes of our life that make us ourselves. As a child, I remember Sunday family gatherings where my family elders would all cram shoulder to shoulder on plastic chairs that would line the walls while the children were shuffled into the tiny bedrooms where we would pass the time playing games. While I loved a good excuse to “catch ‘em all”, I began to feel drawn towards the conversations just across the door. As I grew, I went from being a passive spectator to an active participant, making use of my broken Amharic to keep up. These conversations brought about two perspectives within me, one as an Ethiopian and the other as an American. At times these perspectives would collide, especially in living room corners, yet their willingness to engage with the cultural gap between the two parts of me gave me a sense of belonging and an idea of how my two worlds interact and impact my hybrid identity. Yet, as I grew things became complicated. In a world dominated by stereotypes and false assumptions it can feels as though we are not always in total control of the picture of us that goes out into the world. For me, this was especially true in the classroom where my inquisitive nature and love of learning was rebuked for not fitting everyone else’s neat social pecking order.

Section II: An experience

I remember like it was yesterday, my first day in a new school. I walked into my science class. We were learning about the periodic table and our teacher was asking questions to gauge our knowledge. Being the diligent student, I had already gotten a leg up on the rest and answered in rapid succession, much to the surprise of my classmates.

However, their astonishment wasn’t caused by my knowing the answers but rather because it was the “Black Kid” was smart.

I remember the words distinctly.

“How does he know, he’s black."

I look to the other side of the room, in a part of the room that was kept in the dark, her eyes piercing and reflecting her undisputed truth. It left me at a loss for words. From then on my classmates called me “whitewashed,” their faces smiling with a shade of ignorance which in the moment was comforting but over time grew to feel demeaning and degrading.

Section III: Forming identity through the object of my work

For some, the story I just told sounds all too familiar. And for others, the experience may have been being told that you were too “outspoken” or that you weren’t “man” enough. Whatever it is, we have all at one point or another found ourselves in a contest with society in which we feel like we slowly and steadily lose agency over our identity. This can prove, as we all have felt, prove to be an emotionally and mentally exhausting and in some cases, violent.

However, it does not have to be.

This is what I discovered the practice of channeling my experience through work, thus turning my identity into an active construction built through studying novels that have dealt with my experience. I felt as though I was back in those living room corners actively engaged in a new conversation. By engaging with my identity crisis this way, I maintained full control of my experience, nobody could tell me what book to read or how to read it. It was only my opinion that mattered. You could call it poetic justice (I call it dumb luck) that the journey to understanding myself began in the classroom—the place where many of my past doubts began. While studying literature in college, I encountered two fictional characters who continue to deeply impact my own sense of being and belonging in the world. Gogol, the protagonist in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, and the narrator in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, gave me the tools on how to exist in spaces where the content of my character was defined by others based on erroneous assumptions that were skin deep. In The Namesake, the internal conflict Gogol felt in having to choose between an American and Indian identity paralleled my own. Like Gogol, I carry the dreams and hopes of my parents that at a younger age felt burdensome but, with clear eyes, illuminate the beauty and strength of our upbringing in immigrant spaces. His story reminded me that living in two worlds did not force me to choose but rather enabled me to see the world for the mélange that it is. Similarly, through Invisible Man, the deconstruction of self that the narrator embarks on showed me that while my race may inform parts of who I am, it was never the full picture; that my blackness is just that, mine. Over time, I finally grew to live and define myself on my own terms.

Section IV: Conclusion

Now in law school, the art of finding my own practice proves to be the next step in this Hegelian experiment. As I read cases, with the lessons learned from my previous study, I have tried to learn not only the law but whether or not the principle behind it will become a part of my legal identity. I can already see the fruits of my approach as I begin my first foray as a member of the legal profession as a judicial extern where the principles of law and life fleshed out in my studies have informed the way in which I provide my opinion in bench memos. As we all head into the summer and subsequently into 2L, I hope that you take from this the idea that our time in law school is not just a means to the end that is a career but an opportunity to continue developing the picture of who we are on our own terms.

Now that this draft has been reset for public readership, we need to think about it differently than we did last time, when its only readers were you and me. My suggestion to improve the last draft was to look for the larger ideas personal experience signifies; this revision meets that suggestion by importing a slab of Hegel. Whether this is what a broader readership for your idea most needs is unclear to me. But for the increase in complexity and the large investment of space involved it seems to me that the return is not very substantial. Do we need all the machinery of Hegelian dialectic to know that the "relationship between the master and slave is asymmetrical in power and understanding"? Is Hegel actually what we require in order to understand that "Most of us have felt this feeling of not truly feeling that we are understood or understand ourselves and the theory nails that feeling on the head by explaining it in the age old terms of dominant versus subservient"?

From the point of view of execution, the draft is also in the technical sense unimproved. "FINISH THIS" applies both to the place it literally appears, and to the fragmentary last paragraph with its unfinished last sentence. It's as though you gave up or lost interest in the middle of the revising.

If you want to do another draft by the morning of May 24, I will read again.

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r11 - 24 May 2021 - 03:50:54 - DawitAklilu
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