The Burden of Being Exceptional

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Lawyers are meant to stand tall as beacons of justice and gladiators of success, power, wealth, and access. Of course, neither character accurately represents the vast majority of American lawyers. This unrealistic ideal nevertheless permeates every corner of the profession.

As a Black lesbian woman who is also the first in my immediate family to graduate from college, I am placed in both narratives by white colleagues, family, community, and until recently, my own self. Sociology professor Adia Harvey Wingfield identifies this perception as the “Exceptional Negro.” Wingfield studied Black professional men in medicine, law, engineering and banking to determine whether and how they experience tokenization as racial minorities who work in male-dominated fields. Wingfield’s study revealed the ways in which power and hegemony shape Black men’s corporate experiences ultimately showing that the token experience is not uniform. In offering her theory of “partial tokenization,” Wingfield shows how groups may be both oppressed and privileged in these white collar professions.

Wingfield’s research subjects believed they benefited from being tokens because whites regard them as “exceptional Negroes” since they don’t comport with stereotypical images of Black men. This feeling that they are “exceptional” is simultaneously a benefit and a burden. Because they are exceptional, they are given opportunities for upward mobility within their workplace. Being the “exceptional Negro” is a burden, however, because to be deemed exceptional because one is not like “them” necessarily means that Black men in these settings are judged harsher than others since they have ultimately passed all the tests to be acceptable to whites.

As lawyers, Black people carry with them the weight of knowing they must work twice as hard as white lawyers to receive half the recognition of that hard work — whether the recognition is financial, praise, or further opportunities. Carrying the weight of being exceptional comes with consequences. As we continue our discussion of mental health awareness in the legal profession, law firms and other legal organizations must recognize the mental tightrope that Black lawyers must walk. Women and other minorities also experience this tokenization. There is this incessant fear that if one fails in the opportunity to be exceptional, that failure reverberates past the individual and is imposed upon the entire group that individual is said to represent. It’s the idea that, “If I fail, they will not give others like me a shot.” The anxiety caused by the unrelenting fear of failure, even when that designation of failure is unfairly made merely because of one’s race or ethnicity, is just one way the legal profession perpetuates circumstances that lead to and exacerbate symptoms of mental illness.

There is much more to be said about the association between mental health awareness and the legal profession. Too much to be stated in a couple of blog posts. Let’s continue this dialogue.


*This is the second part of a three-part series about mental health awareness. The last part will provide suggestions on how to address issues related to mental health awareness in the legal profession.