Why I Want to Be a Lawyer—A Fat, White-Passing Womxn of Color and the Law

Sierra Suafoa McClain

My decision to go into law began in the dark. That’s the first thing I remember: darkness. I was eight years old and about to see something no eight year old should.

I remember realizing I wasn’t alone when I saw the circular glow of flashlights sliding across the walls of our two-bedroom apartment just south of Tacoma. The men wore all-black, their faces hidden behind masks, flashlights piercing the darkness. Suddenly I was lifted out of bed. I still remember seeing my reflection in his helmet. The sound my heart beating in my ears was almost deafening, but I remember hearing chaos in the distance. The man in the helmet handed me to my mom, who was sitting on the living room couch with tears in her eyes. That’s when I realized the masked people were from the Tacoma Police Department SWAT Team. They entered our home at 2 a.m. and dragged my 17-year-old brother down our hallway, crying and screaming for my mom’s help as she watched—I watched, too. They took him through the front door out into the night while he was still in his boxers.

That was almost 15 years ago, and the 8-year-old girl crying in her mother’s arms that night is now an aspiring law student drowning in an ocean of law school applications. I will finish undergrad this June, but I find myself more fixated on my next steps. Many of my application essay prompts ask why I want to go into law, and that’s the easy part: I want to be a lawyer because I see so many people who have been oppressed by systems that condemn them to survival-based lives. I want to uplift these communities and change these systems so we can have a chance to thrive.

But I’m also facing a more difficult question: What does it mean to try to be a lawyer in a world that’s not set up to bolster people like me, the ones who fall outside the norm.

The first assumption people may make about me is that I am a woman. But even the traditional spelling “woman” is an exclusionary term that hasn’t always encompassed all the womxn in the world. I choose to use womxn as an act of solidarity with all of the womxn who had to fight for their right to just be themselves. And as a womxn, I anticipate that male lawyers will do the same as male non-lawyers and regurgitate concepts that I already understand and undervalue my intellect; aka “mansplaining.” Some do this unconsciously, which makes it more difficult to discuss without men being defensive and refusing accountability.

Of course, I deal with other assumptions: As a fat womxn, people assume I’m lazy, and therefore not a hard worker, and I imagine the legal field will be the same. I expect legal professionals will also assume I’m vegan for health reasons rather than my ethical views. Whatever someone’s profession, for decades, fat bodies have been seen as “less-than.” The idolization of skinny bodies is engrained into us as children, and continues through adulthood.

And as a fat white-passing womxn of color, I know that I will have privileges and access to places that non-white passing people of color will not. I know that my voice will not be crushed in the same way as a fat non-white passing womxn of color. In my life, I’ve come to understand that with this privilege I have a responsibility to advocate for non-white-passing people of color because their voices are so often written off as unimportant.

While the effects of having just one of these identities can be exhausting, being someone with a combination of suppressed identities quickly becomes denigrating. I have to be aware of the dress code expectations thrust upon me as a womxn, but also a fat womxn who’s expected to cover my body in loose clothes or “slimming” outfits. As a low-income, fat womxn, I’m also managing these wardrobe expectations on a Goodwill budget.

Current lawyers and other aspiring lawyers who don’t share my identities might scoff because the expectations I mention may not be said aloud, but this is my reality reinforced by years of stares, snide comments, and “gentle” jabs intended to make me conform.

Before I even finish my law school applications, it seems that I have a high stack of reasons to be discouraged from entering the legal field—but I still plan on clicking the submit button.

I know what needs to change; I’ve known my whole life. And I know that—working alongside a community of other underrepresented people and the incredible legal professionals I’ve met who are already doing this essential work—we can change the legal field to reflect the world we want to see, a world that includes more people like us so future students like me won’t have to worry about whether they have a place in law.