Incidental Racialization

From The Practice November/December 2018
Asian Americans in law school

Bryn Singh, the eldest of four children, grew up in a working-class home, with parents who worked several jobs to make ends meet. Bryn was the designated caregiver to her younger siblings, learning at a young age to navigate her own schoolwork while overseeing her siblings’ homework instruction, dinnertime, and bedtime. She reflects that the injustices she witnessed in her impoverished neighborhood guided her toward being an attorney. As one of the few Asian American students in her law classes, Bryn often questions her place in law school. She shares: “In some ways, it’s almost like a double whammy. Like I’m Asian American, so they expect me to be a model minority, and to be polite and acquiescent and quiet. And be a hard worker who doesn’t stir up trouble. I stir up trouble, and it freaks them out because it doesn’t fit [with] what they think an Asian American is.”

The concept of a “workhorse” implies someone who blindly follows orders without creativity.

Susan de Castro, raised in a solid middle-class family, attended an elite private university and was a congressional intern in Washington, D.C., before starting law school. Interactions with her privileged classmates in college and in D.C. conferred valuable cultural capital that fuels her confidence. Although sometimes unsure about how she fits into law school among predominantly white peers and professors, and within a predominantly white culture, Susan relies on her past experiences:

[T]here is something about this corporate culture of law school … I mean, come on! OCIP [On Campus Interview Program] happens like the second week of school, so as a 1L, the first thing you’re introduced to is law firm recruiting. Everyone’s getting suited up and playing this sort of networking game; obviously, most of the lawyers who come talk to you that have some kind of power in the firms are white males. I think you just kind of have to learn how to play in this culture. I think I know how to play into that culture; I think I learned that from the Hill. I think I learned that from going to a school like [elite private university]. I think that I learned how to “act white,” and I think I know how to not be threatening to people as a person of color who is attuned to person-of-color issues. But I think you have to play that. I think you have to “act white” a little bit in order to get by.

Both excerpts above capture the incongruous identity negotiations that befall Asian American law students. What Bryn shares is not uncommon among Asian American law students—professors, fellow students, and clients activate stereotypes when associating with them. Bryn relays that she does not embody the common Asian American stereotype of the passive model minority (Christine Sun describes a similar experience in “Portrait Vignettes”). This image of Asian Americans is consequential to perceptions of work ability, product, and hours. Like Bryn, Asian American law students recognize that they are perceived as “workhorses” who ascertain their achievements through a dedicated ability to sustain work expectations.

This image can also result in Asian Americans being branded as unfit for roles that require assertive leadership abilities. The concept of a “workhorse” implies someone who blindly follows orders without creativity. That Asian Americans are characterized as passive further corroborates that they are willing and able to work grueling hours without protest. These identities—both asserted by Asian American individuals and ascribed by mainstream society—lead to identity negotiations while still undergoing professional education (see “A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law” for empirical data around how Asian American lawyers encounter these stereotypes in their professional lives). But, so what? Why should we care about the experiences of Asian American law students?

Mainstream American discourse renders invisible the experiences and lives of Asian Americans and leaves them beleaguered by the “model minority” image. Taking this image to an extreme, some academics—and laypeople—have even argued that Asian Americans are becoming “white,” similar to the path followed by the Irish, Italians, Jews, and other white ethnics who were once not welcomed as part of the white club. Similarly, some argue that Asian American law students and lawyers must not experience inequalities because they have “made it” or are “making it” into one of the most esteemed professions: law. Asserting the “whiteness” of Asian Americans, however, diminishes the inequalities that persist in this community. We have learned that within the professions, implicit biases affect the experiences and career outcomes of black/African American and Latina/o professionals. Like other professions, the law is also not colorblind.

While by scholastic measures Asian American law students may, on average, score on par with their white peers, implicit biases affect how they are treated by professors and other students.

K–12 education teaches students a unidimensional racism against blacks/African Americans as the sole model. We learned about the Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but not the overlapping Yellow Power Movement. We learned about Malcolm X, but not Yuri Kochiyama. We learned about Brown v. Board of Education, but not Tape v. Hurley. I could go on, but the picture is clear: we learned about race through a black–white lens, which normalized our understanding of racism on the basis of the experiences of one racial group. In other words, Asian Americans even lack descriptive language to convey their experiences with race-based discrimination. Even when Asian Americans have “weird,” “uncomfortable,” or “off-putting” experiences, we don’t often describe it in the context of racism based on a narrow societal understanding of what it is or might embody.

So, what does all this mean? Does race-based discrimination against Asian Americans happen in law school? The short answer is, yes. But importantly, because the law school environment is so culturally white, Asian American law students experience a heightened sense of unfamiliarity with the atmosphere and about themselves. While by scholastic measures Asian American law students may, on average, score on par with their white peers, implicit biases affect how they are treated by professors and other students. This phenomenon is what social scientists commonly call “microaggressions”—covert slights that add up to take a toll on one’s sense of confidence, ability, and belonging. A professor’s habitual mispronunciation of an Asian ethnic name. A professor mistaking one Asian American student for another. Peers asking to study with Asian Americans because of an assumption about innate intelligence. The list goes on—and these are all forms of microaggressions. This happens to law students while they learn how to read and interpret the law. It also happens as they are socialized into the legal profession. The result: Asian American law students experience racialization alongside their professional socialization.

What is racialization?

What does racialization mean? Historically, ethnic groups in the United States have been prescribed panethnic or racial categories on the basis of shared ancestral regional origins, sociohistory in the United States, and/or political motivation for migrations. But, at the core of racialization is the assumption of cultural affinity based on phenotype. For example, while sociological research has shown time and again that individuals prefer to assert their ethnic/cultural identities, time spent in the United States results in panethnic/racial identities becoming the preference. Whether asserted or ascribed, arising from disillusion with trying to explain cultural deviances or asserted for strategic activation of identity politics, the end result is panethnic or racial categorization.

My book, Incidental Racialization: Performative Assimilation in Law School, explores how professional socialization and racialization happen simultaneously during legal education. Although I compare the experiences of Asian American and Latino law students, I disaggregate for this article by focusing only on Asian American law students and their racialization while undergoing professional socialization. Put another way, my conversations with law students demonstrate how being Asian American is heightened in law school. Using the theater as an allegory, I find that there are two ways for racialization to happen in law school: on the front stage and on the back stage.


This article describes the broader themes that frame my book Incidental Racialization. The data for the book derives from direct observation of panethnic student organization meetings and events, in-depth interviews with 106 law students (primarily focusing on Asian Americans and Latinos), and diary entries completed by apprenticing law students who were interviewed prior to engaging in the exercise. In-depth interviews took place mostly at cafés near the law schools, with some conducted in classrooms or at respondents’ homes. I audiorecorded all interviews, which were later transcribed, and each student was assigned a pseudonym to maintain confidentiality. Interviews lasted between 45 and 120 minutes. In total, I spoke with 63 women and 43 men who are Asian American, Latino, white/European American, Persian, black/African American, or mixed race. Of the sample, 67 respondents hail from the American West, 29 from other parts of the country (Northeast, Midwest, and South), and nine from other countries. I should note that respondents from other countries were either born in the United States, had American parents, or attended American high schools and/or colleges prior to enrolling in law school. In this way, they identified as Americans. For this article, I disaggregated data to focus on the 45 respondents who identify as Asian American, including mixed-race individuals.

Research spanned between 2009 and 2012 at two separate field sites: Western Elite and Private Metropolitan. I chose two divergently ranked institutions to underscore similarities within legal education more generally and to also understand how demographic and institutional prestige may affect student experiences and career trajectories. Western Elite is a nationally ranked top-20 law school nestled among trees, academic buildings, and coffee shops as a part of a larger university campus. On a sunny day, one can expect to find law students eating lunch and socializing with their peers while simultaneously poring over casebooks on the lawn or sitting at tables in the courtyard. In contrast, Private Metropolitan is a tier-four law school that sits within a concrete forest of buildings filled with local and international businesses, including law firms. On a sunny day, a sprinkling of students hang out on the benches and at tables near the law school entrance, smoking, chitchatting, or talking on their phones.

I negotiated entrée with student organization leaders, professors, and individual students whom I met at meetings and events. As for interviews, I used an intentional snowball sampling method where I asked students to refer peers within their assigned small groups. This form of snowball sampling decreases selectivity bias because each small group is assigned by the law school and includes women and men of different racial, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. In addition, small groups serve as one of the primary ways students meet friends in law school.

These measures notwithstanding, the sample is not entirely random, as respondents could have identified only peers in their small groups who they assumed would be interested in speaking with me. I approached students who revealed through the course of their interviews that they would begin new apprenticeships and asked them to take part in the diary entries. While 12 students initially agreed to take part in the exercise, only seven completed the four prompts for the diaries, which provide a glimpse into socialization on the job. In the end, direct observations, in-depth interviews, and diary entries allowed for triangulation, which led to a richer understanding of law student experiences and their professional socialization.

The Law School Front Stage: Omissions, interactions, and assumptions

Racialization takes place in the midst of a legal profession and culture that remain stubbornly white and male. The process of racialization is dynamic, but first let’s explore what I mean by “front-stage racialization.” Picture a theater. The stage is the law school itself, and the stagehands are the professors and white law students. Asian American law students are cast as actors.

Asian American law students experience their own ascribed “difference” as a part of their professional training.

Front-stage racialization is veiled and nuanced. Students learn that they are racial minorities in law school through what I call “prelessons.” This “learning” is a process where the Asian American students recognize and internalize their presence as numerical and racial “others.” Some examples of prelessons include noticing few other Asian Americans when they visually scan a law classroom or voicing a recognition of the minimal representation of others who look like them. For example, Binh Nguyen tells me:

High school in [a multiethnic county], specifically [a predominantly Vietnamese enclave], I would say 70 to 80 percent of the students are Asian, specifically Vietnamese, so my ethnicity. So it’s kind of close-knit and you kind of blend in because there are a billion other Asian kids around you. So in a sense it’s fun, you meet a lot of friends, blend in. [In law school], it’s different. You do stick out a little more. If you’re like only one of two Asian guys in the class, [the other students and professors] notice that. I wouldn’t say they single you out, but they notice that. And for me, I notice it more.

Binh considers himself “Americanized,” as he was born in the United States, does not speak English with a Vietnamese accent, and has befriended non–Asian Americans. Even so, he noticed a striking difference between his high school and law school. Most students in law school do not look like him, so he “sticks out a little” more in class; as he put it:

…it’s easy for [professors] to spot you in the crowd of students. More Caucasian students here, so they can kind of blend in. But as far as an Asian [American] student, when [professors and peers] look up, they’re like, “Oh, he’s an Asian [American] student.” Nothing bad. Your looks just kind of stand out as an Asian person in law school.

And Estelle Ngan recalls her first day of law school: “I remember sitting in my first day of class, kind of looking around … in a room full of 75 people, [there were] maybe four Latinos, one black person, and six or seven Asians, and that includes South Asians.”

Because she was raised in a predominantly white community, Estelle tells me that she often feels conscious of her surroundings, and that upon entering a new environment, she identifies other nonwhites, especially Asian Americans. When she attended a prestigious public university for college, she saw and interacted with numerous nonwhite college students. Going back to a predominantly white environment—such as law school—was thus a shock, albeit a familiar one that reminded her of her high school. These examples of prelessons, as shared by Binh and Estelle, then amplify for Asian American law students their distinctness entering a profession dominated by white peers, professors, culture, and history. They experience their own ascribed “difference” as a part of their professional training.

Through interviews, I recognized that Asian American law students take part in three distinct yet interrelated lessons as they experience racialization in law schools, which are racial awareness through:

  • Colorblind omissions
  • Interpersonal interactions
  • Assumptions

Racial Lesson #1: Omitting conversations about race and nonwhite attributes

One of the first things Asian American law students recognize upon arriving on campus: they are not white. This is not a flippant remark about Asian American identities. But, when repeatedly told that Asian Americans are becoming white, or that Asian Americans outperform whites, or that Asian Americans share similar ethos as whites, one often feels comfortable as a part of American society without perhaps actively considering one’s race. Law school, the students tell me, disrupted that. Asian American law students also soon encounter their first racial lesson: racial awareness through colorblind omission. The law classroom plays a significant role in the life of a law student: it is where they learn, interact with peers and professors, and internalize lessons that help them become good attorneys.

In her book The Language of Law School: Learning to “Think Like a Lawyer,” sociolegal scholar Elizabeth Mertz finds that students read and decipher the legalese in their casebooks, form analyses in the legal-linguistic frame, and make arguments using law-specific frames and voices. These techniques reflect a traditional white, male, upper-middle-class approach to learning, and law students who do not hail from this “modal” position feel a sense of exclusion. White women, nonwhite students, and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are often assessed negatively compared with their white, male, upper-middle-class peers because the former are seen as including—inappropriately—emotions and personal experiences in their analyses. Sociologist Wendy Leo Moore eloquently characterizes law schools as “institutional white spaces” that reproduce systemic racial inequality by silencing and ignoring the experiences of nonwhite law students. Law professors are hesitant to incorporate “extraneous” material into their lessons outside of black letter law and thus keep the classroom “colorblind.” In Reproducing Racism: White Space, Elite Law Schools, and Racial Inequality, Moore argues that using a colorblind approach to interpret the law replicates a structure that is bound to an institutionally racist society as “color-blind racism operates as an ideological framework that allows whites to espouse views that normalize systemic racism, minimize the relevance of racism, and denigrate the cultures of communities of color, while at the same time denying that they themselves are racist or responsible for racism.”

A colorblind approach then trains students to interpret legal cases and engage in classroom politics in a manner deemed acceptable. In addition, controlling images become an important factor in daily interactions. Otherwise known as stereotypes, controlling images affect the way peers perceive Asian American law students.

One of the first things Asian American law students recognize upon arriving on campus: they are not white.

For instance, Jessica Laus recounts an experience in her criminal law class that left a deep impression. She shares that several of the criminal law cases they read involved rape or domestic violence, and students were expected to read the facts of each case without taking into consideration how intervening circumstances could be interpreted and evaluated before making a judgment. Jessica also noted that the facts of each case did not sufficiently address background factors that may have led to the eventual crime. For example, a domestic violence survivor who never reported her abuse retaliates by assaulting her abuser, but then is charged with a felony. As a shy person who avoids bringing attention to herself, Jessica normally does not volunteer to speak in class. On one particular day, however, she could no longer contain herself after none of her peers addressed possible gendered dynamics in a particular domestic violence case. As a woman of color, Jessica believes that one’s own gender and race inevitably affects one’s interpretation of each case.

As Professor Kim Scheppele wrote in 1992, women’s testimonies in courtrooms are often interpreted to be overly emotional, which results in questions about the legitimacy of their stories. Judges often ask women witnesses to just “state the facts” and dismiss the retelling of stories that comprise their testimonies. For many women, testifying is an emotional exercise that commingles facts and visceral feelings. In the same vein, many law students inject their feelings into their legal analysis but are expected to remain emotionally neutral, to just interpret the facts. From this point of view, Jessica was saying that it was not possible for students to be purely objective in their readings of the case. People do not exist in sterile labs wearing white coats. Speaking to the entire class, she argued that it was important for them, as law students and budding attorneys, to recognize that the law was written by men and interpreted to favor men. And just because there was precedent did not mean that every case should be interpreted the same way. Immediately following her remark, Jessica was greeted with negative comments, sour expressions, and eye-rolling on the part of the white men in the class. And although she does not remember verbatim what the professor said in response, she does recall feeling as if her professor and peers found her to be overly biased because of her status as a woman, and even more so as a nonwhite woman. Feeling hurt after this incident, Jessica thought about how being a woman of color shaped her own understanding of the case, and that if she were a man, especially a white man, she would have used a different approach. She assumed she probably would have just reported the facts, as she was trained to do in law school.

The omission of race and gender in the classroom draws awareness to the inadequacies of a fact-reporting exercise. Race is injected but simultaneously denied in the classroom through the insistence on a colorblind agenda. Asian American students report that they do not expect race to play a central role in case law, but they nevertheless find it problematic that classes on constitutional law, criminal law, and others lack any kind of racialized discourse. To these law students, personal backgrounds are intrinsic to understanding how the law affects particular communities, especially those from which they hail or with which they are familiar. The omission of such considerations is conveniently couched as “emotional neutrality” and “colorblindness” within formal legal education. This approach to classroom instruction thus delivers a lesson for students of color—namely, that their race and any emotions they might have attached to it are unwelcome and inappropriate considerations that should be effectively shelved as they learn to become attorneys. In addition, students also begin to think about how they, as budding attorneys, need to negotiate their own gendered and raced understandings alongside expected professional neutrality. Their nonmodal identities already contribute to how they understand and read cases, which suggests they may continue to do so once they begin working.

Racial Lesson #2: Heightening the importance of race arising from interactions

Law students engage in conversations with one another in the classroom, and these interactions are often tinged with racial undertones. Asian American law students note that the law classroom could be a dynamic place to exchange different viewpoints, but most professors do not foster such an environment. Far from simply delivering lessons, professors play a crucial role in shaping classroom dynamics. Occasionally, professors, peers, or even guest speakers make deliberate and perhaps unintentionally hurtful comments directed toward particular law students.

Asian American students report that they do not expect race to play a central role in case law, but they nevertheless find it problematic that classes on constitutional law, criminal law, and others lack any kind of racialized discourse.

For example, Marie Chiang has an interest in environmental law. In one particular workshop on the subject, the professor invited a guest speaker whom Marie was extremely interested to hear. The speaker, “an older white man,” as described by Marie, had retired from the Bureau of Reclamation and had a wealth of professional knowledge. After the speaker’s presentation, Marie was bursting with questions, especially about the connection between water use and agriculture—an issue she feels passionate about given her time working for an environmental not-for-profit organization. She recalls asking the speaker about the best way to integrate the water needs of farmers on a national scale but was interrupted by the speaker before she could finish:

And he interrupted me and said, “So, would you rather see a bunch of dry cleaners?” And at the time I was so focused on my point that I didn’t even realize how that was racist. But, upon retrospect, it came out of nowhere! There was no reason for him to become so angry and defensive with me, because he had not done that with any other student. There was no reason for him to pick out dry cleaners aside from any other business considering we’re talking about the use of water and how it compares with agriculture uses and urban uses—it makes a lot more sense to say something like high-rises, or suburban development, or anything else that uses a lot of water. I don’t even know how much water dry cleaners use or don’t use! I mean, it just made no sense! Why would he say that except for the fact that I was one of the few Asian [American] people in the room? And it may be unconsciously that just came to his head. I don’t know until you ask him, right? But also the force with which he responded, and the way in which he disregarded my point, the way that he was almost angry with me even before I got my point across completely, completely affects me.

The guest speaker’s assumption about Marie may have been based on her visible phenotype as Asian American—an identity she cannot hide. And the truth of the matter is that many Asian immigrants do own dry cleaners, among other small businesses, especially in urban centers.

Nonetheless, a perception that Asian Americans are foreign locates Marie firmly at the intersection of immigrant background and race. By looking at Marie, the speaker identified her as Asian American—again, an accurate assessment as she does, indeed, identify as such—but he also assumed a connection between Marie and recent immigrants from Asia. One might say that the speaker made an assumption about Marie’s Americanness by connecting her to a type of business commonly owned by Asian Americans. Being seen as foreign and attributing Asian Americans to particular segments of the labor force are quite common in this country.

Classroom interactions thus heighten racial awareness in two ways: brushing aside critical racial analyses (lesson #1), and verbal and nonverbal exchanges with other students and with professors and/or invited speakers (lesson #2). While professors may not intentionally avoid racial analyses of particular cases, Asian American law students see the omission as problematic. Yet, if and when Asian American students muster the courage to bring attention to this oversight, they often feel that their peers are annoyed and their professors are dismissive. These instances not only marginalize Asian American perspectives in the classroom, they also heighten their foreignness and their status as outsiders in law school and, eventually, the profession.

Racial Lesson #3: Peer assumptions about race and merit for admission into law school

Race is injected into the law classroom through a lack of focus on racial analysis but also through comments that Asian American students receive from their peers and professors. One way this happens is through discussions and/or offhand comments regarding law school admissions. Many law schools claim to consider each application holistically, assigning weight to life experiences, personal background, undergraduate GPA, and undergraduate institution, in addition to the LSAT score. Despite these efforts to affirmatively admit truly diverse individuals, the criterion of race infects how some law students think about admissions.

Classroom interactions heighten racial awareness in two ways: brushing aside critical racial analyses, and verbal and nonverbal exchanges with other students and with professors and/or invited speakers.

Race and speculations about “affirmative action admits” may preoccupy some white and nonwhite law students, but they rarely engage in conversation with one another about it face-to-face. When such discussions do happen in person, however, the experience is often highly unsettling for nonwhite students. Jenna Ito was shocked when another law student questioned her admission to law school. Being from Hawai’i, Jenna had not previously encountered such racial stereotyping or racism. The following exchange between Jenna and me captures how pointed conversations about law school admissions heighten the role of race for law students:

Jenna: I definitely had a lot of comments made to me during orientation—when I came to [Private Metropolitan] for first-year orientation, one student asked what it felt like to be the product of affirmative action.

Me: Was this another Asian American student?

Jenna: No, this was a white student.

Me: What did you say to that?

Jenna: I didn’t say anything. I was shocked! I was like, “I’m sorry? What?” And, he was like, “Yeah, because there aren’t that many of you here.” And by “you,” I’m assuming he meant people of color. So, he’s like, “There aren’t that many of you here, so I’m assuming that you’re here because of affirmative action, so that must have been really interesting for you. And, I’m sure you’ll love to learn about it in Con Law…” or something like that. He said something along those lines.

Me: And, this was another first-year student?

Jenna: Mm-hmm. So, I just didn’t say anything. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I’m not sure if he was being rude or if he was truly stupid. Really ignorant.

We may never know whether the white student’s query stemmed from animosity toward affirmative action policies or arose from pure curiosity. Either way, the story reveals the important place of race in the minds of white and nonwhite law students. The exchange between the two new law students illuminates how the legacy of educational inequality taints some white students’ perceptions of their nonwhite peers. It is worth noting, too, that during a follow-up interview, five years later, Jenna again uses this particular encounter to describe how she still feels as if she is posturing as an attorney. The incident, while brief, continues to fuel her sense of racialized imposter syndrome. As mentioned earlier, these types of person-to-person exchanges, although not necessarily common, leave lasting impressions on students of color.

Three Lessons of Not Belonging

The three lessons described reveal the oddly prominent yet problematic place of race in law school. These lessons characterize law school as a “white space” and culture where Asian American law students feel marginalized. We first saw the prelesson that heightened racial awareness for Asian American law students, and a recognition and understanding of minorities within the law school context. Overall, Asian Americans see fewer students of color at law school compared with their high school and college experiences. They come to feel as if they stick out in their classrooms, and while they don’t necessarily characterize sticking out as negative, they do emphasize that they feel strange in the overwhelmingly white environment.

I then shared the three lessons assimilated by Asian American law students in law school (see Table 1).

Table 1: Racial Lessons in Law School

This table describes the aforementioned three racial lessons of law school by medium, domain, and lesson. For medium of "omissions," the domain is "(colorblind) classroom" and the lesson is "paradox: experiential versus hypothetical race." For the medium of "interactions," the domain is "(colorblind) law school" and the lesson is "foreignize and trivialize experiences that deviate from the 'norm.'" For the medium "assumptions," the domain is "law school; virtual legal world" and the lesson is "race-based, nonmeritocratic admissions."

These lessons are conveyed via the omission of race in the classroom; interactions among faculty and assumptions made about foreignness and immigrant status; and peers’ assumptions that nonwhite law students, including Asian Americans, benefited from affirmative action policies. Taken together, these lessons haunt Asian Americans in all avenues of law school—in the classroom, during casual conversations, or even in the form of pointed accusations. These types of front-stage colorblind racialization do not necessarily engage race but are implicitly loaded with racist notions. These assumptions reflect broader American society’s preoccupation with colorblindness and may certainly affect how the law is applied to different racialized groups. Asian American law students come to recognize their deviance from the law school norm and anticipate further alienation once they begin working. However, colorblind racialization is not the sole culprit for this line of thinking. I examine next the role of panethnic or race-based affinity associations as a part of professional socialization. As I discuss below, Asian American law students join panethnic organizations/affinity associations for various reasons, including a desire to associate with those of their own racial and/or cultural background and a search for familiarity and comfort. In doing so, I argue that even among copanethnics, these students still experience racialization, albeit on the back stage.

The Law School Back Stage: An unintentional pull toward Asian American identity

Ahn Tran is involved in two student groups in law school, and both are what one would term “affinity groups”: the Asian American Student Organization (AASO) and the Asian American Law Journal. When I ask why he joined these organizations, Ahn immediately responded:

Basically because the people there look like me. I started going to meetings and also people in [AASO] kind of reached out and said, “Oh, come join [AASO] or come to a meeting!” So, I think seeing that people were involved and that they are always trying to recruit—that’s really helpful. And I joined the technology law journal last year. But I definitely did not stay not because the people were not nice, but I just didn’t connect with them on a personal level. I kind of felt like an outsider in that journal…. I don’t know if it’s that important, but maybe it’s subconscious. I think some people just don’t try very hard to talk to you. One thing is that I didn’t realize was how much beer that [white] Americans drink, which is something that [the students in the technology journal] engaged in a lot last year, and it’s something that I don’t really do.

Ahn joined these groups for multifaceted reasons. He desired a sense of personal familiarity, which led him to quit the technology journal when he was unable to relate to the members and their preferred social activity of drinking beer. He was, however, able to relate to those within the Asian American groups. It helped that the people in the organizations “looked like” him, and the organizations served as a refuge from the culturally and socially alienating environment of law school. In this way, the Asian American organizations differ from other student groups formed through common legal interests or political affiliation.

Asian American law students come to recognize their deviance from the law school norm and anticipate further alienation once they begin working.

Membership in Asian American affinity groups permits students to speak openly about what they perceive to be “deviant” cultural practices. And when they do, they find their peers nodding in agreement. Asian American peers do not judge their cultural practices and will often commiserate these feelings of camaraderie lacking elsewhere in law school. Nancy Liang illustrates with this story about the Korean American law student she was dating:

He told me once, he said, “My mom goes to a fortuneteller once a year to see how this year is going to go.” And, my mom [does] the same thing! And, I just think it’s ridiculous. Not that I think it’s bad, but I think it’s funny. And he thinks it’s funny too. And a lot of my Asian [American] friends—their parents do this too! And it’s something we laugh at all together. But when I think of someone else of some other racial background saying, “That’s weird. You’re weird,” I’d be offended, stuff like that. Or the fact that we eat chicken feet.

Why do Asian American law students choose to join panethnic student organizations? Unequivocally, they expressed a desire to associate with those of their own racial and/or cultural background, a search for a sense of familiarity and comfort. Debbie Kwan compared law school to war—a context wherein one wants a “war buddy, someone who understands you. We’re in the foxhole together, so you want to have a trustworthy war buddy.” Belonging to Asian American organizations does not guarantee successful law school completion, but it does provide a safe place within a context that often feels unfamiliar or even hostile for students of color. Aside from support and services, Asian American law students also rely on these organizations for mentorship and assistance navigating law school since most of them lack attorney role models. Students often speak of mentors from whom they learned how to initially traverse the unfamiliar terrains of law school. Whitney Hong says:

There is one [student] who is a 3L right now, and he’s always just available. We’ll talk; he’ll talk to me. Like when we’re stressed, we’ll go out. He’ll smoke a cigarette; I’ll drink some coffee. And we’ll just rant on about our day. Things like that.

To have someone available to listen can be important to maintain a positive outlook on law school. Some second- and third-year law students even remain in contact with mentors who have transitioned to practicing attorneys. The mentorships can thus also serve as a gateway into the “real world” of law. Students in Asian American organizations reap academic benefits too, using archived outlines to study for exams or taking part in law book exchange programs.

Membership in Asian American affinity groups permits students to speak openly about what they perceive to be “deviant” cultural practices.

Attending law school can be an isolating experience, prompting students to look for on-campus forms of support. Many Asian American law students consider members in Asian American organizations as their second families. And like a familial support system, members turn to one another for help and guidance when confronting adversity. When these students feel marginalized by interactions with other law students or law professors or in course discussions, they seek out their friends to vent and blow off steam.

A Special Place for Mixed-Race Asian Americans

Mixed-race Asian/white law students also find familiarity within Asian American organizations. They often joined such organizations because they felt a sense of connection to their nonwhite “culture” and wanted to be among other law students who understood their background. Take, for example, Kurt Waters, who shares that the majority of his friends in law school are Asian American. When asked about joining Asian American organizations in law school, he says, “I made a lot of friends who were Asian [American]. I think it’s, you also have that shared cultural background sometimes with Asian [American] friends as opposed to white friends or Hispanic friends. So, that’s another layer to bond and share experiences.”

Jocelyn Brady describes both cultural and social advantages of belonging to an Asian American organization: “There are a lot of social advantages. But there are, of course, cultural advantages. So, when we get together and we go have dinner, where do we go? We go to a Korean barbecue restaurant, right? As opposed to whatever. So, you have cultural experiences, shared cultural experiences that you get to share with other people.”

It appears that mixed-race Asian American/white law students are racialized and tracked like nonmixed-race Asian Americans, through formal and informal channels, into panethnic affinity groups. The context of law school, as an historically white institution, may propel these students to identify with their nonwhite ancestry during law school socialization. While this identification may not necessarily organize mixed-race students’ lives, at a minimum they are cognizant of their underrepresentation as individuals of color in the legal profession.

Back-Stage Racialization: Seeking refuge and finding community

The “law school family” (for example, the Asian American Law Student Organization) is important for Asian American law students to connect with others of Asian heritage. The organization also incidentally leads students to align with a panethnic identity versus a solely ethnic one. By the third year of law school, most students are no longer actively involved in Asian American law student organizations, but they still remain on listservs and the majority serve as mentors for incoming first-year students, in addition to attending special meetings and events. Even so, Asian American law students appear to have cultivated intertwined racial and professional identities by their third year in law school. Involvement in Asian American organizations instills and reinforces a racialized professional identity on the back stage. What began in law school as seeking a refuge from a colorblind agenda, unknown terrains of law, legalese, and white upper-middle-class legal culture seems to shift over time to become an important aspect of a racialized professional identity.

Belonging to Asian American organizations does not guarantee successful law school completion, but it does provide a safe place within a context that often feels unfamiliar or even hostile for students of color.

Affinity groups in law school do not exist with the intent to racialize law students of color. Working on issues of recruitment and retention are key concerns for these student groups, and racialization emerges as an unanticipated outcome. As sociologist Mario Small demonstrates in his book on mothers who enroll their children in child care centers, Unanticipated Gains: Origins of Network Inequality in Everyday Life, the social networks, friendships, and resources gleaned by the mothers are “unanticipated gains.” Small writes, “A network or group is a source of support for an individual because the group feels solidarity or because informal norms encourage everyone to give to others…. Through either mechanism, the social capital to which an actor has access is said to result from informal dynamics.” In similar ways, the increasing Asian American racial or panethnic identification (or acknowledgement) in law school is an “unanticipated gain” for law students who join identity groups to seek refuge and make friends, and also reap the benefits of professional networks and academic resources.

So, to recap: incidental racialization is a part of professional socialization for Asian American law students. On the front stage, Asian American law students are socialized by professors and peers through interactions to become emotionally neutral attorneys; at the same time, they find themselves continually reminded of their deviance from the norm of white upper-middle-class backgrounds. Asian American law students often find classrooms to be hostile spaces that disregard analyses of race and gender. To escape from this environment and find refuge, they turn to their peers in law school affinity groups. Consequently, Asian American law students’ social networks in and out of law school elevate the value and significance of their racialized identity. In this way, the holistic experience of attending law school unintentionally cultivates a racialized professional identity for Asian American law students.

The Significance of Race in the Professions

You might be asking, So what? Who cares? Why does any of this matter? Some might say that lawyers comprise a small percentage of the population in the first place, and the fact that Asian American law students have “made it” is evidence enough that they can assimilate to mainstream America. Yet, becoming a part of an elite profession does not mean that these individuals are entirely accepted by a profession that refuses to budge in its culture (for more, see “A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law”). This slack culture then, despite increasing numbers of white women, nonwhite, and working-class lawyers, perpetuates the prioritization of upper-middle-class white male values, and by doing so, does not fully incorporate those who deviate from its norms. Sure, law students who do not fit the “normative” mold could adapt, but if unable to shapeshift, they retain markers that will always heighten their differences—for example, phenotype and the associated implicit biases.

Affinity groups in law school do not exist with the intent to racialize law students of color.

As a society, we seldom think about how institutions could influence our own identities. I hope this small introduction to my book demonstrates the polarizing forces that engender and nurture racial awareness and identities. Asian American readers may find familiar some of the stories shared here and recall dismissing microaggressions as inconsequential to one’s life. But, I advise further reflection and situating microaggressions within the context of one’s daily interactions in law school or at work. How might these racialized experiences unknowingly impact one’s identity as Asian American law students and/or attorneys?

I do not have room here to elaborate as to how Asian American law students further negotiate their identities in terms of gender, immigrant background, and career aspirations. My book, however, further examines these other moments of joint career socialization and racialization and argues that a holistic picture is necessary to understand how Asian American law students are trained. I also contend that while an increase in numerical representation may be nice, it is insufficient to address an often inhospitable learning environment for law students of color, including Asian Americans. The outcome of current law schooling is an assimilation into mainstream America, an assimilation into an established elite profession, and an assimilation into white cultural norms. However, assimilation assumes an ultimate goal of aligning with and adopting a “standard” culture that is devoid of diverse peoples, thoughts, and practices. Assimilation, as an ideology, neglects agency and conveniently disregards the myriad range of experiences and offerings. In other words, yes, law schools should teach legalese and teach students to become lawyers, but law schools can better embrace a heterogeneous student population meant to represent a dynamic society and in so doing truly diversify this elite social stratum.

As for me, I continue to explore how race matters for Asian Americans (and other nonwhites) but am extending my research into the terrain of professionals. What ways might professions, including law, continue to racialize their members? Stay tuned for more.

Learn More About…

  • Microaggressions—Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation, by Derald Wing Sue (Wiley, 2010)
  • Asian American Panethnicity/Racialization—Forever Foreigners or Honorary Whites? The Asian Ethnic Experience Today, by Mia Tuan (Rutgers University Press, 1998)
  • Legal Professional Socialization—Making Elite Lawyers: Visions of Law at Harvard and Beyond, by Robert Granfield (Routledge, 1992)

See the Original Research

Incidental Racialization: Performative Assimilation in Law School 
By Yung-Yi Diana Pan



Despite the growing number of Asian American and Latino/a law students, many panethnic students still feel as if they do not belong in this elite microcosm, which reflects the racial inequalities in mainstream American society. While in law school, these students—often from immigrant families, and often the first to go to college—have to fight against racialized and gendered stereotypes. In Incidental Racialization, Diana Pan rigorously explores how systemic inequalities are produced and sustained in law schools.

Through interviews with more than 100 law students and participant observations at two law schools, Pan examines how racialization happens alongside professional socialization. She investigates how panethnic students negotiate their identities, race, and gender in an institutional context. She also considers how their lived experiences factor into their student organization association choices and career paths.

Incidental Racialization sheds light on how race operates in a law school setting for both students of color and in the minds of white students. It also provides broader insights regarding racial inequalities in society in general.

Temple University Press, 2017