Guest Speaker Leah Goodridge Examines Professionalism as a Racial Construct

After Leah Goodridge, a managing attorney for housing policy at Mobilization for Justice, wrote an essay that was published in the UCLA Law Review titled “Professionalism as a Racial Construct” last spring, it struck a familiar chord with Black professionals and went viral.  

That essay, which examined the role of professionalism as a tool to police and regulate people of color in the legal field, was the topic of an intriguing Feb. 8 lunchtime talk at the Law School attended by faculty and students.  

Goodridge, who is also a New York City Planning Commissioner and has taught at Brooklyn Law, said she initially wrote a comparatively tame essay for UCLA, her alma mater, about her experiences as a lawyer, leaving out the negative experiences related to being a Black woman in the field.   

“I didn’t want to anger any of my white colleagues, I didn’t want to tell the truth,” Goodridge said. “So, I wrote it for a white audience, and then the experiences kept coming, and I decided I’m done and I’m going to write the truth.” 

The experiences she referred to were times throughout her career in law where opposing counsel, colleague, or other professional —often a white man with several decades in the field, but sometimes a white woman—would belittle or denigrate her statements publicly, making her feel humiliated. After questioning her own perceptions and speaking with friends, Goodridge said she ultimately realized the behavior was driven by racism, misogyny, or both. 

It led her to question what is really meant by “professionalism,” Goodridge said. She had always been told that addressing discriminatory behavior by filing a complaint or challenging a person’s behavior as discriminatory would make her appear “unprofessional” and that she would be labeled as a disruptor or “the enemy,” even though the unprofessional behavior was directed at her. 

In the paper, Goodridge coined the term “bias threshold” to explain why such flipped-around narratives persist in the workplace. 

“The expectation for marginalized people to endure toxic, abusive behavior is the ‘bias threshold,’” Goodridge said. “And when a person doesn’t do that and they seek to disrupt it, they are often labeled as unprofessional. That person’s level of professionalism is literally judged by how well they can endure toxic, abusive, racist, transphobic, ableist [or otherwise discriminatory] behaviors.” 

That expectation extends to the legal field, where lawyers are told, “this is the way it is, either you’re going to have a thick skin or you won’t,” Goodridge said. On top of this, lawyers are instructed to be non-emotional, so it becomes difficult to describe discriminatory incidents in an authentic, transparent way. Someone might say, “that is not okay,” where they should really be saying, “that is racist” or “that is transphobic,” and so on.  

Another concept in her essay is called “selective offense.” In the workplace, people who discriminate against others and denigrate them often get away with it for an array of reasons. In some cases, they’ve been in their position for decades and have acted in a discriminatory way in the past and others have failed to call them out. In other instances, the person’s colleagues have made excuses for their behavior, laughed at their jokes, or said, “that’s just the way he or she is,” doing nothing.  Critically, no one expresses that they are “offended” by this person, Goodridge said.  

Selective offense is when someone does call a person out for discriminatory behavior, and that person— rather than the actual antagonist—is criticized as being offensive or rocking the boat in the workplace.  

“You’re [labeling] someone who wants to make the institution better ‘unprofessional,’ but normalizing the actual players who are harmful to the institution and are ostracizing and marginalizing people,” Goodridge explained.   

In some instances, the initial interaction where the discriminatory behavior took place is dismissed as a personality clash, or just two people “going at it.”  When that happens, it’s important to consider who the two people are and what their roles are in the workplace, because there is most likely a “power imbalance,” in which the antagonist is senior to the person who is being disparaged publicly. 

“I want us to start challenging how we talk about these interactions, because they’re not two people going at it, especially if one has a higher title than the other,” Goodridge said.  

The solution to these issues, Goodridge said, is to speak up against discriminatory behavior and not allow it to be normalized. A person who finds themselves the victim of this type of behavior should—ideally— find similarly minded colleagues to support their efforts and communicate those concerns as group. Then, choose someone higher up the ranks who you can trust to reach out to about what’s happening.  

“A lot of us [when approached about discrimination] are trained to say, ‘I don’t want you to get fired,’” and urge them not to act, Goodridge said, adding that she’s done it herself in the past. “We have to disrupt that, because that’s just another form of ‘let’s keep this the way it is’… The more people become offended about the right things to be offended about, the more people set the standard of what’s not OK, the more things will change.” 

Goodridge’s discussion was co-sponsored by the Public Service Law Center; Associate Dean for Inclusion and Diversity and Associate Professor of Clinical Law Karen Porter; the Latin American Law Students Association (LALSA) and the Asian-Pacific American Law Students Association (APALSA).