Danielle Johnson is a staff attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services focusing on elder housing and disability benefits. Here, she shares her experiences as one of the few Black lawyers during weekly Housing Court proceedings (pre-pandemic) at the Edward W. Brooke Courthouse, which is named for the first Black politician from Massachusetts to serve in Congress. — As told to Katie Johnston
By 8:45 a.m. on “Eviction Thursday” there’s usually a long line of people waiting outside the courthouse to go through the metal detector. There’s a separate line for attorneys, which is white, white, white. Then there’s me. Then it’s white, white, white again. I definitely always get looks. “Where is she going? Doesn’t she know the line starts back here?”
Attorneys have to show their ID and bar card. Unless the security guard recognizes me, my bar card usually gets examined more than others. This person thinks that I’m supposed to be in a different line. Then I’m free to go. I’ve passed the first test. It’s a series of tests that I have to go through, and I’m not even in the courthouse yet. It’s exhausting, these tests.
How many people in the tenants’ line don’t have attorneys? These are my people. It’s an embarrassing thing to have to go to court because you’re being evicted, and it’s even more embarrassing because of the discrepancy. It’s mostly people of color in this line, and in the other line it’s mostly white attorneys that are representing the housing authorities or private landlords. And something doesn’t sit right because of that visual dichotomy. Being a person of color, it hurts. These are people who are possibly going to be displaced out of their home. It’s definitely hard to walk past that line.
Outside of Housing Court, many of my clients are white. When they first see me, it’s kind of like, “Oh you’re the attorney?” Not only am I young, I’m also African-American. People ask, “Is it just you that’s handling my case?” I don’t doubt myself, but having people relay their insecurities on me is challenging. Every day I’m proving myself to everyone around me.
On Thursdays, I go upstairs to the fifth floor, where Housing Court is, to try and find my clients. Sometimes it’s the first time I’ve met a client in person. Some people of color are hesitant about other people of color being attorneys, because they make this assumption that you’re not as smart as a white person. Once I had an intern with me who was white and we went to court and my client started talking to my intern. It’s one of those things where I’ve become numb to it almost. I think being in Boston and being a minority, these are things that you assume just come with the work territory.
The courtroom is crammed with people of color sitting in the spectator area and standing along the wall. The mostly white lawyers are packed into the jury box. Once a judge confused me with a tenant, and I had to say, “I am actually a lawyer.” Court officers have said, “Hey, you can’t sit here, this is for attorneys.” It’s disheartening. I laugh it off, but it’s uncomfortable and it’s awkward. I like to see the positive. I’m a new face and maybe they haven’t seen me before. But at the same time, implicit biases rear their head again. You’re so used to not seeing anyone like me.
You usually know who’s the attorney and who’s the tenant based on how they’re dressed. I usually wear a pantsuit, flats, dress shirt, blazer — the basic court lawyer outfit. I have dreadlocks, so maybe my hair plays a part. That’s another hurdle. You have to make double sure that your shoes are not messed up and there’s no hem coming out of your clothes, and your hair is neatly groomed. I make an effort to not give people an excuse to be biased toward me. It’s an added pressure to make sure I’m always presentable when I’m in court.
I make sure that I get my hair done once or twice a month. In law school, I thought about cutting my locks, because this style isn’t seen as professional, or people aren’t going to see me as welcoming. Again, that’s perpetuating the white norm. I’m also a dark-skinned woman. Dark-skinned women have a negative connotation for whatever reason. You have locks, you add dark skin on top of that — it’s not what people are used to. I try to make sure my nails are done, too. I know every inch of me is going to be analyzed. You can almost feel people sizing you up.
I’ve definitely been in situations where opposing counsel sees me, and they seem to think, “Oh, this will be easy.” They expect me to bow down to what they’re saying. Or they ask me, “Are you familiar with” — insert case law here. They think that just because I look the way I look that I don’t know what I’m talking about.
Any win for my clients is a win for me. It’s unfortunate that I have to go through these hurdles to get to that point, but again, I understand people come from different places. They fear what they don’t understand. When I prove someone wrong, it’s always a great feeling. I pat myself on the back and say, you go girl. How dare they doubt me? You start to drink the Kool-Aid and think they might be right, but then when you win, it’s like, ha, you don’t know everything just because you’re older and white.
I grew up in Prince George’s County in Maryland, which is one of the richest African-American communities in the US. So it was definitely a culture shock when I first moved to Boston for law school, at Suffolk University. I remember I took the T for the first time, I think I took it at Park Street, and I could almost see the segregation. The Asians go on the Orange Line, the Black people go on the Red Line, the white people go on the Green Line.
I had to get acclimated with minority groups and ask, where do all the black people hang out? They didn’t have an answer. It was more — you want to stay away from this place . . .
I'm lucky to have mentors at Greater Boston Legal Services who have been great, letting me know, "We trust you, we've got your back." It's nice to work in an environment where you have allies. If you have a colleague of color, check in on them, see if they have the tools they need to succeed.
Knowledge is also key. Take an implicit-bias test on the Internet and find out: What are my biases? Why am I like this? It’s all about self-reflection, having people look at themselves and figure out: How can I change this? It’s not necessarily standing outside with a Black Lives Matter sign. And of course, there could always be more diversity. Regardless if it’s at the store or a law firm, once someone sees someone who looks like them, speaks the same language, they relax.
Part of an occasional series of personal essays by people of color working in the Boston area. To tell your story, contact workplace reporter Katie Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Danielle Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.