Double Consciousness, Professionalism, and Table Manners

Check yourself.

I recently started attending a Critical Race Theory (CRT) reading group at DU; we are one meeting in and it has already been very worthwhile.  CRT was of course around when I was in law school in the late 90s, but honestly, I would bet I read more CRT before going to law school than during it.  In fact, the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, an anthology of essays that came out following those hearings (“Race-ing Justice; En-gendering Power,” edited by Toni Morrison, and Patricia Williams‘ “The Alchemy of Race and Rights“) were all motivating factors in my decision to attend law school.  I naively thought that the critical mindset set forth in these writings would be a starting point for the study of law.  I was, needless to say, very, very wrong about this.

At any rate, one of the concepts that came up during the CRT discussion, and a concept that I have discussed a number of times with my good friend and colleague, Catherine Smith, was that of double consciousness.

W.E.B. Du Bois, who taught us about the notion of double consciousness.

As I understand it, double consciousness is, on one level, an existential position.  That is, it is a state of existence wherein the individual is aware of simultaneously occupying two different identities—and, indeed, identities that are in some way in conflict with one another.

Some have discussed double consciousness as being a unique intellectual resource in that one is able to navigate two worlds rather than being confined to one.  From another perspective, double consciousness is a burden or perhaps a mark of subordination, in that it is an artefact of being forced to internalize the needs, expectations and desires of a more powerful “other” in order to survive under the other’s domination.

While the concept was articulated in the context of African-American identity, we can see that it is vigorous and flexible enough to shed light on any number of experiences of subordination or outsider status.


These recent discussions about double consciousness made me think about a conversation I had with another colleague some weeks ago.  This colleague was upset about the fact that a very bright student had not received a prestigious job offer because of something they don’t teach you in law school: table manners.  The prospective employer had in fact called this colleague to explain that this was the specific reason the student was not hired.

Required reading?

So what is the significance of this piece of information?  We have a disconnection between expectation and experience.  That is, the prospective employers expected the student to not only follow, but be aware of, a certain set of social conventions.   The experience with the student did not meet this expectation.

From one perspective, this can be seen as a deficiency in the student.  How is it that a young adult can come to be studying for his professional degree and not know how to conduct himself at the dinner table?  From another perspective, the expectation that law students have had some uniform exposure to the rules of Western/American etiquette seems unfounded as these skills are arguably tenuously related to one’s qualification for the profession.

In fact, the disconnect simply is what it is, and it tells us a little bit about history and change, if nothing else.  Clearly, prospective employers—who are one-to- two generations older than law students, and who presumably have been thoroughly acculturated to the profession—consider it reasonable to expect a job candidate to know which fork to use and to not speak with food in his mouth.  Why is this so?  If you accept that manners in general and table manners in particular are, like literacy, both a barrier to and a vehicle for ascension in social rank, then the employers were in essence expecting the law student to either be from a particular class, or to have acquired the signifiers of that class.

But on the other side of the equation, and as I have commented before, law schools are admitting increasingly diverse students—students who are diverse on every scale, including class and social background.  This is unequivocally a good thing.  But we are not acknowledging that students from diverse backgrounds may not bring certain “intangible”—or, indeed, seemingly peripheral—“skills” to the table as they attempt to fit into the essentially conservative and elitist profession of law.


After telling me this story my colleague joked somewhat despondently that we might have to start mandating training in etiquette as part of the law school curriculum.  This point is in fact not so far off.  If we are not honest and informed about the “hidden qualifications” for the profession—in other words, the fact that the profession is situated in a particular social and class context—we are directly disadvantaging students who come from “different” backgrounds by not alerting them to these unexpressed requirements.

Stated another way, we can no longer expect and anticipate that law students will come to us with a unified consciousness born of and nurtured in privilege.  Rather, as we seek to promote diversity in our students and therefore in the profession, we need to anticipate and cultivate many types of double consciousness.  We need to appreciate the gaps our students are trying to bridge, and make sure they have fluency for all of the different worlds they need to operate in.


3 responses to “Double Consciousness, Professionalism, and Table Manners

  1. This comment is late, but I thought about this post today during lunch at my law firm when I had to turn to my friend (a GT employee) and ask which fork to use to eat my salad. We (the attorneys and staff) had a super fancy lunch at the firm today to celebrate administrative professionals day and show the staff we appreciate them. It was a four course meal with shrimp and snow-crab cocktail, salad, main course, desert, wine, etc, but there were three forks, two on the left and one on top of the plate, a couple of knives, and a small spoon. I felt uncomfortable the second I walked into the room and sat down. Of course, I sat at the table with most of the staff, rather than the table with most of the attorneys because I feel much more comfortable conversing with staff rather than other attorneys. I’m sure nobody cared that I didn’t know which utensils to use to eat my food, but I do feel out of place every time I have to attend an attorney networking event or an attorney meeting at my firm. Maybe this is because I do come from a VERY informal, and what I would consider under-privileged, background. I have always felt like I don’t have the “typical” personality (or the personality portrayed by society, i.e., high class) of a lawyer and feel like I can’t be myself when I attend these events. I do believe my lack of certain life experiences and/or my upbringing has inhibited my ability to fit into the law profession.

    • susannahpollvogt

      Thank you for writing Danielle. There is no such thing as late when commenting on this blog! It is all part of an ongoing conversation. Your story really resonated with me. What I find interesting is that a “formal” meal is somehow meant to convey respect, but all it really does (often) is draw a distinction between people based on class background. All that being said, your insight and ability as an attorney will count so much more than this—it is unfortunate that a sense of social belonging seems to matter in the profession, but I would trust in your abilities first and foremost.

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