A lesson every law student should learn early: being mindful of privilege

By Gina Addario-Berry

I have been delighted to join Allevato, Quail & Worth as a law student for the summer of 2016. The opportunity to pursue a career as a lawyer is a great privilege that I hope to never take for granted. During my first month at AQW, two of my wonderful mentors (Carmela Allevato & Jim Quail) invited me to join them to attend a segment of the HEU Summer School at UBC. We went to hear a presentation by Shakil Choudhury, author of Deep Diversity. I was so impressed by the contents of his lecture that I set out to find a copy of Deep Diversity the very next day. His research and expertise have resonated intensely with me as I have begun to experience what working in the legal profession is like.

One of the most important insights which I took away from Shakil’s book is that privilege is a blind spot for those who are receiving preferential positive treatment. We often don’t feel our privilege when we have it, even though it may seem obvious from someone who got the shorter end of the stick. When we are in the privileged group, we tend to focus on our own hard work and challenges. While it is easy to remember all the effort and sacrifice we made to get to where we are, “it’s difficult to see how the system functions to reward our efforts while holding back those of others based on such flimsy factors as social identity.” An illustrative 2009 UBC study showed how among a pool of job applicants with similar qualifications, those who had English sounding names were significantly more likely to receive callbacks to interview than those with foreign sounding names.

Underlying this ‘blind spot’ around privilege is the reality that how we perceive and interact with people is predominantly shaped by our unconscious. We all have biases that play out in our daily interactions. We are all vulnerable to prejudice, racism and bias. Our unconscious preferences guide our decision-making processes and how we relate to others. Therefore, these are deeper issues than are commonly recognized because so much of what is happening slips below the radar of mental awareness.

According to Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, humans rely on mental shortcuts known as heuristics to process vast amounts of information and make quick, efficient judgments. These shortcuts are useful in performing various tasks, like navigating our way through busy intersections, choosing our groceries or finding the correct key to open a door. However, when contemplating all our various unconscious shortcuts, I couldn’t help but wonder- does this not have significant implications within the judicial system as well? If our unconscious biases and auto-pilot brain favour those who are most like us, how could this not impact the way in which lawyers present, jurors perceive and judges decide?

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects fundamental freedoms of conscience and religion, thought, and belief and guarantees equality. Specifically, the Charter states that every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination.

All of these rights sound profound on paper, but if we don’t challenge ourselves constantly to be mindful of the assumptions we draw about others, the preferences we hold, and the people we choose to interact with, we risk living our lives upon an auto-pilot which may not reflect the open minded, open hearted beliefs we aspire to.

True to its title, this book is deep and provides an abundance of food for thought. For me, realizing how our unconscious brain causes so much prejudice and bias was discouraging, but also caused me to take the time to reflect deeply on the way I treat others. Thankfully, Shakil provided an explanation of various prejudice reduction strategies which can help to minimize the impacts of prejudice and bias.

So, how can we take control?

The part of our brain which is responsible for our prejudicial responses and heuristics is the neocortex. This is where we plan, evaluate, and control our impulses. The greater control which we have over this part of our brains, the better equipped we are to regulate our responses and tendencies to stereotype.

The most extensive process for developing self-awareness is through mindfulness meditation, which helps us to grow and thicken the fibers in our prefrontal cortex and enhance our cognitive and emotional capacities.  It may seem counter-intuitive to counter such a complex, multifaceted problem with such a simple solution.

However, it’s good to know we all have a place to start, and the benefits of meditation are endless. Take a deep breath. Close your eyes, and clear your mind.