By Brandon Birungi-Sengendo
On November 10, I attended my first networking event as a law student, the Earl B. Gilliam Bar Foundation’s 42nd Annual Scholarship & Awards Gala. My main motivation for going to this event was to develop a relationship with the black legal community in San Diego. On the night of, I made sure to arrive somewhat early so I could maximize the number of people I could talk to. Plus, there was a hosted wine bar I wanted to get to before the selection thinned out — seeing as I don’t often have a choice of wine options outside of the cheapest bottle I can find, after a long week of hoping not to get cold called.
The event itself could essentially be broken down into three distinct parts. First there was a reception for guests to arrive, have a few drinks, and mingle. Following that, guests proceeded to be seated for the dinner and awards. During the awards ceremony, guests celebrated the accomplishments of their colleagues in the field of law, and they encouraged the black youth in attendance to keep going. For me in particular, this portion of the overall event was refreshing. I don’t mean refreshing in regard to the speeches or awards given; rather I mean for people I saw receiving them, who were black people celebrating their accomplishments.
Growing up, I lived in a predominately white neighborhood, where I was commonly told to tone down my blackness. For example, I was told that I should avoid and dislike certain black hairstyles that would be considered unprofessional in the workplace. That if I wanted to succeed in the white professional world, I would need to have a certain look starting from the top of my head. But at the event, I saw the black hairstyles I was taught to avoid, worn by people who have achieved prestige and success. These people who didn’t let society shape them into a cookie cutter. They didn’t let others tell them how to look or dress for an interview or for work. They let their accomplishments and education be what defined them, not how they wore their hair. I know it is such a simple thing to be impressed by, but to me it meant a lot. Knowing I was surrounded by successful people who I could be myself around, helped me feel more at ease. I didn’t have to tone down the “black” aspects of my personality for fear of falling into preconceived notions of my race. I didn’t have to stand as a perfect ambassador for my race, in front of a large, white legal community to make sure the work of those who came before me wasn’t squandered and those who would follow me would have a chance.
However, in the exact same upswing of comfort in finding a sense of my people, came the downswing of imposter syndrome, of feeling inexperienced and inadequate. Here, I was a 1L whose biggest perceived accomplishment, thus far, included some interning experience and trying to network with people who have careers spanning decades. While I tried to talk about school and classes with other students, their knowledge of their class rank made me feel like I had accomplished nothing in comparison. The more I spoke, the faster I feared they would realize that I had barely stepped foot out of undergrad.
These feelings just kept building and swelling, the more and more I talked to people. I started to feel unworthy of being there, as if my presence denied someone, far more accomplished, from using this opportunity that I was instead given. But for one reason or another it all settled when I saw accomplished lawyers and judges down glass after glass, of fine wine. I don’t know why, but like with the hairstyles, I found comfort again. It is true that these people definitely have accomplished more than I have (so far) and some have even been lawyers longer than I’ve been alive, but at the end of the day I knew I had at least one thing in common with them, the love for free wine.