Listen to Be the Change: Khiara M. Bridges on claiming her voice as a prominent Black woman.
Khiara M. Bridges: Those things that I do to adorn myself, a lot of folks are going to read them in light of my identity as a Black woman. So, my nails become read in a particular way and my tattoos will become read in a particular way. And the way that I wear my hair, you know, and my septum piercing, in a particular way. And I’m comfortable with that. I’m happy with that.
[Music: “Saulsalita Soul” by Mr. RuiZ]
Savala Nolan: This is season two of Be the Change, a podcast that shares interviews with changemakers about how they became — and are becoming — the change they want to see in the world.
I’m Savala Nolan, director of Berkeley Law’s Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice and author of Don’t Let It Get You Down: Essays on Race, Gender and the Body.
This season of Be the Change is a collaboration with Berkeley Voices, a podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
In this episode, I sit down with Khiara M. Bridges. Khiara is a professor of law at UC Berkeley’s School of Law and a powerful public intellectual who speaks widely and writes incisively on race, class, reproductive justice and the intersection of the three. She’s also the author of three books — most recently, Critical Race Theory: A Primer (2019).
During our conversation, I speak with Khiara about the process of claiming and using your voice as a prominent Black woman. We talk about the complexities of presentation and adornment for members of marginalized communities — especially in academia — and about approaching your work with a sense of liberation, creativity and hustle. We also talk about getting comfortable with the Socratic method, and what it feels like to start law school with no idea what’s going on or what you’ve gotten yourself into, but ultimately finding your way.
[Music comes up, then fades out]
Savala Nolan: Khiara, thank you so, so much for joining me today for this Be the Change episode.
Khiara M. Bridges: Well, thank you for having me. It’s always a pleasure to talk with you.
Savala Nolan: I want to start by asking you how law school helped you become comfortable having a public and, I would say, powerful or even prominent voice, and also maybe how law school hindered that for you, right? Like, if there were ways that law school made it harder for you to embrace the power of your voice or to take the microphone or step up to the podium.
You know, especially as women of color, we can have experiences in law school that are affirming, but also some that are not terribly affirming and that are even kind of damaging. And I’d love for our listeners to know a little bit about how your law school years helped and maybe, I don’t want to say hurt, but for lack of a better word, I mean, it made it more difficult for you to have the kind of voice that you have now, which is powerful and courageous and intelligent and unapologetic.
Khiara M. Bridges: Yeah. Well, I guess I’ll start with how law school was less than helpful in my becoming who I am today. And it doesn’t really have anything to do with, like, voice. It has to do with the way I think. And I think that I’m not saying anything particularly profound if I say that law school teaches you to think like a lawyer, and thinking like a lawyer is a skill, but it’s also limiting, you know, and it forces you to focus on particular things while ignoring other things.
It teaches you how to frame what is and is not important. And it’s sort of just like a disciplining of the mind, which is phenomenal, but also can be counterproductive when one is trying to think creatively about how to use the law, and particularly how to use the law to solve some or to address some of the most enduring of our societal issues.
And so it wasn’t until I went to law school first and I learned to think like a lawyer, and then…
Savala Nolan: Congratulations.
Khiara M. Bridges: Thank you. Thank you. And after law school, I went to get my Ph.D. in anthropology, which liberated me from some of the constraints that law school had imposed on the way that I think.
And so, it’s the combination of the disciplining of law school with the liberation of anthropological inquiry and investigation that … both of them have produced me as the particular legal scholar that I am.
And so for listeners, particularly those who are in law school, I kind of invite you to tend to be aware about what’s happening in law school, in terms of how we are particularly training you to think in a specific way and to know that imposes some types of limitations on how you will think.
And there are classes outside of the law school available to you where you can use the tools that you have been given in law school and sort of release some of the more constraining aspects of those tools so that you can continue to think creatively as a lawyer.
But when it comes to, you know, how law school helped, I tell anybody who is close enough to listen that I had a really rough time in my first year of law school. Like, I thought that I had made a terrible mistake in choosing to enroll in law school. I thought that the admissions office had made a terrible mistake admitting me. It was just … it was not obvious that this was my calling. And I understand down, where I am in my career, that this absolutely is my calling — I was put on this earth to think about law and to teach law and to speak about law.
But when I was in my first year of law school, it was terrible. I hated the prospect of talking in front of my classmates, I hated the Socratic method, I hated the fact that professors didn’t just use volunteers, that they would just cold call — I hated all that stuff. Nevertheless, I do it in my classrooms now.
Savala Nolan: (Laughs) You joined the dark side, Khiara. What the heck?
Khiara M. Bridges: But I see the light in the dark. It was only because I was compelled to talk that I became comfortable talking. And it was only because when my Socratic little back-and-forth went terribly and I forgot the holding or I misstated the issue or I didn’t realize that that was a really important fact and I fell flat on my face in front of my classmates — it was those moments that made me say, “Oh, it’s not that bad to fall. Falling is actually not the end of the world. Falling is kind of human.”
And so, I became more comfortable. The more I did it, the more comfortable I became talking, the more comfortable I became failing, like not not achieving one’s goals. And it kind of made me into the person who I am today, where I’m long-winded now. People ask me to shut up sometimes. And it was only because I was challenged in law school to speak.
Savala Nolan: I have to say, hearing you talk about hating the first year of law school, it was very validating. I, too, hated the first year. I actually left, it must have been a civ pro (civil procedure) class. Maybe the second week, I got up and left in the middle, with tears streaming down my face, just feeling like, “What have I done? I don’t belong here. This is a horrible mistake. The admissions committee made a mistake,” you know.
Khiara M. Bridges: My first experience, like I arrived late to civ pro because I had been crying in the bathroom. I had to gather myself together, and I arrived late and, you know, I jumped right in and started, I don’t know, talking about personal jurisdiction or whatever it was we were talking about.
Savala Nolan: Oh, my gosh. Too soon. Too soon. I’m not ready for that terminology. OK, let me ask you this. So, I remember my very first law school reading assignment, and I went to Berkeley Law, so probably a similar cohort as you would have had at Columbia Law: super smart people, many of whom had some familiarity with the law outside of people in their family being in the criminal justice system, which is my background — I don’t know if that’s yours at all — but I remember my first reading assignment, opening the book and reading an appellate opinion, but having literally no clue what I was reading, you know, and wondering, “What is this? Is this an article? Is it a journal entry? Is this a short story?” Just having absolutely no familiarity with the material that I was supposed to be mastering. Were you that far outside of the field or were you like …?
Khiara M. Bridges: Oh, I mean, so, I remember specifically how the appellate opinions, they began with the judge’s name. So, it’ll be like Bell comma J. because it’s Judge Bell. I was like, look at this, is it James? Is it Julia? I had no idea what that J meant. I thought it was their first name, and I thought it was such a coincidence that all of these folks writing these opinions had the same initial. My gosh, it was really like learning — and, you know, we say it often in law school — it’s like learning a different language.
But I was completely … I had no idea what I was doing. We had a course that began before the law, like the torts and civ pro and contracts. It was like, I think two and a half weeks, and it was supposed to be foundations of legal reasoning or law school classes or something. And they, like, helped us identify the issues and the holdings and, you know, helping us learn how to brief the case. But I still didn’t know what was happening. I still did not know exactly how to read, what to read for, the big old words. I remember “prosecutrix,” and I was like, “What, who’s a prosecutrix?”
Also, you don’t have time to like — well, excuse me, let me speak for myself — I didn’t have time to look up what these words meant. So, it really was like being thrown into the deepest of pools and being forced to swim or drown. Yeah, that was my experience. (Laughs)
Savala Nolan: Same here. So, if there’s a listener out there who’s just trying to get their head above water in law school right now, reach out to someone if you haven’t already, but you’re not alone. And it in no way seals your fate as to how rich and successful your career will be.
Khiara M. Bridges: Absolutely.
Savala Nolan: I want to just zero in a little bit on what you said about law school being this profound experience of disciplining the mind, and then getting your Ph.D. in anthropology as this experience of liberation, sort of intellectual liberation and expansion.
And I totally agree with the advice or the reminder that you gave, which is that law students should venture beyond the four corners of the law school and not lose sight of a more expansive way of analyzing problems. I mean, that is incredibly important.
At the same time, I took a fairly expansive and liberated approach to my exams at the beginning of law school. And it didn’t pan out for me. It didn’t pay off the way that I had hoped that it would. And now you’re a professor, right? So, you’re grading these exams. On the exam, you want to see the discipline, right? You don’t want to see the expansiveness. And yet, there’s a tension because you want your students to not lose their ability to use many, many, many tools. I mean, is that a tension, or does it feel really different when you’re on the professor side of things?
Khiara M. Bridges: Yeah, it is. So I, I like to think of it as toggling back and forth, like I have the legal theorist role and brain in mind, and then I have the anthropological, theorist brain in mind. And I think of them as toggling back and forth.
And maybe in some parts of my career, I’ve been successful in kind of meshing the two, like looking at a legal problem anthropologically, or looking at an anthropological problem legally. But I tend to think of it as toggling, going back and forth between these two modes. And I think it’s really important to know how to do both.
And so, as it applies to law school, it’s really important to know how to write a law school exam. I remember when I wrote my notes, and I wrote my note on, it was called, “On the Commodification of the Black Female Body.”
Savala Nolan: Amen.
Khiara M. Bridges: And it was about a market and fetal tissue. At the time it was fetal tissue. It ultimately became, like, stem cells. But when I was in law school, there was this big question about whether fetal tissue is going to be used as sort of what we use to essentially make medical breakthroughs.
And I was thinking about the commodification of that. And so, I wrote in a paper about that, and I remember thinking, while I was engaged in this exercise, I was like, “I need to know how to write law review articles.” And even though the topic was my own, and even though it was something that no one was touching in law review articles at the time, if you read my note, it is very standard, right? I comb through the literature, I do my analysis, I make sort of normative claims, all within 25,000 words.
So, I think it’s really important to learn how to do the conventions of law exam writing or law legal scholarship. And then, it’s also really important to know how to be unconventional. And I think of my book. So, I have three now, and I’m working on my fourth. And I think I look at them as toggling.
My first book is very much an ethnography, is very much anthropology. My second book, I was like, “Look at me doing all this legal theory again, applying it to the things that I care about.” That book was about low-income mothers, essentially, and the deprivation of privacy and privacy rights that they have to live with. And then my third book was, I don’t know, it definitely wasn’t anthropological. It was much more legal. And my fourth book will be anthropological.
So, how about this? I haven’t yet figured out how to be a lawyer while thinking and doing anthropological things. And so, that’s the challenge I give to the next generation, right? The folks who are in law schools right now: How can you use these tools that I’m giving to you to be the change that we would like to see in the world?
[Music: “Element Walnut” by Blue Dot Sessions]
Savala Nolan: I want to take this idea of toggling back and forth and think about some questions of identity and our profession. So, folks who are listening to this may or may not know that you are a Black woman, and I, too, am a Black woman. And we are few and far between in our profession — in the law school, like the actual physical building of the law school where we work.
Savala Nolan: I am curious, for you, when do you most feel your race and your gender? You know, for better or worse? There’s not, like, a sadness built into that question, right? There could be joy, too. But when do you most feel your race and your gender in the legal world, in the legal environment? And there’s so many little, kind of, tributaries to this, like whether one tends to be more prominent, whether you take steps to kind of affirm and declare these aspects of yourself or to soften and mute them. And whether you find yourself toggling or code switching.
And, you know, I ask this question in the most … it’s not a neutral question, right? But I ask it in the most neutral way possible. So, I’m not at all asking you to kind of dig up trauma or set fire to your career … I don’t want that. I just, you know, I want to give you a chance and to give our listeners the benefit of hearing you speak from experience about having an identity that is not prominent, but nevertheless informs your work, and particularly in the law, which is a really complicated place for people of color and for people of all genders who aren’t cis men, frankly. So, yeah, have at it and dispute any premises that you felt I embedded in there unnecessarily, please.
Khiara M. Bridges: (Laughs) The question … it really causes me to reflect, which is good. I really like being a Black woman. Like I really, really do.
Savala Nolan: Yes, I do, too. I just have to jump in and say I wouldn’t trade it for the world — with all of the trials and tribulations, thank God I’m Black and a woman. OK.
Khiara M. Bridges: Absolutely. And I and I really do celebrate that identity in the way that I present myself. And it’s such an interesting question because a lot of what I do, I really think of it as really individual, right? Like, I have a septum piercing, and I don’t think of that as speaking to any aspect of my identity. I like to think of it as just like me being quirky. And I wear big earrings, and if you see me and my nails aren’t done, please avert your eyes, because that was unintentional. And I have tattoos, and I have all of these things and, again, there’s a part of me that just wants to attribute that to, like, “Oh, that’s me being me.” You know, my family calls me Khi, right? So, that’s Khi being Khi.” I’ve always been the weird one in my family.
But then, I know that those sort of things that I do to adorn myself, a lot of folks are going to read them in light of my identity as a Black woman, so my nails become read in a particular way, and my tattoos will become read in a particular way. And the way that I wear my hair, you know, and my septum piercing, in a particular way.
Savala Nolan: And your earrings, right? Big old hoops.
Khiara M. Bridges: Absolutely. I’m rocking them right now — they will be read in a particular way. And I’m comfortable with that. I’m happy with that. And I feel that that affirms my identity as a Black woman. So, thinking about when I first started in the academy, I think I was doing a lot of — I know I was doing a lot more — kind of just diminishing or doing my best not to stand out.
And so, the earrings didn’t pop up until close to tenure, I would say. And, you know, the nails were definitely muted. They were definitely rounded, you know, nothing pointy, right? So, I think I was doing a lot of just covering. It wasn’t like by doing that I thought I was going to hide the fact that I was a Black woman, but I didn’t want to underscore the fact that I was a Black woman.
And I think that now at this point in my career, I am affirming my identity by being, like, just who I am and I’m being unapologetic about it. So, I don’t know if I’ve answered your question, but I know that I am unapologetic in who I am, and I don’t mute who I am through, you know, the way that I present myself in the space of the law school.
In fact, I hope that it kind of makes it louder, right? It makes the fact that I’m a Black woman louder by me being completely who I am.
One thing, though, that I will note is that I use honorifics in my classroom. I ask the students to call me Professor or Dr. Bridges, and I call them Mr., Ms., Mx., Dr., you know, whatever honorific they prefer, and also some of them prefer no honorifics. And so, I respect that.
And the reason I do that is undoubtedly the fact that I am a Black woman. It’s just different. It’s different for a student to call me Khiara, because, as you know, I don’t have to tell you that Black women — our status, our place in law schools, it’s contingent, right? It’s not exactly beyond debate that we deserve to be here. And so, those honorifics kind of connote respect and authority. Like, we’re going to practice that a little bit by my students calling me doctor or professor. And I just like to return the requests that I’ve asked from them. I do it by calling them Mr. and Ms. and Mx.
And so, the honorific thing is something where I consciously think about my identity as a Black woman and think about how to demand, command respect in a space that would not otherwise confer it to me because of my Black womanhood.
Savala Nolan: I absolutely relate to the honorific question, and I, too, insist upon being referred to as professor, at least in the classroom. Although I’m a lecturer, I am not a tenured professor, I still do insist upon that, at least in the classroom space. But unlike you, I don’t return the favor. I guess I’m just power hungry deep below the surface.
Khiara M. Bridges: (Laughs) You’re drunk on the power dynamic, I get it.
Savala Nolan: (Laughs) It’s like, I’ve earned it. Let me pour myself another glass, right?
Khiara M. Bridges: I definitely do it in my lecture courses, at my seminars, because I like to think of it as more intimate. You know, we actually do have more personal discussions in my seminars in terms of students share personal information with their classmates, so it is more intimate. I call them by their first names there, but they still call me professor or Dr., so I guess I’m drunk on power in my seminars, too. (Laughs)
Savala Nolan: OK, The other thing I want to say is, “Thank you so much for describing kind of an arc or a process.” You said at the beginning of your time in the academy, you were, I think you used the word covering or, you know, doing a bit more covering than you are now, and that your earrings and your nails became more kind of authentic to who you are as you approached tenure. And I fully, fully relate to that. I mean, I’m 13 years outside of my law degree, and it’s only just in the past couple of years that I have really been able to kind of say, “I’m female, I’m fat, I’m black, this is my body, this is my look. And I’m not interested in putting on a costume to kind of meet your norms.” And so, I love that.
Folks who are hearing this, who may be wrestling with how to cover or display or declare their own identities that are marginalized in the legal community — I love that they can hear that it’s OK for there to be a journey and a process. I also wonder, looking back, should I have started sooner? Could I have, or could you have? Or is there a strategic reason to wait until you’ve amassed a little more power and security, so you’re not just kind of tiptoeing through the precarity of an early career in a law firm or any university before you kind of let it all hang out. Like, is there some strategy or is it just sad that we had to wait years before we felt comfortable showing up in an embodied, authentic way?
Khiara M. Bridges: I wonder.
Savala Nolan: Or maybe it’s both.
Khiara M. Bridges: I wonder. I wonder about that. I know that I started getting more comfortable being who I am when my article got published in the Stanford Law Review. I think after Stanford picked up that first article, I was like, “All right, let me put these earrings on”.
Savala Nolan: You have some bona fides, right? You have gravitas.
Khiara M. Bridges: When my second book came out, I was like, “All right, let me put these nails on.” So, you know, it’s like a countereffect. I came to Berkeley three years ago, so I was at another school for the first nine years of my legal career. And I don’t know if the faculty would have accepted me as a legitimate, serious legal scholar if they were also having to figure out, “What’s up with the hair? And what’s up with the visible tattoos?”
There is nothing objectively true about legal scholarship — just because an article comes out in the Stanford Law Review or in the Harvard Law Review, it doesn’t mean objectively that it is brilliant scholarship. A lot of it is perception and then shared perception. And so, you know, when a whole bunch of folks share this perception, it becomes like, “Oh, that is a brilliant piece of legal scholarship because of the subjectivity involved in evaluating what’s good and what’s not good.” I just didn’t trust that faculty to subjectively evaluate my scholarship while also trying to figure out whether I was too Black or too much of a Black woman, right?
So, I just felt that the safest path for me was to establish my fierceness, establish the fact that I write good, important things that the most elite of our journals think worthy of publication, that I write these serious books about serious legal questions, and it will make it harder for them to feel that my scholarship is unworthy because they’re still wrestling with how I present myself.
Savala Nolan: Yeah. And, you know, it’s not like it’s all in your head. I mean, there’s reams of social science and studies that back this up — that how when people perceive parts of your identity, it impacts how they perceive your work. So, I think there is some strategy there, for sure. And you know, you’ve articulated that.
And as I look back, yeah, there was definitely some strategy for me, as well.
[Music: “No One Is Perfect” by HoliznaCCO]
I want to think a little bit about the work that you do and think about the audience. And maybe that means your peers, your fellow fellow professors, or maybe it means a different group of people. Probably depends on the work. And what I’m thinking about is how as Black women, we can be sort of called because of our own inner voice or asked by others to talk to really different audiences.
You know, sometimes we’re kind of brought into a room and asked to speak to a white audience about some area where we have real or perceived expertise. Other times, we’re asked or choosing or hoping to speak to fellow Black women in a way that feels like a closed circle, where we all kind of can let our hair down, so to speak.
And then, of course, there are audiences beyond both of those realms. In your scholarly work, who are you writing for? Who are you trying to communicate with? And do you ever have to kind of wrestle with the question of who you’re speaking to and for? Or do you just kind of sail smoothly from page to page until you get to publication?
Khiara M. Bridges: Yeah. So, I really think it depends on what I’m writing.
Savala Nolan: And I should, say sorry to interrupt, but, you know, you don’t just write. You’re also interviewed. I want to expand the question to just be your sort of outward-facing work, not just your writing.
Khiara M. Bridges: Yeah, yeah. Again, it’s a question that’s making me reflect. Sometimes, you know, specifically with writing and also with speaking, I know that I’m intending sometimes to speak to audiences, and other times I’m intending to speak to lawyers and law professors and legal theorists. So, I definitely have that in my mind.
Savala Nolan: I guess what I’m asking … Sorry, can I put a finer point on it.
Khiara M. Bridges: Yeah, please.
Savala Nolan: I guess I’m sort of thinking about my own experience as a writer, and I don’t write legal scholarship, but there are times when I feel pressure to speak for Black women or to Black women, and I don’t want to. And there are times that I want to, but the format or the venue or whatever means I can’t.
And I’m curious whether you bump up against that. And if you don’t, you know, not a great question, and we’ll move on. But I’m really speaking from my own experience and kind of just greedily wanting to know if you bump up against that, too.
Khiara M. Bridges: Yeah, I imagine that sometimes I get invitations to speak or to write where it’s like, “All right, Black lady writing! The Black lady, she’s about to do it, you guys. And she’s also going to represent all Black women.” I imagine that some invitations come through the door that are sort of premised on that.
I don’t you know, I only do things that I want to do, at this point. There was definitely a time in my career where I felt like I had to say yes to everything. And I did say yes to everything. And I was on the road, man. I was like Beyoncé. I was, like, you know, on a 50-city tour in a semester where I would just talk and talk and talk and talk all the time and writing, writing, writing, writing all the time. And it was exhausting.
But I was also younger, I could do it. I could do a red eye back then and hop off the plane and hit it. I probably could do it. I just don’t want to do it at this point. So I say no to a lot of things. I probably say no to as many things as I say yes to. At this point, I only do talking engagements and writing opportunities when I really want to do it, when I want to write something that’s interesting to me, or where I’ll learn or talk to audiences that I’ve never talked to before.
And so, that gives me an opportunity to not only have them learn from me, but I can learn from them. So, I think that by protecting my time, it frees me from some of those events or opportunities that really are more exploitative or really just using me as a way to check the box, like we got one. So, yeah, I think that’s how I navigate that difficulty.
Savala Nolan: Was it just sheer fatigue that forced you to learn how to say no, or did you get to that point before you had to? And if so, what gave you the chutzpah to feel like you could say no or the sense of security that would allow you to say no and trust that something else was coming?
Khiara M. Bridges: Right. Yeah. That is so … This is amazing. Like, I feel like I’m in therapy right now. (Laughs)
Savala Nolan: (Laughs) You’ll get my bill. No, I’m just kidding.
[Music: “Honey” by Serge Quadrado]
Khiara M. Bridges: So, yeah, so definitely there had to have been a moment where I was like, “It’s okay to say ‘no’ because something else is coming along.” Because at the beginning of my career, I thought this was it, right? Like, they were inviting me because they heard my name, and next year they won’t know my name. And so, let me get, you know, do this road show while I can.
But at some point, I was like, “No, there will be more opportunities. This isn’t the only one.” So, I think it was a combination. It was definitely fatigue. I definitely remember I was always at the airport — I would actually get my nails done at the airport, like I had a manicure spot in the airport. That’s how often I was there.
Savala Nolan: They’re like, “Hey, Khi.” (Laughs)
Khiara M. Bridges: (Laughs) I’m like, “Hey, you know, same thing as last week.” So, you know, it was definitely fatigue. But then, also, there was a security that resulted from knowing that this isn’t my last opportunity.
Another thing I became more sensitive to … or just legitimating my sense that I need to establish boundaries was that if something went wrong, the only thing that these institutions could do was say, “I’m sorry.” And let me give you a really good example or a practical example of that.
I have this very clear policy where I don’t record my classes because I don’t want there to be a record of me saying something that can be taken out of context, distributed, and then, you know, I become the darling of the right wing media ecosystem. And so, I don’t record my classes because I don’t want that to happen. And I also feel like it enables me to speak more authentically in class, right? It enables me to just be a better professor — because I don’t have to constantly think about, “This is on the record. This is on the record. This is on the record.”
And so, I had an opportunity to teach at another law school. And the law school said, “Oh, we record all of our classes here.” And I was like, “OK, cool. Well, I don’t permit my classes to be recorded, and let me tell you why: I talk about race, class, gender, sexual identity, gender identity, and because of the sensitive nature of our conversations, these are my concerns.”
And then it seems like they thought about it, and then they came back like a week later, like, “Yeah, well, a lot of classes in our law school talk about race, class, gender, gender identity and so forth. So, we’re not going to make an exception for your classes.” And I feel like I stepped into my womanhood because I was like, “OK, thanks, but no thanks. You guys have a great semester.” Because if something happens in that recording of me saying something that might be perceived as controversial, taken out of context, and then, you know, it’s on Breitbart, the only thing that institution could say was, “My bad. I’m sorry. Oh, I didn’t know. That was not our intention.” So, my physical and mental well-being would be sacrificed. And the only thing that they can do is say, “I’m sorry.”
Savala Nolan: And that might take a minute. It might be a bumpy road before you got, “I’m sorry.”
Khiara M. Bridges: After they consulted with their lawyers, a couple of months later, they would say, “I’m sorry.” And so, just knowing that I have to take care of me — I’m the only one who’s going to take care of me as well as I could. I’m the best situated to do that task. That has given me more … It has made me less hesitant to say no. I say no in a heartbeat these days. I start with no and then I say maybe.
Savala Nolan: I love that — start with no and then say maybe, at least internally. I mean, there are so many women of color — that’s what I’m really thinking about with this conversation, though there’s something for everybody here, no doubt. I mean, there’s so many women of color, young lawyers and people who are in law school — and I use women as expansively as possible — who feel a lot of pressure to hustle that to have boundaries is somehow a career-limiting move.
And it’s kind of an art in trial and error, I think, for us to figure out when hustling is good and when it’s detrimental. And I can’t tie this up with a pretty neat answer in a bow. But I guess what I want to suggest to folks who are listening is that it is a process, and over time, I think you strengthen your sense of kind of your city walls and who gets to come in and out or lure you beyond your own city gates.
And there may well be people who are a little more seasoned in their career who can help you brainstorm and figure that out. I mean, I’m not saying reach out to Khiara or me. You know, I’m not going to volunteer Khiara for that. But if you’re experiencing that, know that people around you have experienced it, too. And some of us have really gotten much better over the years at figuring out how to say no and still feel a sense of abundance and security professionally.
Khiara M. Bridges: Right. And you know, I actually don’t think that — and I hope the audience doesn’t take your comments to be that hustling and caring for yourself are mutually exclusive.
Savala Nolan: No, certainly not. I mean, the hustle is part of it when you have a goal, right?
Khiara M. Bridges: Absolutely. I work hard. I work hard. In fact, I should probably work less, but I work hard at things that I love doing, and it helps that I’m a nerd, too. I’m writing this book, my ethnography — ooh, I’m excited! Ooh, man! I got Necropolitics in front of me. I’m going to dive into that book.
And so, working is my self-care a lot of times. But there are other times when working is, you know, a drag. It’s exhausting, and it could be exploitative. And so, what I do is I try to eliminate the exploitative ones altogether. And then, there are aspects of every job that’s going to be a drag. You could open up your dream law office where you’re only doing the type of work that you want to do, and you’re only representing clients that you want to represent. And you are the change that you want to see in the world. And there are going to be parts of your work day where you’re like, “I can’t. I don’t want to do this.”
Savala Nolan: Yeah, like there’s a reason they pay you to show up, even if it’s the best thing in the world.
Khiara M. Bridges: Absolutely. So, I think that the work is to minimize the parts that are just draining and maximize the parts that really make you hop out of bed in the morning.
Savala Nolan: Yes. Hustle is so contextual, and I’m a big believer that inspiration generally comes during work, not before. And you want to feel inspired, like you’ve got to get your butt in the chair and do the work or, you know, wherever your work takes place, right? So yeah, no, no, definitely not saying don’t hustle. I guess I’m saying, “Be aware when the hustle is exploitation or when it’s like draining you, and you don’t feel good about it.” Like, who are you hustling for? Are you hustling on your own behalf? And that’s great. If you’re not, maybe it’s worth looking a little deeper.”
Khiara M. Bridges: Indeed.
Savala Nolan: Khiara, last, but not least — because I can’t believe this time has gone by so quickly — I would love to give you the opportunity to tell us what you’re working on these days that’s exciting to you, if you’re inclined to share. We will definitely wait with baited breath if you will not give us a preview. But if you’re willing to, we would love to know what is on your desk right now.
Khiara M. Bridges: Yeah. So, what gets me out of bed in the morning that I’m super excited to work on is an ethnography that I have been wanting to write and work on since at least 2016. My other degree is in anthropology, and so fieldwork is kind of like our methodological identity. And so, I haven’t had an opportunity to do fieldwork since I got my Ph.D. in 2008, so it’s been a long time. And so, my first book is an ethnography, and I conducted fieldwork in a public hospital in New York City in the obstetrics clinic. I was working with low-income pregnant folks, disproportionately folks of color. And I was analyzing how they kind of try to navigate these health care bureaucracies while maintaining their dignity. And it’s very hard. It’s very hard to be poor, a person who’s pregnant. Most of them were women. It was very hard to be a person of color and then maintain your dignity and your autonomy.
And so, I always wanted to do kind of a follow-up to that, that study where I examined and worked with the privately insured Black people who are pregnant, who are navigating health care bureaucracies, because a lot of the sense that’s shared widely is that it’s really people’s poverty that is disadvantaging them. In my book, even though it was working with poor people of color, a lot of folks read it, and it’s like, “Oh, man, poverty is really terrible.” And poverty really is terrible. But what they were highlighting was that racial disadvantage was doing a lot of work of disadvantaging the folks who I was working with.
So, in this ethnography that I’m working on right now, I conducted fieldwork in a private hospital here in the Bay Area. I interviewed, observed and interviewed pregnant folks, providers, staff, the whole nine. And what I’m trying to do with it is ethnographically document how race continues to matter, even when one has class privilege.
So, I’m so excited about it. I’ve already done the fieldwork. I was doing the fieldwork on my sabbatical so I’d have all this rich data. And now it’s the process of sort of distilling, identifying themes that course through and creating chapters and then researching the chapters and then writing them. And so, it’s kind of like my favorite part of this process.
Savala Nolan: Hmm. Thank you, Khiara. I mean, it sounds critically important for one thing, but I also can’t think of a better person to be at the helm of that particular project. I’m thankful that you are doing this work, not just that it’s happening, and may you be inspired as you go along.
Khiara M. Bridges: Thank you. Thank you. And I am excited, and I’ll keep you posted. And maybe when the book is out, we can do this again. Hop on a podcast and chat it up.
Savala Nolan: Yes, I would love that. Thank you so much for making time for us. You are such a treasure in the UC Berkeley community and the Berkeley Law community, in particular, and it’s really my privilege to get to hang out with you for a little bit and just chit chat about the things we love. So, thank you so, so much, Khiara.
Khiara M. Bridges: Thank you for having me. Let’s do this again soon.
[Music: “Saulsalita Soul” by Mr. RuiZ]
Anne Brice: This season of Be the Change is a collaboration between Berkeley Law and the Office of Communications and Public Affairs at UC Berkeley It was produced by me, Anne Brice.
To hear each episode, follow Berkeley Voices wherever you get your podcasts and look for the special Be the Change series. You can listen to the episodes and read the transcripts on Berkeley News at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts. You can also find Be the Change on Berkeley Law’s podcast hub at law.berkeley.edu/podcasts/.
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