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Incidental Racialization: Performative Assimilation in Law School

reviewed by Anita Bright

coverTitle: Incidental Racialization: Performative Assimilation in Law School
Author(s): Yung-Yi Diana Pan
Publisher: Temple University Press, Philadelphia
ISBN: 1439913854, Pages: 220, Year: 2017
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“Legal socialization is intense” (p. 171).  


In a highly accessible text with implications for educators across a range of professions, Yung-Yi Diana Pan offers a nuanced study of the lived experiences of about 100 individuals preparing to become lawyers. Drawing from her insights as a sociologist and focusing her work in two distinctly different university settings, “Western Elite” and “Private Metropolitan” schools, Pan provides a thoughtful window into the ways law schools may serve as “microcosms of how systemic inequalities are sustained and (re)produced” (p. 3).

Multifaceted questions fuel Pan’s intimate and layered study, including what it means to be a newcomer to the law profession and what role specific affinity-based organizations play in the process of indoctrination into the field. A key construct in her research is the idea of panethnicity, which is a kind of purposeful grouping of ethnic identities for reasons that may be related to solidarity, similarity, or convenience. In this text, Pan focuses heavily on the roles of affinity-based panethnic organizations within law school settings, noting that these organizations are structured around “broad classifications that group a number of specific, often highly diverse, ethnic identities – hence, associations for Asian American students instead of Chinese American or Korean American students and Latino students instead of Mexican American or Cuban American students” (p. 4).  

Pan primarily highlights the voices of individuals who identify as being either Asian American or Latino, exploring the ways in which panethnicity matters for law students preparing to enter professional practice. Careful to make clear that she neither conflates nor dismisses the differences between the experiences of Asian American and Latino students, Pan notes that members of both identity groups are frequently framed as “‘others,’ ill-captured by a narrow black-white boundary” (p. 172). Members of both groups have experienced (and may continue to experience) marginalization and oppression, resulting in a contemporary kind of liminality or in-betweenness. Members of both groups experienced law school as an overwhelmingly white space in terms of literal racial (under)representation and in terms of the very epistemological and curricular underpinnings of the law school experience. The “omission of race” (p. 86) in the experiences of participants was striking and was borne out in micro- and macroaggressions made with a tacit colorblindness and unfiltered masculinity that seemed to permeate much of the law school journey.


Highlighting the deeply performative aspects of the legal profession, Pan constructs a series of interlocking theater-based metaphors involving the set, stagehands, and typecasting. The metaphors of front stage and backstage hold key importance, with front stage experiences being communal, racially integrated experiences for all students, such as attending class. While many of these experiences are portrayed as being neutral or positive, many were also wounding, oppressive, or otherwise toxic, and include things like the repeated mispronunciation of students’ names or unkind implications that participants were admitted because of affirmative action. In contrast, the backstage experiences that underpin the participants’ transformation were very often connected to the panethnic student organizations. Backstage experiences had an anchoring effect, stabilizing and informing the far more public front stage experiences. This is not to say, however, that Pan believes panethnic organizations are a panacea for the wounds inflicted in the front stage context. Rather, she makes clear that the backstage experiences offer an alternative take on reality, crucial to participants’ identity formation as law professionals.

In learning from her participants, Pan realized that the panethnic organizations were meant to serve social, academic, and professional purposes, all linked to the overarching idea of socialization into the legal profession. Perhaps more urgently, as indicated in the title of the work, she observed that Asian American and Latino students experienced not just socialization, but racialization. Coming to terms with what it means to hold identities outside the “modal” (most frequently occurring) student identity, the participants in Pan’s study found not just solidarity in their panethnic organizations, but a fertile community from which to draw insight, encouragement, and foster “an environment where panethnicity becomes salient” (p. 177).

At its root, Pan’s work describes two specific aspects of what she has termed the “incidental racialization” of her Asian American and Latino participants. Building constructs of “elite professionalization” and “legal socialization” (p. 178), Pan provides multiple vivid examples from the lives of participants that speak to the ways in which law school experiences are microcosms of U.S. society as a whole, and the ways race relations and the ongoing racialization of individuals and communities continues to be propagated today.

In the spirit of transparency, Pan provides some context that has shaped her desire to engage in this particular study. Speaking to her decision to focus primarily on Asian American and Latino students, Pan (who is first generation Chinese American) explains that growing up, her closest friend was Mexican American, and the two bonded over the similarities in their lived experiences in their families and in their community. Addressing her focus on law students, Pan reveals that her husband earned a JD, which provided her with tangential access to and insights about some of the realities of law school. Her behind-the-scenes life with her husband piqued her sociology-informed curiosity about the ways in which law students are socialized into the profession. This expression of her positionality within the work is valuable for other researchers seeking to engage from the margins in similar ways; Pan makes no apologies for her positionality, but rather seeks simply to make it clear.

In sum, it’s the details of specific experiences (microaggressions, macroaggressions, and the solidarity experienced through membership and participation in panethnic organizations) that readers from outside the field of legal studies may find most relevant and useful. While preparation to enter the field of legal work clearly has unique characteristics, the experiences of the participants in this study seem to have clear resonance with and connection to the induction and indoctrination that occurs in other professions, and the constructs that Pan offers throughout this work will likely transfer easily.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, 2018, p. -
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22403, Date Accessed: 1/19/2019 6:42:17 PM

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