by: Catherine Hyo-Kyung Ham
This day always sticks out to me. I finally had my own cases to prosecute in the pretrial session and as I walked up the stairs of Brockton District Court holding my files, I felt so proud of myself: I am finally a real lawyer! As I passed two men in the hallway, they yelled out, “Ching Chang Ching Chong!”
Wait, is this really happening in the courthouse? Don’t I look like a lawyer? Aren’t I wearing a suit like all the other lawyers? I was not mad at their racist remarks; I was mad that their comments shook my confidence. My confidence spiraled down to self-doubt. Am I really good enough to be a lawyer? I don’t even look like a lawyer, just some girl for men to heckle? In that quick moment, I did what I have always done—a little pep-talk to force myself into that pretrial session to get the job done.
My appearance as a small Asian woman has not helped me as a trial lawyer. No one looked at me and gave me the benefit of the doubt that I would be a great litigator. The stereotype of me is that I will be submissive, quiet, and agreeable. Let’s face it, these are all characteristics that are horrible for a “tough” trial prosecutor who can try homicide cases. Frankly, I have seen it all and endured it all, because I needed to get my job done and do what is best for my case, not best for me. Culturally, I have been taught to grin and bear it, and to prove everyone wrong with my hard work, which continually perpetuates the stereotype.
As a Boston Municipal Court judge, I was always mindful of looking at the faces of people when I first entered the courtroom. Are they relieved? Are they worried? Are they confused? The public’s unknown reaction stems from not seeing someone like me come out with a black robe. One civil party asked me to recuse myself because the opposing party was Asian. This was a preposterous theory that I would side with one party simply because we have the same skin color. One time, after a decision on the bench, I received threats of sexual assault and violence. I had prepared myself to be criticized for my rulings as a judge. I was not quite prepared for these kinds of threats. I was told to go back to massaging people or to go paint some nails. These are honorable hard-working jobs, I do not necessarily want to dissociate myself with. But these racist comments shook my confidence yet again, even now as a judge.
Now, as the only female Asian judge in Superior Court, I recognize that my presence on the bench is a foreign concept. During a recent virtual hearing, an attorney asked out loud, “Where the hell is the judge,” when I was wearing a black robe, seated in front of law books, and my video screen was labeled, “Ham, J.” The idea that someone who looks like me is the authority figure is simply not the norm.
In my legal career, I can say that I have seen it all, from explicit and hurtful to implicit and subtle comments and actions. I have survived, quite successfully I might add, by suffering through it all. After venting to my husband, I forced myself to forget about the recent slight because it would not be good for my case. What about me, you ask? It did not really matter—I had a job to do, and I was never going to jeopardize my case to air out my personal frustrations.
It is difficult to wrap my head around the new reality that I am no longer the scrappy underdog, but a Justice of the Superior Court. Now as a judge, am I to stand up and call out people around me, not just for others but for myself as well? If occurrences are explicit and clearly wrong, I have no problem telling that person the harsh truth. But do I make a fuss even if the comment or conduct is subtle and something only I can perceive as discriminatory or offensive? Would taking a stand be making a fuss or making a difference? Do I call out the person who was spreading unfounded rumors of how I got to be appointed on the bench? Do I call out a staff or colleague whose well-intentioned comment was actually demeaning? The explicit “Ching Chang Ching Chong” is an easy call to make. The hard calls involve conduct that I can easily dismiss with an awkward laugh and then internally agonize over whether I should have said something or not.
Recently, I was confronted with an incident which made me ponder: Did this person make this statement to undermine me? Or to tell me their point of view to undercut my authority? Or did this person make this statement without thinking about the effect it would have on me? I was going around and around in circles torturing myself, all to determine if this person had meant to hurt me or was clueless about the statement’s sting. I resolved to understand that this person was just not used to someone who looked like me as an authority figure. Regardless of any ill intent, I decided not to hash it out but to interact daily and to change this person’s perspective with our continuing professional relationship. This time, I chose not to speak up and let our relationship change this person’s mind. Other times, I would speak up. There is no magic formula.
The only solution I can propose is that we force ourselves to live and to learn in proximity with people who are different from us. Interact, make mistakes, interact, be surprised, interact, apologize, interact, learn, interact, and change. I look forward to my long years of interacting and changing on the bench.