In the days after Israel began bombarding Gaza, Jinan Chehade was set to begin her first job as a lawyer at Foley & Lardner, the prominent law firm where she had previously interned as a summer associate. A hijab-wearing Muslim woman, Chehade had recently graduated from Georgetown Law and boasted an impressive resume of prestigious legal internships.
But the day before her associateship was to begin, Chehade says, partners at the firm called her into a meeting to interrogate her about social media posts and student advocacy in support of Palestine.
“When I walked into the meeting, they literally pulled out a packet, about 15 to 20 pages, that had screenshots of my social media posts, screenshots of my involvement, my quotes, my background,” she explains in a recent interview. “They then asked me a series of hostile questions about my support of Palestinian rights … I was even asked whether I condemn Hamas and the Oct. 7 attacks.”
Following the meeting, Foley & Lardner rescinded her job offer. Chehade spoke about the irony of “a law firm that prides itself on diversity and inclusion” singling out “one of the only visibly Arab Muslim women associates in the law firm nationwide” for her advocacy when other associates who supported Israel’s bombardment faced no repercussions.
As a visibly Muslim woman, institutions have used me to tout a commitment to diversity while repeatedly demonstrating that they do not care about the concerns and well-being of Muslims — their students, fellows, employees, faculty, clients.
Indeed, the law firm’s own website claims to be “committed to recruiting, retaining, and promoting diverse attorneys.” But such discordance between stated commitments on diversity and actual practice is unfortunately nothing new. Companies and higher educational institutions have a long track record of exploiting diversity while failing to support and protect their diverse employees and students.
I can relate to Jinan Chehade. As a visibly Muslim woman, institutions have used me to tout a commitment to diversity while repeatedly demonstrating that they do not care about the concerns and well-being of Muslims — their students, fellows, employees, faculty, clients.
A little over a decade ago, I was a student at Columbia Law School. Throughout my time there, it was clear that Muslim students like me were not a priority for the administration. There were small signs, like the law school scheduling the welcome banquet for first-year students during Ramadan when Muslim students would be fasting.
And then there were the big signs. Like the time in my third year when the administration attempted to kill a project by students enrolled in the law school’s human rights clinic, who were investigating discriminatory housing, land and property policies in Israel that put Palestinian families at risk of eviction and home demolition and encouraged the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements. (Never mind that the fellow supervising the work was herself a respected Israeli human rights lawyer.) My friends and I made sure to attend an event about the students’ work to show our support because they were afraid that at any moment law school administrators would shut it down.
At the same time, the law school could not resist using my image to demonstrate its alleged commitment to diversity and to protect against any accusations of bias.
The same institutions that gleefully display our images in their ads and during their campaigns for their own benefit inevitably abandon us the moment our truths no longer fit into their sanitized displays of diversity.
During that first welcome banquet, a photo of me with two students I had just met — taken mere moments before — appeared on the big screen at the front of the banquet hall. There was the time in my legislation class when a photographer suddenly appeared and began snapping photos of me, presumably to be used in glossy admissions materials to lure prospective students. When he finally walked away, a friend laughed, “Wow, that was all you!” (It wasn’t all about me: Our professor was one of the only Black faculty members. The photographer happened to strike gold when he found another diverse subject seated in the class).
Since graduating law school, I have had many jobs. Nearly every institution that has employed me has used my image to its advantage, while simultaneously ignoring the needs of its Muslim employees, fellows, clients, students, and faculty. While attending a fundraiser for a nonprofit I worked for, I was shocked to see a photo of me and another colleague (with no indication that I was a lawyer employed there, perhaps to let people assume that I was a client) used to beg for donations. The photo was then prominently displayed on the organization’s new website; it’s still there today. My image has been used by institutions in annual reports and promotional materials. I have been trotted out to admissions events to speak to prospective students and highlighted on staff diversity webpages.
People of color have long been used by corporations, politicians, universities and even ordinary citizens to gain both economic advantages (to attract diverse students or achieve better outcomes; the firm that fired Chehade touted that a diverse workplace leads to “more creative and innovative solutions” to legal problems) and social ones (to signal that you are a worldly, anti-racist person, for instance).
Importantly, only the “right” people of color are embraced by these institutions — the ones who behave as the institution wants them to behave. Chehade was welcome until she publicly advocated for her community.
Nancy Leong, a law professor at the University of Denver, has labeled this phenomenon “identity capitalism,” or the “process in which an ingroup benefits from outgroup identity.” In her book, Identity Capitalists: The Powerful Insiders who Exploit Diversity to Maintain Inequality, Leong describes how identity capitalism has long been practiced in the United States by those in the past who opposed abolition, suffrage for women, and desegregation; modern corporations like Nike; politicians from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump; Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh; and even her own college friend.
No matter how mainstream we become — no matter how many hijab-wearing women appear in advertisements for major corporations or campaign merchandise for political parties — the suffering and voices of Muslims whether here or in Gaza do not matter.
Although a time-honored American practice, identity capitalism is dangerous because it creates a veneer of equality, Leong explains in her book. Most importantly, she says, it distracts from actual reform: “To embrace identity capitalism uncritically is to embrace fake diversity at the expense of real progress. Real progress would give outgroups power in arenas ranging from home to school to work to politics to business to sports to entertainment. Identity politics just approximates the appearance of progress.”
For Muslims living in the United States, recent events have once again made this painful reality clear: No matter how mainstream we become — no matter how many hijab-wearing women appear in advertisements for major corporations or campaign merchandise for political parties — the suffering and voices of Muslims whether here or in Gaza do not matter.
In fact, the same institutions that gleefully display our images in their ads and during their campaigns for their own benefit inevitably abandon us the moment our truths no longer fit into their sanitized displays of diversity.
Over the past few weeks, Muslim, Arab and other pro-Palestine students (many of whom are people of color) at America’s most elite and well-resourced higher education institutions — Harvard, Columbia, NYU, Brandeis University and others — have faced death threats, doxxing, physical attacks, and intimidation. Not only have most institutions failed to respond adequately to these real threats, some university administrators have instead censured and silenced vulnerable students, suspending their campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voices for Peace, and canceled events on Palestine.
A slew of prominent law firms have rescinded offers to law students who expressed support or had leadership roles in organizations that expressed support for Palestine, including Davis, Polk, & Wardwell, and Winston & Strawn. Sidley Austin fired an associate who wrote an open letter arguing against “conflat[ing] such bigotry with the geo-political question of Israel’s legitimacy” (written in response to another open letter signed by more than 200 law firms urging law school deans to take action against antisemitism, with Islamophobia thrown in as an afterthought). Law firms aren’t the only ones: Public defender groups have also been attempting to suppress employees’ speech in support of Palestine.
After seeing administrators and employers react in this way, faculty members have attempted to push back by issuing statements of their own. In one letter addressed to the deans of U.S. law schools, signed by hundreds including myself, law professors begged deans “to take concrete steps to protect free speech as well as equality and diversity values that are so integral to the operation of your institutions.”
I am tired of being used by institutions in this hollow way — and I’m not the only one. After witnessing Muslims and our allies being punished and silenced for their advocacy in support of Palestine by employers and universities, I posted about my personal experience with identity capitalism. In a matter of hours, my words had reached hundreds of thousands around the world, with many Muslims reaching out to share their own experiences.
To the institutions that exploit us, we say: If you do not see Muslims as full humans, whose voices deserve to be heard and whose lives matter, we are done being your tokens.