Shrugging off society’s labels and creating a path for others
BY HON. LISA H. MANSFIELD
I recently sat down with Washington Supreme Court Justice G. Helen Whitener to talk about her extraordinary life and to solicit her perspective on the many justice and equity issues in Washington today.
Hon. Lisa H. Mansfield [LHM]: Your father had a credo taken from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.” What does that statement mean to you in the context of your life?
Justice G. Helen Whitener [GHW]: When my father said, “To thine own self be true,” he wanted us to be our authentic selves. My father was service oriented. He was a teacher and, later, he became a school principal. He instilled in us a sense of individualism. By that statement he meant, whatever you do, it’s OK to be yourself. That doesn’t mean that you will always be liked or accepted, but you will be grounded in your true self.
LHM: You are at the intersection of several identities: being a Black, gay woman; living with a disability; a first-generation immigrant. In our society, a combination of all five intersecting identities does not necessarily add up to a life of success and abundance. In your case, it has. What has been your journey to achieving such abundance?
GHW: Actually, these are society’s labels, not mine. I learned quite early, when remembering Daddy’s words, “To thine own self be true,” that I would not be defined by any of society’s labels.
I see myself as worthy. I know I can do anything I put my mind to, which is what I have done so far, and I have much more to accomplish. With this mindset comes a responsibility, and that responsibility is to use my sense of worth to educate others and encourage their pursuit of their life interests and not be held back by society’s labels. It is indeed possible to achieve your goals. You just have to figure out how to go about it because there will be barriers. I liken the barriers to hurdles. In my youth, I participated in track and field; I had to engage a hurdler’s mindset. The same is true about my journey: How do I jump this hurdle? If I cannot jump over it and I cannot go around it, I am going to go through that hurdle. I will rise to the occasion and finish the race. No hurdle will stop me.
It’s not race, it’s not gender, or sexual orientation. Those are the labels that are separating us. Remove yourself from those labels. I don’t mean lose yourself, but remove yourself from those labels and think of yourself as just like everybody else. Go for it. Just like everybody else, one person has a straight path, the other one experiences some bumps, the third one has hurdles. If our vision is getting everybody to the finish line, then we can find ways to journey through these bumps and hurdles. We make it happen.
LHM: Could you talk about what you mean by identity transcendence?
GHW: Identity transcendence is the process of overcoming society’s labels. One’s identity interplays with how society sees a person. But as I said, by associating my identity with a label does not mean limiting me, even if labels are used as limiters. Instead, remembering my father’s credo, I grew up believing “I am unique.” We are all unique. We all have positive attributes, and identity transcendence is the process of honing those attributes to figure out what your contribution will be to this society regardless of the labels. Will you succumb to the labels or will you overcome them? My mindset is to overcome them. In other words, I choose identity transcendence.
Still, the choice is not easy. It’s a personal journey, finding and developing one’s path to breaking down barriers. But more importantly, once barriers are broken, we cannot allow them to rise up again. We must develop the strength for all that it takes to face down the barriers with wisdom, courage, and integrity. That’s where mentoring and giving back to our community plays a big part in my identity. My work is not just a reflection of my identity and it is not only to overcome barriers. My work is founded on the belief that together we will knock down and change the way society perceives barriers. We must find ways to help others understand how those in our community have been subjected to the negativity brought by society’s labels.
LHM: Could you discuss the importance of mentorship?
GHW: Mentorship is a beautiful way of giving back to our community. Mentoring is a two-way street. Not only do we reach our younger citizens and provide them with valuable lessons about our own journeys, we also share and learn so much from them about their unique perspective and experience. My mission is to develop opportunities for mentees, and together we can eradicate the hurdles that limit their success.
LHM: It’s an impossible task to take on by yourself isn’t it?
GHW: It’s a lonely place to achieve success if you have done it only for yourself. Support comes from creating that village of mentees and seeing it become a movement founded on the fundamentals of giving back.
When I met Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor in Seattle, she asked me, “How does it feel to be a trailblazer?” I said afterward to my wife, Lynn, “I never thought of myself as a trailblazer. What does this word ‘trailblazer’ truly mean?” My vocabulary did not include it as a descriptor for myself. I realized then that “trailblazer” means you are the first one. You have to build the trail for the next one to follow. So you’re creating this trail and you’re blazing this trail, being the one out front.
It is not easy. You have to work harder and keep proving you are qualified to do the work. So much of society’s misunderstandings are thrown at the trailblazer. But if you are prepared to do the best work possible and create a trustworthy family of colleagues and friends, these are the tenets that serve as your foundation to succeed. I will step around the mines so that you have a safer path to follow. I will take the risks so that we all learn from the experiences. The responsibility is not only immense, it is heavy. Fortunately, in 2021 many more have joined the team of trailblazers in the legal profession. We still have a long way to go. I am humbled and grateful for this opportunity to be on a team blazing a path for the next generation.
LHM: Shifting the focus to our judicial system in Washington state, there has been a lot of work in training the Bar and the judiciary about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) recently. What do you see as working well in this regard and what in your opinion has room for improvement?
GHW: We have made a good number of inroads with representation, and Washington state has done well to place representation at the forefront of the discussion. In recent years, the legal field and the judiciary have become more representative of the people we serve. In 2020, the Washington Supreme Court became the most diverse state supreme court in the nation. Now in 2022, President Joe Biden is preparing to nominate a Black woman jurist to be the next associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. I am thrilled to be a part of these historic times. As for areas of improvement, we must keep up our work to eradicate racial bias. This is not an easy journey, but the discourse is prevalent in our society, and we have action plans in place in our government and educational institutions. It will take leadership of the highest standards to achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion. As a society, we can and must find the strength in ourselves and in our leaders to support these efforts.
LHM: Isn’t it automatic that once you open the door for someone, that person is included at the table?
GHW: You may hire someone from a diverse background, but they may not be included. That person may not feel acknowledged or valued. Many individuals that are “firsts” experience a lack of acknowledgment and value. Our profession must be better. We must be prepared and ready to acknowledge and to value all our colleagues. As judicial officers, we are bound by our oaths to raise public trust and confidence in our judiciary. Diversification is one layer and the next is a deeper understanding of the value that someone brings to the table. This is where the bulk of our work needs focus in order to grasp the true practice of inclusivity.
There is some backlash with regards to my message. They say, “We allowed you in and we gave you a seat at the table, so we have addressed DEI.” In actuality, you have not taken the step to be inclusive, so we’re still on the outside. We’re not trying to take anything away from anyone. What we’re trying to do is have everyone be seen, eliminating the barriers and creating support mechanisms where necessary so the person in the wheelchair can interact on the same level within his or her capability as the person who doesn’t need a wheelchair. That’s what we’re working on. The phrase that John Powell uses is belonging. We’re working on belonging.
LHM: I think how people grow up has a large impact on the success of inclusivity. If you have never been exposed to or have never interacted in a meaningful way with those who look different or who have different values from you, then those different folks become the “other.” Many people feel uncomfortable and awkward and unsure of themselves dealing with “the other” and it is easier to not deal with them at all.
GHW: That’s where we, meaning “the other,” have a part to play. I’ll give you an example. We’ve been trained on DEI issues for quite some time now in the legal profession and the judiciary. But what’s missing from the discussion is the understanding that “the other,” meaning the marginalized individual or the underrepresented person, has been having this conversation for years—in my case 400-plus and in your case 400-plus years—a conversation that the non-marginalized individual has not been privy to. So they are new to the conversation. So as familiar as this conversation is to us, if they are finally ready to converse now, we must be flexible to say OK, let me help you with this conversation; let me share because, finally, you’re here. It’s important to be open to conversations that are trying to address systemic issues and create sustainable solutions, and not to respond, “Let’s do a quota system.” I am not available for that. I will engage in this new conversation, and I am here for the new gatekeepers because they are in position to make changes. I am not going to redo Dr. King’s March [on Washington], I am not redoing that conversation. That experiment failed. I want you to understand something. He had a dream. I am in my mid-50s and that dream has not come to fruition. Why has it failed? Because we dropped the ball. So that conversation about the dream, that’s not mine to have. I don’t dream. I create goals and I create action plans. Let’s take his dream and let’s create a plan for solutions, sustainable solutions.
LHM: That brings me to my last question which is how can we do this work side by side if there are those who are unable to work together?
GHW: I never look to others to do what I can do myself. So when I say side by side, if you want to be with me, I don’t want you behind me; if you are there, I will pull you up. If you are in front of me, I want you to be able to pull me up. I always say, “Whitener is heading for the finish line.” You can join me on the journey. I don’t even mind pushing you ahead just as long as we finish.
LHM: But what about those folks that don’t want to join and are still at the starting block?
GHW: All we can do is try to educate folks as to why change is necessary and needed, and then we can provide opportunities for change. There are many people who want to share in the work. If you are not on that train, you do not need to climb aboard. We can still touch many hearts and we can touch many minds. We can do it side by side, and we can see and hear each other in a truly thoughtful way.
Justice G. Helen Whitener was appointed to the Washington Supreme Court in April 2020 and was elected by the voters to retain her position on the Supreme Court in November 2020.
- Prior to her appointment to Washington’s highest court, Justice Whitener served as a Pierce County Superior Court judge. Before becoming a judge, Justice Whitener litigated both civil and criminal cases for 14 years, first as a prosecutor and defense attorney and later as a managing partner of the law firm of Whitener Rainey Writt PS.
- Justice Whitener has received numerous awards and honors, including the IALGBT Judges 2021 President’s Award, the Washington Women Lawyers Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst Passing the Torch Award, the Washington State Bar Association’s Charles Z. Smith Excellence in Diversity and Inclusion Award, and many others.
- She is the first Black woman to serve on the Washington Supreme Court, the fourth immigrant-born Justice, and the first Black LGBT judge in the state of Washington.
- Justice Whitener was born and raised in the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. She earned her B.A. in business administration and international marketing from Baruch College, New York, and received her J.D. from Seattle University School of Law. Justice Whitener lives in Pierce County with her wife, attorney Lynn Rainey (CSM-US Army Ret).
- This month, Justice Whitener received the American Bar Association’s 2022 Stonewall Award, an honor that “recognizes lawyers who have considerably advanced lesbian, gay bisexual, and transgender individuals in the legal profession successfully championed LGBT legal causes.”