Deborah Archer Shares 5 Lessons For Black Women Persevering To Become The “First”

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As Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson faces Senate confirmation, the country contemplates another critical “first” for Black women. Who better to help us understand the challenges Judge Jackson faces this week than Professor Deborah Archer, the first Black female president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and an award-winning law professor at New York University (NYU) School of Law?

In a far-reaching conversation about everything from work-life balance to intersectional activism, Deborah spoke to me about the blessings and perils of being the first. “Black women who are first in their space have to wrestle with certain expectations that somehow they didn’t earn their spot,” she acknowledges.

Here, she opens up about the many obstacles Black women face to make change, and shares five lessons that have helped her persevere.

1. Find ‘Courage And Clarity’

Deborah has long been clear about why she does what she does. Her parents had to fight for basic things like “food, water and heat” and became one of two Black families to own a home in their all-white Connecticut suburb. When she was 9 years old, her folks had to explain to her what the Ku Klux Klan was after the family’s home and car were vandalized with racist symbols.

Early in her life she “started thinking about race and belonging—who belongs and who doesn’t…I wanted to defend rights of people like my own family, and I thought [being a] lawyer was a good way to do that.” She didn’t have anyone in her immediate family to tell her how to make that happen, but she figured it out and never looked back. “My 9-year-old self would be shocked to see where I am now,” she says.

And now, as a mother, she is even more dedicated to her work. “Raising Black boys in this world is personal…work is personal…I do this because I want the world to see their beauty and humanity—and to not worry about them when they walk out the door.”

Deborah tells me that her office at NYU is down the hall from Professor Bryan Stevenson[3] , the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. She shares that sometimes she walks by and just puts her hand on her door in the hope that she finds the same level of “courage and clarity” she seems in him. Deborah’s sense of purpose keeps her going when times get tough—and she coaches her students to find theirs.

2. Reject ‘Internalized Incompetence’

Even with her impressive resume and countless accomplishments, Deborah shares that she still has to work at “unlearning what racism and sexism has taught me.”

Studies show that Black women, regardless of their qualifications, are more likely to be questioned about their competence than their white peers—including white women. Black women are more likely to be accused of being angry as a negative personal attribute as opposed to an appropriate response to a circumstance. Black women are less likely to receive positive media coverage or to be lauded for being bold than just about any other leader.

Deborah herself has received harsh and false messages, much like those we are seeing in the public discourse around the confirmation hearings for Judge Jackson, who some have even called the “affirmative action candidate” despite her impeccable credentials.

Deborah knows the sting of these racist judgments all too well. Even as a top student and recognized leader at Smith College, plenty of people—even those with whom she was friendly—told her she clearly got in because of “affirmative action.” Appallingly, someone slipped a note under her door that said, “Go home, [n-word].”

Even recently, a colleague brazenly asked her, “How does it feel to know you got the job at NYU because you are Black?” And she acknowledges all of this takes a toll.

“The struggle is always feeling like an outsider, [like I] didn’t earn the opportunities,” she says. “[I often feel] outside of the circle of belonging.” She is candid in sharing that she works hard to reject “internalized incompetence” and sees this for what it is: “blatant double standards.”

She even had to be talked into applying for her current role as president of the ACLU. “Sometimes you have to believe others’ vision for you, even if you can’t necessarily see it yourself.”

Like every single woman I have interviewed for this column, she also admits that she has a hard time saying no when asked to do things. “It feels like I have to say yes to everything because it might be the last time I am asked.”

3. Redefine Balance

As a working mom myself who has also held public roles, I ask Deborah how she thinks about balance in her life. She laughs and says, “Now, someone needs to teach me that…”

She’s honest in saying she is still working on being “kind to myself…and focusing on personal goals.”

We’re both grateful to younger generations for putting the issue of balance in a new light, in ways that our generation wasn’t able to, and perhaps didn’t have the privilege to. “My students remind me that ‘rest is revolutionary’…I struggle with that because I have such urgency and so little time.”

Even while sharing that she’s a work in progress in modeling balance, she offers this important gem: “I think we need to reframe the definition of balance…I am a teacher, the president of the ACLU, a partner, a mom…I am not going to be good at all of those things every day. But I can do the best I can to be good at all of those things over the course of days or years.”

4. Accept That There Is No Easy Fix For Inequity

We both feel that we are at a particular inflection point as a country—a moment of extreme polarization where too many want clear, easy “fixes” to equity issues that are generations in the making. Deborah has committed herself to “tackling issues on so many different fronts and understanding how issues are intertwined.”

She coaches this approach with her team at ACLU and the students in her classes. “It’s not productive to think about [inequity] as one thing—and one thing can fix it.”

Deborah believes that a “reductionist view of social justice issues makes it harder to achieve success. We need to pull issues [from policing to reproductive rights] apart string by string, thread by thread.”

5. Defy The Effects Of White Supremacy

Deborah puts it plainly: “White supremacy impacts how we define merit and qualifications.” And being the “first” or “only” creates headwinds that can be as insidious as they are exhausting to battle, especially for Black women. Thought leaders and policy makers question you in ways they simply would not question others.

I ask Deborah if firsts, like Vice President Kamala Harris and Judge Brown, are inspiring or infuriating. She says both. “Part of being a person of color in this country is holding multiple feelings at the same time—frustration, joy, deep pain,” she sighs. “I have cried tears of joy about [these firsts] and experienced deep pain [because of] the same racist stories and narratives we hear.

“How much progress have we really made?” she asks.

I am struck leaving our conversation with the same feeling I have watching Judge Jackson’s confirmation hearing: We are fortunate to have both in positions of leadership. Not only are both women exceptional in their scholarship with an undeniable record of accomplishments, but they have done it all while battling headwinds with grace and humility. They bring to public space a level of knowing and understanding that others don’t have, and that is what we should all call eminently qualified.

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