How Judge Sotomayor's Second Language Does Make Her More Qualified Than the Average White Guy (And I'm Not Talking About Spanish)

As I said during a recent appearance on CNN's Lou Dobbs the GOP members of Congress tasked with thwarting Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court nomination certainly have their work cut out for them. The woman not only appears to be lacking serious skeletons in her closet, but hers is so squeaky clean that it makes those of us who don't color coordinate our underwear drawer feel wholly inadequate.

The one flicker of hope Sotomayor critics see -- the lone straw they are still grasping for is in challenging a brief line in a 2001 speech that she gave. (I happen to believe that context is everything, so for that reason I would encourage those of you who have not done so, to read the speech in its entirety, which can be found here.)

But the allegedly controversial remark in question was this: "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." Though President Obama has since said that Sotomayor would likely acknowledge her word choice as "poor" that does not make the sentiment behind her words any less valid.

I was surprised the comments caused the commotion that they have (although much of it appears to be faux commotion generated by a few conservatives) when her statement merely reflected the reality of any racial or ethnic minority anywhere who has worked, strived, struggled and eventually succeeded in predominantly white environments, myself included.

Unlike many of her white classmates, and colleagues, Sotomayor has had to be fluent in multiple languages to make her way in the world. The languages I am referring to are not English and Spanish. I am referring to the additional cultural languages that those of us who are minorities learn to speak at our Ivy-league universities, or in the workplace or at a cocktail reception or on the golf course or at the country club. For some minorities making the transition from their ethnically, racially and economically segregated communities at home, into their predominantly white, predominantly middle and upper class colleges and universities, can feel a lot like heading to a foreign country. (I can imagine that going from a Bronx housing project to Princeton like Judge Sotomayor did, would be enough of a culture shock that one might feel the need for a Frommer's travel guide).

For my white buddies who don't know what I'm talking about, or didn't know what Sotomayor was talking about in her allegedly controversial speech, bear with me for a minute and consider the following question or two.

How many of you reading this know who Tracee Ellis Ross is? I'm assuming that a lot of you are scratching your heads or possibly doing a quick Google search.

Now how many of you know who Sarah Jessica Parker is? I'm assuming most of you know her as the star of Sex and the City. Well Tracee Ellis Ross was the star of Girlfriends a sitcom often described as a black Sex and the City, that chronicled the professional, personal and sexual escapades of four black girlfriends in L.A. Before you dismiss Girlfriends as something you probably never heard of because it probably wasn't on that long, or didn't have much of a fan base, consider the fact that it aired for eight years, approximately as long as Sex and the City. But as I pointed out during a recent conversation with a white friend, the reason they (and plenty of other white Americans) don't know what Girlfriends is, is because they don't have to.

Here's what I mean. If I was at the office water cooler and a white, female, thirty-something colleague made a passing reference to "Carrie and Big" and I looked at her blankly, and asked "Who's Carrie and Big?" or later asked "What's Sex and the City," she would probably look at me like I was from another planet, or maybe Amish. The same goes for if I didn't know whom Larry David is (even though I've never seen a single episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm) or if I couldn't name a character or two from Seinfeld (even though it's not really my kind of show.) My point is there are certain cultural touchstones and references that one has to be adept at discussing in order to fit in to advance in the office and in the world at large. Though you may think my Sex and the City example is somehow shallow or glib, these types of personal and cultural connections ultimately determine who college classmates connect with, who professors prefer, who supervisors promote, who clients trust to work on their accounts, who bosses select to join them on certain business trips, etc. In other words these cultural connections help determine what type of personal and professional network you develop for the long haul. If you are a minority, particularly one from a socio-economically disadvantaged background, learning to navigate the culture you are striving to succeed in is often akin to mastering another language. So just as one can confidently say that speaking two languages, as opposed to one, gives you an advantage career wise, being culturally multi-lingual -- as Sotomayor pointed to in her 2001 speech -- gives you just as much of an advantage over your mono-lingual colleagues.

That's not to say that every single one of our country's predominant cultural references is white, especially today. They're not. If someone didn't know what The Cosby Show was, or who Michael Jackson was, they would probably get the "You must be Amish" look at the water cooler as well. As I noted in my essay in the forthcoming book The Speech: Race and Barack Obama's A More Perfect Union, younger people, particularly those in Generation Y and those even younger than us, the Millenials, are increasingly being defined by a racially and ethnically diverse culture -- so diverse that some of us have labeled them "Generation Obama" like our multi-ethnic president that they helped elect. As a result, there are plenty of white kids today who raised on hip-hop, The Cosby Show and with biracial parents and friends, are growing up "culturally multilingual." But while not all of our predominant cultural references today are white, historically most of them have been, and a number still are, which is why if I made a reference to "Joan and Brock," my white, thirty-something colleague at the water cooler would probably have no idea what I was talking about. (For those wondering, Joan was the Carrie-esque character on Girlfriends and Brock was the one who got away). My colleague at the water cooler would not know what I was talking about because she doesn't have to. She doesn't have to worry about speaking multiple cultural languages to get by, the way President Obama, Justice Sotomayor, and in some instances, I have, over the years.

Back when Sonia Sotomayor was first making her way in the world, there was no The Cosby Show and Barack Obama was a long way from becoming president. So when she said, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life," she was simply acknowledging a lifetime spent living a multilingual existence and how that has imbued her with a more well-rounded perspective than most of her predominantly white and male colleagues.

She was simply speaking truth to power.