The Therapy for Black Girls Podcast is a weekly conversation with Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, a licensed Psychologist in Atlanta, Georgia, about all things mental health, personal development, and all the small decisions we can make to become the best possible versions of ourselves.
We’re celebrating episode 300 of the podcast today with a conversation featuring Eboni K. Williams. Eboni is an accomplished lawyer, author, and pundit who brings her legal expertise to various platforms. She is the host and executive producer of the NAACP Image Award-nominated podcast, “Holding Court with Eboni K. Williams,” and the author of BET ON BLACK: The Good News About Being Black in America Today. She joins me this week to chat about her roots as a trial attorney, her experiences as a Black woman in the legal field, and parlaying her law degree into the media industry and beyond.
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Executive Producers: Dennison Bradford & Maya Cole Howard
Producers: Fredia Lucas, Ellice Ellis & Cindy Okereke
Session 300: Black Women in Legal- Media, Law, and Advocacy with Eboni K. Williams
Dr. Joy: Hey, y’all! Thanks so much for joining me for Session 300 of the Therapy for Black Girls podcast. Yes, you are tuned in to the 300th episode. And before we kick off our conversation, I just wanted to say a very sincere thank you to each and every one of you who tune in every week. The team and I are so grateful for your support. It’s not always easy to find resources that speak to our unique experiences as black women and we’re honored to serve as a trusted space for you to come and get the real talk about mental health, and to provide a space for you to feel seen, heard, and supported. Here’s to 300 amazing episodes and many more to come. Let’s take a quick break and then we’ll get into the conversation.
Dr. Joy: This week I’m pleased to be joined by today’s distinguished guest, Eboni K. Williams. Eboni is an accomplished lawyer, author, and pundit who brings her legal expertise to various platforms. She is the host and executive producer of the NAACP Image Award nominated podcast, Holding Court with Eboni K. Williams, and the author of Bet on Black: The Good News about Being Black in America Today. Eboni joins me today to discuss her roots as a trial attorney, her experiences as a black woman in the legal field, and parlaying her law degree into the media industry and beyond. If something resonates with you while enjoying our conversation, please share it with us on social media using the hashtag #TBGinSession or join us in the Sister Circle to talk more in-depth about the episode. You can join us at Community.TherapyForBlackGirls.com. Here’s our conversation.
Dr. Joy: So excited to chat with you today, Eboni. Thank you for chatting with us today.
Eboni: Absolutely. Long-time fan, Dr. Joy. You used to come on Revolt Black News a lot when I hosted, so this is a lovely laid full circle.
Dr. Joy: Indeed, indeed, always a pleasure to chat with you. You have worn so many hats throughout your life and career in terms of being a lawyer, a podcaster, a host, former member of the cast of Real Housewives of New York. But I want you to take us back to very young Eboni on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill and talk to us about her. What did she want to do in becoming a lawyer, and how do you think that that has changed or how has it stayed the same? Are some of those same motivations there?
Eboni: Oh, young Eboni, she was so precautious, so full of energy. So full of curiosity. Always knew she wanted to be a lawyer, as I write about in my new book Bet on Black: The Good News about Being Black in America Today. I think I was a bit fortunate in that I always had a clear sense of my what, and over time I realized my why. So I knew I always wanted to be an attorney mainly because people were always telling my mother Gloria (who raised me as a single mom and only child) that with that mouth, she’s gotta be a lawyer or an actress. I was always raising my hand first, asking a million questions. So it was clear from a young age for me that something in the advocacy space, being a voice for the voiceless, was going to be my route in life. So I always knew I wanted to be an attorney.
What I would say has evolved over time is my why. I believe that I started into the career path of being a lawyer and an attorney because I wanted to be credible as a black woman in America. I think that what we do know is that there are tragic presumptions around blackness in terms of our intellectual prowess, in terms of our credibility as professionals, and frankly our qualifications to be in spaces. And I think because my mother was born and raised in the segregated Jim Crow south, Southeast Louisiana, which I know your family is from as well, shout out to *[inaudible 00:04:52] in Tangipahoa parish. She had the good sense to know that as a black girl, speaking about this black girl she was raising, me, named Eboni Kiana Williams, growing up in the American south, that I would have to contend with a lot of preconceptions and misnomers about who I was as a black woman in America.
And so taking that and marrying it with what I saw as spaces that were deemed highly credible and revered (which were professions in medicine, law, engineering) go unchallenged, more or less, in terms of, okay, if you show up and you are of that professional caliber, there’s gonna be some presumptions around work ethic, qualification, and ability. That was a lot of my why as to why I wanted to be an attorney. I wanted to take some of those questions off the table when I entered a room as a black woman and a young presenting black woman at that - I started practicing at 23. I wanted those questions to be null and void on arrival. So those were my original whys. Where I have evolved is now of course my why is deeply centered in the celebration and amplification of black women more broadly. It’s less about proving who and what we are to others and it’s more about being very clear and convincing (to use a legal term), clear and convincing evidentiary standards of who we are to each other and to ourselves.
Dr. Joy: I love that. And I feel like I wanna come back to that cause I feel like there are some mental health implications that come with that load of having to do all these things. And I think a lot of us have that same kinda story of our parents feeling like we needed to do a thing to be able to survive in this world, and the mental health toll that that really takes on us. But I wanna put a pin in that so I can get a little bit more from your history and hear about your experience with the law. When you graduated from law school, what were you planning to do with your law degree? And what kinds of things or words of wisdom would you want to share about job opportunities for recent law graduates?
Eboni: Love this question. I graduated from Loyola University in New Orleans College of Law. I had a very successful law school experience, meaning graduated at the top of my class, came out as Miss Moot Court, I was on our National Moot Court team. So I had a lot going for me. But I have to pause here Dr. Joy and tell you the authenticity of my mother Gloria who I just spoke about. Even with all of that accolade, and I passed the bar on my first attempt, which was a blessing, again, at 23 years old. I wanted to be the next Johnnie Cochran. I knew I wanted to be a trial attorney of high success. But as a lot of law students will tell you, the jobs, the big six-ish figure jobs are few and far between, particularly when you start talking about being a black person in the law. And so those are the goals that many of us are force-fed in law school. Those on-campus interviews where the top 10% to 15% are invited to interview with the Sidley Austins, which is the law firm the Obamas practiced at and met at actually, Jones Day, all of these big firms.
When I came out of law school, Joy, although I had all these credentials and accolades, what I didn’t have because I graduated in 2007 from law school, which was right around the bubble burst and also right after Hurricane Katrina, there was no job. So Gloria said, “Yeah, Clap. Clap. Congratulations.” I was staying with her that summer. I ran into the house, I was so excited like, oh my god, mom, I passed the bar, it’s so amazing. She said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Clap. Clap. You’ve got exactly two weeks to have an offer from a law firm, or you’re actually gonna be taking your butt up to…" They had just built a brand new PF Chang’s right down the street from the house. She said, “Your ass is gonna be serving lettuce wraps.” And she was not playing at all. If you know this woman, you know how serious she was. I knew she was serious, Joy. So what I did was although I didn’t have an offer, I did as Madam CJ Walker tells us to do, which is go curate your own opportunity. Don’t wait for someone to give you one. Curate it yourself.
So I put on my black little power suit, which is at the time what all women were instructed to put on, my ill-colored stockings and my heels, and I pounded the pavement and I knocked on every law firm door in Charlotte, North Carolina, which is where I was licensed to practice. And I made up interview times, I would literally walk in and say, I’m here to speak to the hiring manager. “Oh, he’s not aware of your appointment.” I say, oh, that’s so weird, but don’t worry about it. Here’s my cover letter and resume, just have him call me. And that worked exactly one time. Everybody else either ignored me or locked me out of the office. But one firm, James, McElroy and Diehl, which is a very prestigious family and civil litigation firm in Charlotte, I actually got a call from the hiring partner. And he said, Miss Williams, I’m so sorry about the confusion, but why don’t you come in on Wednesday? And the rest is history.
Dr. Joy: Wow. So would something like that work these days? What kinds of suggestions would you give to recent law school graduates?
Eboni: I advise it, Dr. Joy. Let me tell you why I advise it. Does it work in the way that it worked for me? I can’t tell you yes or no. What I can tell you was, come the Christmas party of that same firm that I was then an associate with, Jonathan admitted to me that he knew the whole thing was a sham and he respected the hutzpah. He said any young litigator that has essentially, pardon my French, but the balls, if you will… Or the ovaries or the confidence or the courage to come into a firm of this caliber and position themselves as such, was worth meeting. So I do advise young graduates coming out of law, especially young black law school graduates, to show up and take up a lot of space.
Think outside the box. Because here’s the thing, Joy, it’s the same thing as a lot of journalists that work in the space. We all go to NABJ, and we come out, we all have our same little multi-colored news *[inaudible 00:10:48] dresses, our colored sheath dresses and our Barbie hair. The more you can distinguish yourself from your peers, because many of us will walk out with the same resumes and the same law review and Moot Court credentials and this, that and the third, and it’s all lovely. And even once you have that bar exam number in your hand and you have your license to practice, you are still a part of a relatively large collective. So I really recommend students thinking outside of the box on how they can position themselves as uniquely as possible. So yes, Joy, I believe in the cold call.
Dr. Joy: I wonder if there are some ways that people can use their legal degree in non-traditional… I mean, in a lot of ways you are already doing that. But I do think there’s a lot of grooming and socialization around getting a job at big law firms that happens in law. What kinds of things can people be doing to maybe think outside of the box, even fresh out of law school?
Eboni: Indeed. Fresh out of law school, again, this narrative has held true. I came out of law school almost 15, 16 years ago. And what I’m hearing from students is that it’s still very much the same. The narrative is "make the good grades, get on the Law Review Moot Court, fill in the blank law planet, whatever it is, get the resume, pass the bar, and go to big law if you’re fortunate enough to do so." Now, when you talk to many big law associates and even some partners, they tend to be less than happy. And I’ll leave that there. Not all of them, I do know some people that are thriving, but they are few and far between.
So I think that it is important for young people, or people period, cause I do think it’s important to make space for black students who go to law school in “non-traditional” times in life, who have had a whole ‘nother career. In fact, I think this is really advisable, to have a career in another space. Finance, business, education, you name it, medicine even, and then pivot at one point in time to pursue a legal career. And I think that is really advantageous to those people that come to the table with another perspective. So whenever you find yourself coming out of law school, I think you should really open yourself up to non-traditional pathways like you’re saying, Joy.
Think about working at the public defender’s offices. When I left big law and I left the big six-figure job a year, a little less than a year into the game, I went to be a public defender, which for me is where I really cut my teeth and I’d say I really learned how to practice law. Think about going to prosecutor offices. I really wanna say that very loudly, Dr. Joy. I was talking to a colleague of mine in the space of law and media and that is my soror Bernarda Villalona, and she was a prosecutor in Philadelphia at the start of her career. She got a lot of slack from the culture because the culture understandably has a lot of skepticism when it comes to black folks in prosecutorial spaces. But we will tell you, there is no one more powerful at a courtroom other than a prosecutor and a judge. So we need to see more black faces occupying those spaces.
Outside of that, there are people that go straight into what an in-house position looks like. Now we think of that as general counsel, that can be a high-up position that normally people graduate to, but you’d be surprised as to how many start-ups and small businesses could use legal counsel of a more transactional sort. My lawyer, because I’m no longer practicing law and now I work as a businesswoman who is a content creator and producer… So my lawyer’s on speed dial. My lawyer is an IP lawyer, she’s an intellectual property lawyer and she is a business attorney in entertainment. She’s fundamental to the game and she used to be my mentee when she was in law school. So I think the space is wide open. I think a law degree, a JD, is the fundamental most flexible post-graduate degree one could have. Because you can really take up space in traditional practice of law, in business, and just in executive leadership beyond just the practice of law.
Dr. Joy: You’ve used a lot of terms that I wanna make sure we define for our community who are non-lawyers. You have had experience as a public defender, you’ve worked in civil litigation, you’ve been in private practice. Can you define some of those terms for us? What does it mean to be a public defender?
Eboni: Sure. A public defender is a lawyer who works in the criminal space, so we're doing criminal law. I talked about the prosecutor. The prosecutor is the individual that brings the charges against someone accused of a crime. That public defender is there to make sure that prosecutor does their job. We are there to defend the civil and human and constitutional rights of all defendants that appear in court. And we are public defenders because we represent the indigent. Indigent is a term that essentially means the poor, the impoverished, those that cannot afford to pay for their own legal defense. It’s in our constitution that everybody gets a legal defense. Enter public defenders. And we can sometimes also get a bad rap in broader society. I assure you that I and so many other public defenders, y’all, are incredible attorneys. We are brilliant, bright legal minds, and we really take our work very seriously. That’s the public defender.
Civil litigation. Civil litigation is when it’s not about going to jail, it’s about paying the money. So civil law is about, not the criminal aspect where you do go to jail if you’re found “guilty” or you’re in the wrong. In civil law, if you’re found “in the wrong” you are deemed to be liable and responsible for money damages. A great example of this is OJ Simpson. OJ was tried in criminal court, he was found not guilty in the criminal court. The families of Nicole and Ron brought civil litigation charges, OJ was found liable in a civil court of law, thus he had to pay the family millions of dollars in money damages.
Dr. Joy: Got it. Thank you for defining that for us. So I am sure, like doctors when they watch shows like ER and those kinds of things, I know that there are tons of law shows that I’m sure you have seen or maybe heard about. And I’d love for you to talk to us a little bit about what some of those shows get wrong. What are some of the kind of common misconceptions you see come up, and how is that different from the reality of what actually happens in courtrooms?
Eboni: Dr. Joy, I actually love watching law movies and law television shows. Some of my favorite movies are Philadelphia around Tom Hanks’s homosexual and AIDs patient suing his law firm. I love Law & Order, I love all the legal shows and movies. But yes, to your point, they get a lot wrong. I would say one of the main things they all get wrong is the time in which you see it happening. Meaning to think that any case, mostly criminal or civil, you can have opening statements, direct exam, cross exam, jury verdict, appeal, everything happen within 60 minutes or two hours, child please, it’s never that. One of the reasons that most lawyers will tell you that they probably love the law but can get frustrated with the law is the bureaucracy of the law. Whether it’s criminal work or transactional work or civil litigation work, everything takes so long, girl. So many continuances, so many hearings, so many preliminary hearings, so many different aspects that just take up so much time and energy that by the time we finally get to court, a lot of times we’re exhausted - mentally and emotionally.
Dr. Joy: One of the things that I love about your podcast, Holding Court with Eboni K. Williams, is that you will introduce us to a lot of hot topics in the law and really calling our attention to things that we should be paying to. So for our sisters who are in law, what are some cases that they should be paying attention to right now?
Eboni: Yes. Thank you Dr. Joy for shouting out the podcast Holding Court, which I do weekly with my brilliant and so talented co-host Dustin Ross. We recorded this morning actually, we talked about… A lot of people are curious about what’s happening with this Tiger Woods situation and the fact that his ex-girlfriend, not ex-wife but ex-girlfriend that he did live with for six years, is bringing suit to do both throw out the NDA that she was required to sign as a part of their relationship, and she’s also suing for $30 million in expenses that she claims she’s entitled to because of their cohabitation tenancy agreement. So a lot of legal stuff there but ultimately I really want women and black women to pay attention to this in the law because these are really issues that we need to be getting in front of as women in relationships. Establishing what living situation outcomes look like before breakups, this is where a prenup is important if you’re married. And even if you’re not married, please be clear. There are certain tangible written agreements that can be put into place that say: This is what we’re agreeing to as cohabitants. If there is a break in the cohabitation, this is what you get, this is what I get. That can include the wealthier party paying living expenses in a hotel or other housing, Airbnb situation, until that other partner finds a more permanent housing. The point is there are a lot of options on the table. You wanna make sure that you are putting yourself in a position to have those options enforced if breakup occurs. And that’s married or unmarried. So that’s one of the cases.
Another case that we covered, I think this is so important. You talk about this a lot on your show. This notion of black wealth-building, closing wealth gaps, the culture’s very into this topic. But one of the ways in which this shows up is in housing. And so there was a black couple in California that recently brought suit against an appraisal company for under bidding them, literally. And when they had their house appraised with their family photos of their beautiful black kids and family and their black art, they got a number that was like $995,000 something like that. When they had their white friends allow them to use their white family photos and give a tour as a white family to the appraiser, all of a sudden the house is worth $1.5 million. So they sued and it's an amount that was not disclosed, which as a lawyer tells me it probably was a good number for the family. But I want the culture and black women in law to pay attention to that because that can serve as a model of how holding folks in real estate and commercial and residential property accountable for what happens when you undervalue blackness. And let’s be clear, we have to name that. That is what that practice is, whether it’s redlining, whether it’s lowballing appraisals for black homeowners and property owners, that is a form of anti-blackness. And we have to call it out whether it’s in the law or in the culture, and in this case both.
Dr. Joy: More from my conversation with Eboni after the break.
Dr. Joy: You mentioned, and you were talking about it now, you’ve moved from practicing law to using all of your legal expertise as a podcast host and lots of different ways in the different varieties in the media. Can you talk a little bit about how your experience as a trial lawyer really helps you to do the TV work that you do?
Eboni: Simply put, I could not do what I do in television, on podcasting or even as an author without my years of experience as (for me) a trial lawyer. My ability to do what I do on Holding Court, my ability to do what I do on The Grio with Eboni K. Williams which airs on The Grio every night at 6:00 Eastern, and of course what you read a lot of in Bet on Black: The Good News about Being Black in America, and even in my first book Pretty Powerful… My lens is that of a black woman attorney. And that lens, whether I’m in a courtroom at a bail hearing, or whether or not I’m sitting in front of a podcast mic kiki-ing with Dustin Ross, that lens is the same lens. The issues - we have this term in law school and practicing law, it’s called issue spotting. My ability to produce Holding Court, which I executive produce, is reliant upon my ability to look at a news cycle on any given day and say these are the issues we need to look at. I’ll give you an example, the Mike Epps headline. So everybody’s talking about the fact that Mike Epps was, I don't have to say allegedly here because he has admitted to his possession of, as he calls it, a pistol.
In his Instagram apology where he says he forgot he had a pistol in his backpack when he was at Indiana Airport. And everybody’s talking about that as the headline. That’s not where my mind went. The headline is the headline, but the issue that I was compelled to discuss on my show is the apology. Is the fact that when you, Mike Epps, or Joe Schmoe, or Jane Doe, or Sister Joe, when you get on social media and you either by video or by tweet or text apologize for behavior in a public forum, you are tacitly admitting the action. And while from a PR standpoint or a narrative standpoint that might be advantageous to some level, from a legal standpoint? You have now tied my hands. You have now limited my opportunities to build defense for you if defense is needed. So that’s just an example of my issue spotting ability that comes from me being a trial attorney. I’m not worried about whether you did or didn’t have the gun. I’m not worried about whether or not you should have checked the bag. That’s fine. Those issues are there. But the narrowly tailored issue that I wanna bring people’s awareness to that they otherwise would not necessarily be paying attention to, is the legal consequence of that apology.
Dr. Joy: What advice would you give to other sisters in law school who maybe wanna do similar things like you’re doing, be a pundit on news and those kinds of things? What advice would you give them?
Eboni: I would say, and I get this often so thank you for bringing it up. I think it’s very important to come to the table if you wanna be a media personality, a trusted figure in legal spaces, but you wanna do it in a broad television, multimedia, podcast, radio way. The main thing is your credibility in the fields that we have chosen to pursue. Aspects of medicine, aspects of psychology, aspects of law, you name it. You are as good as your professional reputation for accuracy. So the main thing I would tell a young woman, a young black woman especially, that wants to be in this space is, as much as I am the biggest cheerleader for black women in all spaces, I cannot advocate for black women to be in this space and not tell them the difficult truth. Which is that they will be held to a higher standard of credibility. The reality is, when you have the audacity as we have demonstrated in our career choices, to say that we are gonna take up space and we are gonna center ourselves in these historically white professions, and we’re not just gonna do so in private practice (although we’ve done that), we’re now gonna have the audacity to do so in the public forum of syndicated radio. Internationally distributed podcasting, nationally syndicated cable news, what have you. You are literally begging for an enormous microscope of scrutiny and criticism to come your way. And I have to be very honest with our sisters about that, Dr. Joy.
And at the same time, look at what I did on The View a few weeks ago with DeSantis. A massive invitation of scrutiny to who I am. But I’m able to do so at this point in my career. Let me be clear, at this point in my career, I get to do shit like that because I have earned the reputation for truth telling. And so that’s what I would tell our sisters is trust the process. I write a whole chapter in my book Bet on Black around process. You can’t expect to necessarily come out of the gates like, okay, I just graduated from law school, I just passed the bar, and now I’m going to sit at The View and tell off DeSantis and Trump and maybe Biden too. There’s a process. There’s an earning of stripes. It doesn’t mean you can’t do it in a relatively quick timetable, but it means that your reputation for getting it right, knowing what you’re talking about from a legal perspective and a journalistic lens. And that is what you do when you decide that you wanna do what I’m doing, what Sunny Hostin is doing, what Star Jones in many ways originated, which was be a black woman who marries her law experience, background, and degree with that of being a national or international public figure… baby, you better be ready. That means you gotta be damn good at both the law and the journalism of it and you have to have the skin to tolerate the scrutiny that comes with that choice.
Dr. Joy: Let’s stay with the book for a little while. In addition to that chapter, you also have a chapter in the book called No Need to Code-Switch where you talk about some of the microaggressions, and some of the things you shared made us think about the situation on Insecure with Molly when they tried to tell her she was too loud in the office and a lot of the attempts to change her. Can you talk a little bit about some of the microaggressions you experienced as a practicing lawyer and any advice you'd share for other people on how to navigate that.
Eboni: Indeed. Unfortunately, we know that when you are a lawyer, whether it’s in a firm, a prosecutor’s office, legal aid, Of Counsel, at a corporation, historically when people think lawyer, they still think old white man. We gotta start from that premise so that is the expectation of space. So already when you are a black woman in any of the aforementioned spaces of law, you are innately disruptive. Let’s just sit with that. Just your mere presence, your mere doing your job every day and showing up to work is already making some folks uncomfortable before you’ve opened your mouth. I wanna sit with that and I would encourage young black women (or black women, period) in the law to sit with that because that really relieves a lot of pressure around what you do or say. Because if you think about it, before you open your mouth, you have already disrupted general concepts and ideals around who gets to be a lawyer in America. It’s less about,was I too loud? Did I ask too many questions? Did I not know enough? Let’s not gaslight ourselves because that’s what that is. Let’s not do the work of the oppressor for him or her or them. Let’s not gaslight ourselves about what we did and just remember that our mere presence is disruptive in its entirety.
Then, traditional notions of accommodating white comfort. And by the way, when I talk about white comfort, it ain’t just white people that hold expectations of white comfort. Unfortunately, as we saw in the Molly example, some of her own black colleagues, when she did go to the black law firm even, were still bothered because they were so conditioned to expectations of whiteness. So a lot of this work that I talk about in the book is around divorcing ourselves as black women in law from white comfort and divorcing ourselves as black women in law and life. But mind you, everything I’m saying about the law applies to life – these are life hacks. But it’s also divorcing ourselves from the need, the requirement, from collective black buy in. And that one’s a little harder to sit with I think for most of us. Because who among us doesn’t wanna feel celebrated by the culture? Who doesn’t wanna feel like we are doing good work on behalf of our people and our culture? And we do. But if you are waiting for 100% agreement from folks that look like you about the way in which you choose to show up at work, in life, in your family, in your relationship, in your financial choices, you will be waiting for a very long time. I encourage black women to really divorce themselves from those requirements and start focusing on the authenticness of how they wanna center blackness in their occupancy of space, as black women attorneys, as black judges, as black businesswomen.
Dr. Joy: Let’s stay with the authenticity for a little bit because we do know, in addition to what you’ve talked about, there’s all these additional scrutiny around styling choices especially for black women. In terms of how we style our hair, and what colors are we wearing, and all of that stuff. What does it even mean to show up authentically especially in the spaces that you’ve occupied?
Eboni: This is where being liberated is really important. What does it mean to show up authentically? It means exactly what you individual black women says it does. It’s nothing more or less than that. I’ll give you an example. I talk about this in great detail in my first book Pretty Powerful: Appearance, Substance, and Success where the whole book is premised on the notion of "what we look like as women in the world matters and deeply correlates with our professional ascension." Now while that is a tragic reality, I think it’s trash that’s the case. As Marcia Clark says in the book, who I interview, we should be able to show up and try a case in a burlap sack if we wanted to. But that is not the condition of the world we live in. And up until it changes, we are where we are.
There would have been a time in my life where I would not have even done this interview with you wearing the hoodie I’m wearing right now. Let me tell you the narrative that I was tethered to at that time. This makes black women look bad, to just be seen in something that wasn’t demonstrative of modeling respectability politics. That wasn’t the classic black navy or gray blazer suit, that wasn’t the crisp white collar shirt. I’m intentionally not wearing lipstick today and a lot of why I made the aesthetic choices that I made for our particular conversation is because I really want this conversation to be accessible. And a lot of times when we as women, especially as black women, especially as kind of classically or commercially described attractive black women, show up with all of the lashes and all of the beat and all of the extra (which I love the extra), but sometimes it can serve as a barrier for people really resonating and connecting with the content. And that was something I didn’t think that we could afford to do in this conversation so this is a very kind of stripped down version of my on-camera aesthetic. That’s the thinking there.
As for the sweatshirt, it’s a sweatshirt with a very pronounced message that talks about generational curse breakers. And that’s very important to what I’m doing in this work at this point in time, and I think it’s very germane to the conversation we’re having. There was thought here that is intentioned with what we say historically women and professional women and lawyers should look like if they wanna be taken seriously. And yet I am challenging those around me by the choices I’m making in this aesthetic. And so that’s the liberation so this is my authenticity in this moment. And check me an hour later, and it might look totally different.
Dr. Joy: So really about bringing who you would like to bring to any particular space and having that be defined by yourself in your own way.
Eboni: Having it be defined by yourself. Therein lies the liberation, Dr. Joy.
Dr. Joy: Yeah. More from my conversation with Eboni after the break.
Dr. Joy: This fall, you’re adding yet another title to your long list. You’ll be the youngest judge on syndicated daytime television with Equal Justice with Judge Eboni K. Williams. Tell me what interested you in having a daytime court TV show, and how it’s gonna be different than any other show we’ve seen.
Eboni: It’s just fun. Like who in the world would not love the opportunity to sit above that bench and hold that gavel and pontificate on the crazy that goes on in daytime court? That’s one of my whys. I do a lot of work, it’s extremely intense and it’s extremely rewarding, but at some point you gotta have a little fun. That’s a part of my why for wanting to do Equal Justice with Judge Eboni K. Williams. The other thing, a lot of my work early in my career, my work on Fox News and Cable News generally (CNN, HLN, NFL Network) it was tethered to only the work and I was not able to bring my personality to the work. Because that’s the mandate of doing the news. The news does not necessarily care – that’s for talk shows. The View, which is why I love doing it. The Breakfast Club. Those are spaces that are around your personality and are personality-driven platforms. But when you are talking about the things that I really built the foundation of my career doing, people didn’t even know who I was as a personality until, for a lot of people, Housewives or Breakfast Club. That’s really been only the last five or six years, and I’ve been doing just the broadcast stuff for about 12 years.
So part of wanting to do the judge show, Equal Justice with Judge Eboni K. Williams, is finally this is the culmination of my ability to be exactly who people hear on Holding Court. A brilliant legal scholar who has an innate, almost uncanny sensibility when it comes to the law. I know the law like the back of my hand and like my first, middle and last name. I really do, I love the law, let it be known. And all of the shenanigans of who I am as a woman and as a personality. Those are the things. How it’s gonna be different, exactly what I just ended with. The reality is nobody can be you like you can be you so this is not gonna be an impersonation of Judge Judy or Judge Mathis or Judge Joe Brown or Judge Mablean. And God bless all of those titans of industry ‘cause that’s exactly what they are, but respectably to them, now is the time for something else. In addition, Judge Mathis is now my network partner with Allen Media Group and Entertainment Studios, which is an incredible honor. And yet the culture, I believe, deserves a fresh take, a new iteration of what daytime court is for this moment culturally. And so I’m very excited to bring that.
I’ll give you a good example. There’s been a lot of critique, I believe rightfully so, I was one of the first voices of searing critique of what Chris Rock is currently doing in comedy. And some are jumping to his defense to say, well, he’s from an era where those types of jokes that come at the obvious expense of black safety and black liberation, those kinds of jokes were permitted. "Were" being operative. I think that’s how I feel about daytime court to be candid. I think that there have been historic levels of anti-blackness that have shown up in courtrooms with judges who were black, white and other, and it was permitted at that time, culturally. Thank God, when we know better, we do better. Thank God. And thank God because we are at a more culturally elevated and culturally conscious point in time in our existence. We get to do daytime court in a way that is funny, entertaining, compelling, interesting, engaging, and yet still reveres the treasure that is blackness. What you will never see in my courtroom that unfortunately we have seen in other people’s, is me taking slights, making digs or trying to be cute at the expense of blackness. It’ll never happen.
Dr. Joy: I’m curious, Eboni. How are you staying connected to learning? You clearly have to stay on top of what’s happening legally, you talked about yourself as a legal scholar. How are you staying on top of that even though you’re not practicing?
Eboni: I read, Dr. Joy, I read. It’s really important for me to communicate how important reading is. And when I say reading, we live in the technology age, we live in the information age. That could be audio books, that can be listening to articles. I subscribe to a lot of news, that’s what I do. I subscribe to the New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Athletic, PBS. People wanna know like, damn, why are you so swaggy? Why do you walk in a room and just take up so much space and so much bravado? Because the reality is, and I don’t care how it sounds, when I walk into 99.9% of rooms I walk into, yes, including the ones here in Midtown Manhattan, I already know I’m walking in knowing more, looking better and just harder working than most people in the space. It’s the reality. It's a reality and I work damn hard to make sure that remains the reality so I read a lot, I consume a lot of documentaries and multimedia content, I listen to your podcast. And it’s not just all the law. It’s not just all news and politics. I listen to a lot of relationship podcasts. I listen to Paul C Brunson. I listen to my friend now, Damona Hoffman. I just indulge and consume from the brilliant minds like yours and our peers that I have availability and access to so that’s really how I stay on the top of my game.
Dr. Joy: That’s just something for everybody to add to their list, is reading more, and that really helps you in lots of different spaces.
Eboni: If you see behind me in this bookshelf, a lot of these works… and I talk about this in Bet on Black. Don’t be afraid to revisit something. Because who I am today at almost 39 years old, almost 40, when I read The Soul of Black Folk today, believe me it hits different than when I read The Soul of Black Folk at 15. When I read the Narrative of Frederick Douglass today, that is a totally different lens and experience than which I’m consuming that at age eight, or even age 22, or even age 32. I encourage our people especially to read because, y’all, there’s a reason… I go into all this detail in the book, as you know Dr. Joy. There’s a reason it used to be punishable by death for black Americans to read on this land. Because in the pages of the books are the liberation ports. When you know who and whose you are, which you’re best learning (to me) through information, it’s hard to oppress and subsidize and make you subsidiary. You just kind of innately show up in a different posture when you know exactly your authentic story.
Dr. Joy: I wanna go back to the mental health conversation that we talked about earlier. It sounds like your story is very much like a lot of young black women in that we’ve been conditioned in this "work twice as hard to get half as much" and there definitely is a toll on your mental health (I think) because of that. Can you talk a little bit about how you have taken care of your mental health as a practicing lawyer and even now?
Eboni: I take my mental health very, very, seriously. Let me start with that. Which is why beyond (being) your peer and colleague, I am a fan first and foremost. Because we've got to not only normalize having these mental health conversations, but I think go beyond that. Normalizing is not enough in the society we live in. To me, just like we celebrate drip and everybody wants the Louis this and the Rolex that, which, listen, I’m here for all of the drip. But if you aren’t in therapy, I’m probably looking at you sideways. Personally. Because that is an investment unlike anything else. It is an appreciable asset. My ability to do what I do at the level in which I do it is wholly contingent on my ability to be mentally and emotionally well. When we talk about wellness, I mean that shit literally. I have to be well in order to do The Breakfast Club and The Grio and The View in the same day. Dr. Joy, I have to be well to write this book and then go on a seven-city book tour and then do the accompanying press that comes with it. You gotta be well. I would say for me I have invested in individual talk therapy for the past – oh, gosh – since basically I moved to New York City. I saw my very first therapist when I was on campus at UNC Chapel Hill where it was becoming apparent to me, I would get into spaces where for weeks at a time I wouldn’t wanna leave my room. I would just sit in the dorm watching reruns of Golden Girls, shout out to Golden Girls. But I knew there was something going on where now I know I was isolating. I was isolating, I was definitely having at least some level of low to mid-grade depression going on. And I was self-medicating like a lot of people do with alcohol and probably some overeating as well.
I saw my first therapist at the undergraduate level through Student Health. And so I wanna talk about resources because a lot of times, I’m of a generation, thank God you and your contemporaries are changing this, but I’m from a generation where therapy was some white people shit. When especially if you were raised in the church or with a faith practice, it was not of God. I wanna really challenge the culture here when we start talking about the importance of making space for authentic black identity, and mental health treatment and therapy, and faith and beliefs in whatever your higher power is. And, it’s not an "or" it’s an "and." Talk therapy is very important to me. Something else that I did, I’m a proud graduate of the Hoffman Institute. It’s not therapy; it is a wellness center. There’s one in Connecticut and there’s also one in the Napa Valley area of California. It’s a seven-day long retreat where you turn your phone in and iPad and all that good jazz, they lock it up like you’re going to a Beyoncé concert. You don’t get it back until eight days later. And I know that’s gonna sound insane to a lot of people listening to this conversation.
When I tell you (that) that along with my law degree are the two best investments I’ve ever made into my own self, I mean that from the bottom of my heart. We unpack childhood trauma, we learn to forgive our parents, ourselves, our circumstances. Sometimes you just gotta forgive the circumstances in which you were born. And then from that I’ve been able to build incredible relationships, starting first with me and myself, and forgive myself for the things I did when I was just trying to survive, for the choices I made, including my first marriage, when I was just trying to survive. So Hoffman Institute talk therapy. I also am very public in the fact that I take five milligrams of Celexa every day, and that is to help quell my innate anxiety. I’ve got a black woman primary care doctor, I’ve got a black woman OBGYN, I’ve got a black woman everything for the most part, and that is a part of my wellness commitment.
Dr. Joy: I love that. I hadn’t heard of the Hoffman Institute so I’ll definitely check that out. It sounds like an interesting program.
Dr. Joy: Just about 5% of lawyers are black. You’ve already alluded to this but I want you to kinda really drive home the importance of having black people show up in all of these spaces – in the TV, in media, in the courtroom. Why is that so important?
Eboni: It’s important because as the African proverb tells us: As long as the hunter writes the story, the lion will always lose. Thus, as long as we are not plentiful enough in practicing law, both as prosecutors, defense lawyers, as transactional attorneys, as litigation specialists, in the public sector, the private sector, you name it. As long as there are not enough black storytellers in talk, in radio, in podcasting, in written works, in traditional New York Times, LA Times, Washington Post, traditional journalistic outlets. As long as we are what we currently are, which is 5% to sometimes 2% to sometimes 1%, if we’re lucky 7% of those spaces, we will always be vulnerable to our stories being hijacked by dominant storytellers. It’s just that simple. It’s actually that simple.
One thing that really still bothers me is when we talk about tokenism even amongst ourselves. When we say: we already got a black person on The View; we already got a black person at the Today Show; we already got a black person who’s been Attorney General. You’ve got to be kidding me. Do you know how many old white men, how many white women occupy the same? We would never hear a narrative that says The View already has two white women. We would never hear that. Or we would never hear The Breakfast Club already has two men. I think some of our work (and we still have work that we need to do internally) is around us reshaping expectations that we have of us and ourselves as a culture. A lot of my work is not really rooted in white change. I think that that’s important, I love my colleagues that do that work – that’s not my ministry. I’m not particularly interested in changing white people, contrary to misconceptions people got from my time on RHONY. That was never about those white women, child, it really wasn’t. And if you really pay attention, it’s obvious that it’s not. You see I’m talking through them.
When I’m having a conversation with Luann de Lesseps for instance who has the audacity to ask me if I’ve ever heard of Sag Harbor. And I say to her very casually, oh my God, Luann, I love Sag Harbor. You do know it was one of the original places of waterfront property where black elites, doctors, lawyers, judges, engineers, nurses, teachers, were able to own waterfront resort property in the United States of America. I love Sag Harbor. And she’s looking crazy in the face because she doesn’t even know the cultural rich history of her own property. That was not a teachable moment for Luann, I don’t give a damn if Luann knew, didn’t know, still don’t know. That is a broader mirror for us to know. My momma didn’t know that until she saw that episode of RHONY. That’s for us. And listen, if you’re white or other and you resonate with it, consider it vicarious education. It is not intended for you. That’s our medicine that we need to know so that we can walk a little more boldly and proudly and more beautifully in our own existence.
Those are some of the things I would say. Where is our internal work as a people and a culture? That’s why I wrote Bet on Black. It is written for us. This is not convincing white people of how great and wonderful and special black people are. I think before we spend more time on that, we’ve got to be wholly convinced, our own selves, not in a façade. We can’t afford to have a veneer around it. We’ve really got to deeply understand and have a knowingness. Again, confidence comes from competence. And a lot of the reason I call blackness my superpower is because I really know the narrative of our innate competence as a people, both historically and in contemporary context. Not enough of us know that, which is why then you see legislators working overtime to make sure we don’t know it. Now I’m not bothered by it because I know that we are a people that the most historic challenges have never prevented us from doing what we do and knowing who we are so we just have to continue that work.
Dr. Joy: I know so many people are going to wanna stay connected to you and grab copies of your book. Where can we find you online, Eboni? What is your website as well as any social media handles you’d like to share?
Eboni: Yes. Please go to my website, it is EboniKWilliams.com. You can get links to Bet on Black of course, also the first book Pretty Powerful. I really recommend that book for women in business and law and it’s fantastic. Also, you can see my whole archive so, again, we talk about content, we talk about how you learn and what resources you can avail yourself to – I have archived every single Breakfast Club interview. You can spend a whole day just on EboniKWilliams.com, watching Breakfast Club interviews, watching sidebars from The Grio, listening to interviews on The View and what have you. I really, really, welcome you to that platform, which is my website. And social media wise, I’m an auntie, I’m not one of these young girls. If you look for me on TikTok, you will be disappointed. I am only on Instagram @ebonikwilliams on Instagram. I do check my DMs myself, please reach out if you have questions or just wanna chit chat.
Dr. Joy: Perfect. Well, thank you so much for spending some time with us today, Eboni. This has been fantastic.
Eboni: Thank you so much, Dr. Joy. Deeply grateful to you.
Dr. Joy: A huge thank you to Eboni for joining us this week and for sharing her wisdom and insight with our community. To learn more about the work that she’s doing and to stay connected to everything coming up for her, be sure to visit the show notes at TherapyForBlackGirls.com/session300. And don’t forget to text two of your girls and tell them to check out the episode as well.
In case you missed it, yesterday we dropped our very first episode of TBG University which caters exclusively to the college day sisters in our community. That episode is all about the growing pains of graduating college so be sure to check it out or pass it along to someone who might appreciate the conversation. You can find more information about that in the show notes as well. If you’re looking for a therapist in your area, check out our therapist directory at TherapyForBlackGirls.com/directory. And if you wanna continue digging into this topic or just be in community with other sisters, come on over and join us in the Sister Circle. It’s our cozy corner of the internet designed just for black women. You can join us at Community.TherapyForBlackGirls.com. This episode was produced by Fredia Lucas and Ellice Ellis and editing was done by Dennison Bradford. Thank y’all so much for joining me again this week. I look forward to continuing this conversation with you all real soon. Take good care.