Students

‘Not Your Language’: How a Classroom Interaction Led a Student to Speak Out on Microaggressions

October 28, 2016

To Tiffany C. Martínez, the professor’s accusation wasn’t just a comment about potential plagiarism, it was a microaggression — a comment about her identity as a Latina.
After Tiffany C. Martínez, a sociology major at Suffolk University in Boston, was called out in front of her senior seminar and accused of copying parts of an assigned literature review, she voiced her frustration in a blog post titled, "Academia, Love Me Back."

For Ms. Martínez the phrase uttered by her professor, "This is not your language," wasn’t just a comment about potential plagiarism, it was a microaggression — a comment about her identity as a Latina.

"As I stood in the front of the class while a professor challenged my intelligence," Ms. Martínez wrote in the post, "I could just imagine [the professor] reading my paper in their home thinking, Could someone like her write something like this?"

A few hours after she posted the blog, minority students, scholars, and instructors shared her post and some shared similar experiences, prompting a conversation about handling sensitive classroom conversations while being racially inclusive. Suffolk’s acting president and acting provost sent an email to the campus stating that the university would investigate the incident and urging people to respect the privacy of Ms. Martínez and her professor.

Ms. Martínez, who declined to name the professor, spoke to The Chronicle on Friday about the blog post and how she thinks her university can learn from the microaggression. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. How did you get the paper back?

A. The professor was only giving back a few papers because I wasn’t there in the previous class, so she just had to give back two. She called me to the front of the room, and that’s when she had the discussion with me about that the language that I used was not mine.

Q. Do you remember what she said to you?

A. The first thing she said to me was, "This is not your language," and then I started asking questions on what exactly she meant, and then she started going through [the paper] and started telling me the comments.

Q. Why do you think she did that in front of everybody?

A. I don’t understand. This is something that I have a big issue with because if you’re going to accuse me of something, telling me something that I wrote is not mine, I would prefer it to be a one-on-one conversation so we can discuss it and not have it in front of my peers. The fact that she said it in front of everyone was really interesting for me. I want to know why. I just know it was wrong. I think honestly, maybe it was a lack of judgment or maybe she didn’t understand how much what she was saying affected me.

Q. Do you think her assumption was that English was not your first language or that you had plagiarized the paper?

A. I think her assumption was that I plagiarized the paper, but she never said the word plagiarized. Because she said that I have to resubmit the paper, it wasn’t like she was going to report my paper to anywhere and it was just me having to fix mistakes. The thing is, I didn’t plagiarize at all, everything that I used was my language. So the assumption was that my language looked too academic to be from someone like me.

Q. Do you think the professor has seen the blog post?

A. We actually did have a conversation today. My issue isn’t even this certain encounter. My issue is that after I posted that, I’ve noticed that thousands — and I’m not even being dramatic — thousands of students, of faculty members, of academics, have contacted me telling me similar experiences. This isn’t even an isolated incident. This happens all the time, and I didn’t even know that. I thought this was just something that was happening to me, but it’s so widespread. Even if it’s not someone’s intention to be racist or discriminatory, it’s still having an impact on students.

Q. What do you think you professor could have done differently?

A. We need to respect the privacy of every student. There are too many assumptions that professors make about their students that they’re just a student, but it’s so much more. Like I’m not just a student. I’m a student who’s Latina, I’m low-income, I financially support myself, I’m working so hard in this university, I’m so much more than that, and so to publicly accuse me of something, the professor might have felt like that was a learning tool for me, but in fact it wasn’t.

I’m very adamant about privacy and one-on-one conversation. In order for this to have actually worked well, if any professor feels like a student plagiarizes or is using someone else’s language, you need to have a conversation with that student one on one. What bothered me was that on the paper, it said, "You need to indicate where you cut and paste," and on the next page she had circled the word "hence" and said, "This is not your word." It left me no room to defend myself. I had no agency in that moment. It was just the professor telling me that I was cheating, that this language was too much for someone like me. I feel like professors just need to give some agency to the students and have a conversation with them before accusing them of something this dramatic.

Q. Do you think the president’s email about the blog post is the university trying to calm down the situation, or do you foresee changes coming out of this situation?

A. There have been incidents in the past in the university that have been someone feeling that there are racial tensions, because there are, everywhere we go. And my big problem is the university never acknowledges it in a mass email. I actually see this email as a positive thing because this is the institution actually acknowledging my voice and my experience. I’m actually really happy that they sent out an email that acknowledged it and do think that it’s a first step for things to happen.

When I posted that blog post, first of all, I thought it was going to get like 15 views. If I knew that so many people would see it, I would think of an action plan of what my university can do in order to avoid things like this. I think the only thing we can do in this moment is to implement culturally responsive programs, trainings for professors. I feel teachers are always learning about the color-blind narrative of teaching every student equally, and we just need to remove that from our vocabulary.

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz is a web writer. Follow her on Twitter @FernandaZamudio, or email her at fzamudiosuarez@chronicle.com.