Image via Buzzfeed.com

Image via Buzzfeed.com

Somewhere along a mindless Internet scroll, I chanced upon an article entitled  “Academia, Love Me Back.” It was a personal reflection published by a student from Suffolk University this fall detailing a traumatic experience wherein her professor falsely accused her of plagiarism in front of her class. She had written her paper entirely in accordance with her university’s regulation, but the professor suspected that the paper was simply too good to be her own work.

Martinez begins her post by detailing her academic accomplishments; she is a full-time student who has been on the Dean’s List since freshman year while working two jobs, has received a prestigious fellowship that prepares first-generation undergraduates for graduate school, has been published in peer-reviewed journals, and plans to work in academia. This introduction struck me as strange, abrupt, perhaps ungraceful. Introducing one’s self by one’s accomplishments is usually employed in formal occasions for distinguished guests. This is a personal blog, so why the formality?

Anticipating this reaction, Martinez then states her purpose: “I name these accomplishments because I understand the vitality of credentials in a society where people like me are not set up to succeed.”

She had known all along. As the piece goes on to show, she began by listing her academic accomplishments because she knew that her words must be legitimized by her academic repute before she could be truly heard and believed. Martinez writes, “Some of you won’t understand how every word that I use to describe this moment was diligently selected in a way that would properly reflect my intellect.” This sentiment is reflected in the structure and style of her writing. Her words are meticulously selected and placed to excise any unnecessary emotion, vagueness, or pity— to prove, once again, that she is worthy of attention. She is working multiple angles here: to express her pain as an act of catharsis, and to mold her language to make her pain credible to strangers. It’s a burden that people of color are too familiar with; to not only name the injustice, but to constantly excavate reasons to defend our reaction to that injustice.

She describes that the continual trauma of being otherized is “sometimes painful and debilitating,” but she cannot afford to succumb to this social poisoning, so that she can continue to “function productively as a student.” The demand of the hustle is a familiar one to Princeton students who learn to manage and compartmentalize their lives in order to get through their days. But the hustle for students of color, particularly black and brown students, is additionally burdened by the need to constantly disprove our assumed incompetency. Despite this, Martinez, like countless others, continued to set sights on her education, working on the unstable premise that she belonged in academia and that her work would get her somewhere.

One day, that optimism broke. The day her professor handed back her paper and announced in front of her class, “This is not your language.” He wrote at the top of her paper, “Please go back and indicate where you cut and paste.” On the second page, he circled the word “hence” in her paper and wrote “This is not your word,” with “not” underlined twice. The only proper response, really, is what the fuck? Not my word? What does (not) “owning” a word mean?

Plagiarism, for one. But the incident reveals far more menacing assumptions. “Hence” is a word of logic; it denotes a causal relationship between x and y. To use the word indicates an understanding of an underlying logical structure; it indicates, to some degree, a modicum of intelligence. Furthermore, the word is more esoteric than most, usually because we don’t add it to our vocabulary until we become more exposed to academia in high school and college. The word “hence,” therefore, is a loaded term—
it signifies rationality and acculturation to academia. Her professor was, in effect, revealing that he did not believe Martinez was rational or intellectual enough to wield such a term. Imagine the pain and outrage of being told that this word does not belong to you, that you are incapable of producing such a word. Imagine how that would affect your confidence in your command of language, and thus your voice.

While the details of Martinez’s story may seem shocking and extreme, its premise is all too ordinary: people of color are not good enough to be the authors of their success. Consequently, some other explanation must be found. Imagine being a Latinx high schooler accepted into an Ivy League college and hearing whispers of affirmative action the day after. Imagine being a Black journalist writing on culture and having your writing dismissed as “superficial riffs on identity politics,” which happened to three black MTV writers last week. Imagine being an Asian student and never being called creative, just diligent, because that kind of capacious imagination has never been associated with you. Imagine the despair that settles in your bones after swallowing that kind of venom for years. The success of people of color in areas where we were not meant to thrive is constantly met with suspicion. That suspicion is often used to either undermine the integrity of our work—as happened to Martinez—or to make us seem exceptional, a miraculous stand-out from our self-identified group. Either way, the assumptions based on our identity or background go unchallenged.

While I have worked to show that Martinez’s experience connects with a systemic suspicion that plagues all minorities, it is not a blanket description. Each experience is particular; not all people of color have the same stories. I, coming from an Asian immigrant family, was struck by how both close and distant I felt to Martinez. I knew the kind of self-doubt she battled with in her relationship to academia. I was reminded of how I sometimes look up the pronunciations of titles and authors before precept to make sure I can pronounce them correctly or how I can barely work up the courage to email my professors to meet in office hours because I’ve never felt entitled enough to interact with authority figures as though they are “friends.” Yet I also felt distant from her experience, as I am not Latina nor have I ever had my intelligence so blatantly insulted. Respecting her authorship entails not simply empathizing with her but also recognizing the particularity of her experience and my distance from it, so that I can recognize those most marginalized and mobilize to close that gap.

While we may not all understand Martinez’s experiences, ignorance does not entail innocence; the insistence on innocence while harm is being enacted only furthers the crime. As James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time, “It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” Stories like hers are all around us; the wounds of such experiences are invisible but real. When an individual like Martinez speaks out against an injustice, rest assured that countless similar hurtful incidents have already occurred to precipitate this reflection.

The natural reaction to her story is to exclaim, “What an awful professor!” True, he is awful, but we would fail her if we stopped there. For his prejudice was only given power because it affirmed a lie that she had already imbibed and, in moments of distress, believed about herself. Martinez writes that looking at her professor’s comment “this is not your language” was like “look[ing] down at a blue inked reflection of how I see myself when I am most suspicious of my own success.” Martinez, by doing the emotional and intellectual labor of writing this story (when she could have been writing her English paper), gave us notice. In our constant cycle of work and reward, sometimes it is worth emerging for air and naming the toxins that surround us that debilitate our ability to function, to live. For those who are able to witness her pain and her resilience, her story becomes our story. There are many other Martinezes living in the world, in America, in Princeton. We carry that story with us wherever we go and to whomever we meet, hopefully making us approach institutions from the perspective of those who are most invisible, most vulnerable, most scared, and thus most necessary to uphold. To believe her story and allow it to change you is to respect what her professor flagrantly denied: the authorship of her words.