Latina student calls out professor who accused her of plagiarism for using the word “hence”

It’s no secret that racism in higher education is real. College students of color continually face discrimination from peers and instructors — and this Latina student’s callout of her professor’s racist critique shows how entrenched the problem is.

Tiffany Martínez, a senior at Suffolk University in Boston, was accused of plagiarism by a seminar class professor for using the word “hence” and complex language in a paper. In a blog post, she reported that her professor called her to the front of the class and said, loudly enough for her classmates to hear, “This is not your language.” At the top of the paper, the professor had written, “Please go back and indicate where you cut and paste.” On the second page, the word “hence” was circled; next to it was written “This is not your word,” with “not” underlined twice.

The message was clear: despite the fact that this was a senior seminar class, and despite Martínez being a McNair Scholar who’d already been published in a peer-reviewed journal (a rarity for undergraduates), the professor didn’t believe she possessed the knowledge or capacity to use scholarly terms. It had nothing to do with Martínez’s impressive record, but everything to do with her Latina heritage.

As Martínez wrote on her blog, “There are students who will be assumed capable without the need to list their credentials in the beginning of a reflective piece. How many degrees do I need for someone to believe I am an academic?”

According to The Huffington Post, Suffolk University has written a letter to its students following the media coverage of what happened to Martínez. “As an institution that was founded on the highest principles of inclusivity and respect,” the letter reads, “we take this and any such concern extremely seriously… As a community we are not perfect, and we make mistakes as an institution and as individuals.”

Not buying it. This may just have been a lone fuck up for the professor, but for Martínez and other students of color, these kinds of remarks can be seriously detrimental. And it’s not like this is an isolated incident. To quote Martínez’s blog again, “As a minority in my classrooms, I continuously hear my peers and professors use language that both covertly and overtly oppresses the communities I belong to.”

It also happens at universities around the country; at Fordham University in New York, a white professor responded to a black student’s request for an assignment extension by accusing him of “fall[ing] into a stereotype narrative the dominant society expects.” Even in higher educational institutions, students of color are living in a “dominant society” that believes they don’t deserve to succeed. Universities need to address faculty and student racism head on, not hide behind weak non-apologies, if they ever want to make real progress.