#IntelligenceSoWhite

This fall has been an absolute shit show. I’m sure at some point we’ll get to the giant orange elephant in the corner, but we’re just not there yet. So, I would like to address some other shittiness that occurred in the last few months.

The first was the story of a Black Woman DOCTOR bad-ass who was on a Delta flight when medical assistance was needed. Of course a flight attendant found it impossible that a Black Woman MD existed. To read the full encounter and see why I won’t fly Delta ever again, click here.

I do want to acknowledge that good things can come out of these super shitty situations THAT ACTUAL PEOPLE – HUMAN BEINGS – have to live through.

In this case, Black women took over twitter with the hashtag #WhataDoctorLooksLike

Here are some of the amazing shots captured…

Then a few weeks later, an academic paper made online headlines as the result of a student of color sharing her instructors feedback. Ugh…

I wish these were isolated instances but they are not and so many women (and men) of color face them on a daily basis at thousands of university campuses.

My first instance of this (that I can remember) came in my junior year of HIGH SCHOOL. I had an incredibly challenging English teacher. It was the first time I struggled in an English class (if we don’t count the extra reading comprehension class I had to take in the second grade). He wanted us to think outside of the box. This should be the tell of a great instructor, one that was actually preparing me for college. I felt like maybe I had finally thought of something. I analyzed the Scarlet Letter through the lens that Hester Prynne was treated exactly as we treat teenage girls who get pregnant while attending a Catholic high school. I got a C, which was even lower than my previous grades in the class – a hard pill to swallow for a straight A student. I was told my writing would make a great sociological paper but not an English one. Fair enough (at least I think so today – at the time I wanted more guidance).

So for my next paper on the Great Gatsby, I met with my instructor regularly. I was going to get this right this time. I eventually settled on the topic of wardrobe in the story. I talked to him about the language that was used to describe the outfit choices of the different characters. He thought it was a great idea but encouraged me to focus in a bit more. I narrowed in on Myrtle Wilson’s three outfits in a single chapter to show her want to be a part of the money world but used the author’s language to show she was a fraud. The colors and fabrics of her dresses were analyzed as being symbolic of dirt and greed. When it was done, I remember being impressed with myself. It was unlike anything I had ever written before – again the signs of a good class.

However, that feeling was fleeting. I was out of town in the State’s capitol meeting with the Board of Education regarding the implementation of No Child Left Behind in the State of California (I say that because of the irony in what happens next). So, a friend turned in my paper for me. When I returned to campus, I was handed my paper with 100 at the top and the phrase, “Now that’s how you do it” in the instructor’s signature block letters. But he also told me to stay after class.

My mind was racing but I thought he was just going to have a conversation about the work I had done and how the next time I’d have to do it without meeting with him. Instead, the first words out of his mouth were,

“this isn’t your work.”

“Excuse me? I don’t understand.”

“You didn’t write this.”

“I did.”

“You plagiarized.”

“I didn’t.”

I can still remember this so vividly. He had helped me. He knew my work. Worse off he had no interest in reporting it. He was going to let it go. But I wouldn’t let a teacher or a department smear my name for the remainder of my time in high school. I had hopes of going to college, I didn’t want other teachers thinking I was unethical in my academics. I was stunned. I left the classroom on the verge of tears. I remember telling my mom – who is the mother bear to end all mother bears when it comes to protecting her cubs.

I was never told where I had plagiarized from – only that I had. It wasn’t posed as a question, only stated as a factual accusation.

I knew I had a computer at home but one that didn’t have access to the internet so if they thought I had taken something off the interweb, that was literally impossible. (And for those of you wondering, smart phones didn’t exist yet – I know, call me abuela.)

My mom called the school. She advocated for me when I couldn’t advocate for myself. Eventually, it came out that my instructor had thought my paper was so well written, he showed the department chair, a senior English teacher on sabbatical at the time who had determined there was no way a 16 year old had written this paper. She couldn’t give a source. But my mom demanded one. And after the added pressure, she found someone’s dissertation out of Boston College who had analyzed the wardrobe of the Gatsby characters. As I sit here typing, I can’t help but think I would now be flattered to have my writing compared to a dissertation. But at 16, I didn’t know how to do that kind of research, we still went to the library to look in actual books. The school convinced me and my mom that this would not be anywhere on my academic transcript. My instructor offered an apology and wanted to move past it.

This is where a piece of Tiffany Martínez’s blog, really resonates with me:

“They assumed that the work I turned in was not my own. My professor did not ask me if it was my language … My professor assumed someone like me would never use language like that. As I stood in the front of the class while a professor challenged my intelligence I could just imagine them reading my paper in their home thinking could someone like her write something like this?… I am hurting because my professor assumed that the only way I could produce content as good as this was to “cut and paste.” I am hurting because for a brief moment I believed them.”

In light of the recent news stories about women of color, I wonder if my last name had been different would either of the two White educators have questioned my intelligence, my ability to write a compelling argument. I won’t ever know the answer to that. [Tolu’s addition: I don’t know, either, but something with the history of who is believed to have a great mind makes me think it would have been another outcome had your last name been different.] What I do know is that an instructor I looked up to, who was also the football coach (and I was a student manager), did not take the opportunity to tell his superior that he thought I was capable of such writing. An instructor who I thought might some day think of me as the kind of student who would never quit but would keep trying no longer viewed me so positively. I would not ask him for a letter of recommendation. Despite it being his advice I used to write my personal statement, he is not someone I would run to when I received acceptances to different colleges. My tenure as manager of the football team would be spent trying to avoid him.

As someone who suffers pretty debilitating-ly from Impostor Phenomenon (and has for a very long time), this is crushing. Actually putting effort into something did not provide me with a happy ending and clouded my view of what “effort” means for years to come afterwards.

My first year in college, my sister continued in her role as football manager with my previous teacher. He asked her where I was going to school. She said, “the University of Notre Dame.” His response, “Makes sense. Good writers go to schools like that.”

I wish the name of schools didn’t have such an impact on people because maybe I wouldn’t be in such debt right now. But his response and many others like it, are why I chose Notre Dame in the first place – I wanted to prove people wrong.

A year later, the department chair would return from Sabbatical and teach my sister, she would be blown away by my sister’s writing and make a remark about it running in the family. Sadly, one small comment cannot undo the hurt, pain, and trauma that would cause me to continuously doubt myself throughout my post-secondary education.