This Friday as things were winding down I saw a post from a young Latina in college who was being questioned by her professor for writing too well. He accused her of plagiarism (a heavy claim) and specifically doubted that the language she was using was “hers” because he didn’t think she was capable of using the word “hence” in a correct manner.
The student was rightfully hurt by this situation. And sadly, reading this account didn’t surprise me because many of us have these experiences. Instructors who question our abilities and right to be present in a way that cuts deep; that in turn make us question our capacity.
Something similar happened to be me as a Junior in college, where a professor went out of her way to find methods to put me in my place—whether it was announcing to others when I made a mistake or holding me a standard in my work that wasn’t being used on other students. At that time, I was so confused why she had such an issue with me, and it did result in an extremely negative & hostile experience that marred my entire semester.
I also recall a friend in college whose math instructor often marked her wrong on quizzes. When she went to a tutor, the tutor reviewed her work and showed her that she actually had the correct answers. When she met with the instructor, he accused her of cheating and threatened to contact the Honor Board if she pressed things any further. She failed that class, and ultimately transferred out to a different school.
I’m sure you can think of a similar experience you or a friend have gone through. We experience this doubt and accusations all the time.
But what really got to me was that the instructor in Tiffany’s case questioned her ability to speak a certain way. “This is NOT your word.”
That resonated with me because one main premise of this site is to provide tools and advice to women, like me, who know very little about law school or practicing and need a little guidance to help them achieve their goals. Part of the means teaching how to code-switch; how to learn to adapt to professional norms and culture that we’re not used to or a part of; behaviors we can take on to advance in our field.
Yet, this situation is a great reminder of why I never want to promise that if we all act a certain way and do what we can to assimilate or fit in, that the struggle will be over. On the contrary, the point of learning how to master your legal practice and succeed in law school is so that once we’re in positions of power we can start making real changes to an overtly partial and unjust system. However, this instructor shows us that no matter how well we act, how precise we speak, there will always, always be people in power who will question our abilities because of our skin tone, our surname, or our accents.
Here is Tiffany, a scholar, a gifted student, who obviously knows how to play the game and write a professionally written paper and he questions her ability to use a pretty basic word, because…I don’t know because he assumes a Latina should write like a come-to-life Bon Qui Qui? I mean, it’s kind of laughable if it wasn’t so confusing and enraging.
But instead of deterrence, let this be motivation. While some may question your gifts, intelligence, and capabilities—never let that trickle into your own mind or degrade your sense of self-worth. Remember that you have overcome more than most; your drive to succeed is stronger than most; and you are capable of success beyond the measure of any person stuck in an ivory white tower.