About three weeks ago, I came across an article on Inside Higher Education that brought me back to our conversation in class about microaggressions experienced in the classroom. One of the things that was brought out was being subjected to such statements as “Wow, your English is SO good!” if one did not look like the stereotypical Caucasian American, as experienced by some of my fellow students in class – and as I have experienced time and again. I distinctly remember commenting back then that I would have taken that as a compliment. Reading the article reminded me, however, that the concerns of my fellow students are valid, and that there are certain assumptions that some people make based on how one looks and the color of one’s skin that do not necessarily hold true and are, in fact, unnecessary.
Tiffany Martinez, a student at Suffolk University, blogged about her experience with a professor. She apparently turned in a paper that seemed too well-written that it could not have possibly been her own words – at least according to the feedback she received from the professor, written on the margins of the paper that she submitted. Specifically highlighted (or more accurately, encircled in blue ink) was the word “Hence.” On her blog post, Tiffany Martinez shared her past accomplishments and background, and about the fact that she is a US citizen. All things considered, she definitely is someone who can and knows how to use “hence.”
The United States of America is an interesting country. I have never been in the midst of such diversity in terms of the culture and experiences of the people who call it home. It is this unique interaction that, to me, makes America great. As a non-citizen looking in, I find that to be rich and fascinating, and that it speaks of the history of America as a land that has welcomed people from different places and given them an opportunity for a fresh start – giving birth to such stories as that of founding father Alexander Hamilton (and yes, I am a fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the musical, and the concept of not throwing away your shot). It is a bit disheartening, though, that there are still instances when America is not seen and acknowledged as the melting pot of different people and different cultures that it is, sometimes by the very people whose family histories could all be traced back to other lands far and wide (and not here) but now call it home – and that it still happens in higher education.
English is not my first language. I have only lived in America for 0.05% of my life. But I have studied, spoken, and written using it long enough to be comfortable with it – and know it enough to use the word “Hence” appropriately. And I believe that there are many in the world like me who are not US or British or Canadian citizens and have never seen America, Britain or Canada, but speak, write, and understand the English language well. Perhaps not with absolute perfection, but well enough. English, after all, is often considered as a universal (and, to me, unifying) language, that at face value it seems imprudent to still readily assume that someone who does not physically look a certain way will not be able to communicate well in the language. If anything, I may be more likely to receive the same prejudice that Tiffany received – but neither of us deserve it.
It also made me think of how vital words, actions and attributions are, especially when it comes from a member of the professoriate. Professors are in a unique position to contribute to shaping a young life by providing guidance and feedback. It is therefore essential to exercise utmost fairness and prudence, and to use appropriate language, when providing feedback. Words matter a lot. And professors need to make them matter in a positive way.
Who would have known that a word as short and simple as “hence” would cause such a ruckus? One thing is sure, though, I empathize with Tiffany Martinez and other American students like her, some of whom I have had the privilege to engage in conversations and interact with through this class. You are America. And it is my fervent wish that everyone will readily acknowledge that.