Challenging Microaggressions to Claim a Space in the World of Academia


12th grade has arrived. You know what that means? Concurrent Enrollment. At the start of the second semester of my senior year, I landed a spot in a college English course. I’m an advanced writer and writing is something that I truly enjoy doing so I presumed that this class would be one of my favorites.

On the first day, I came in early, found a seat near the front, and sat down eager to learn and experience the rigor of a college class. By the end of week one, the professor assigned us our first essay. He told us to find an advertisement and analyze the rhetorical devices being used in it. He didn’t provide a prompt beyond the verbal instructions he gave in class, but I was familiar with this type of essay and last year I wrote formal rhetorical analyses on complex texts like Frederick Douglass’ Learning to Read and Write and Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail so analyzing the rhetorical choices of a print advertisement seemed straightforward to me. I found an ad, wrote the essay, and then took it to our Writing Center so I could get feedback and revise before turning it in. A couple weeks later, I scanned through the red comments that crossed out and questioned my own writing and found a “D” at the bottom. My heart sunk. That can’t be right. I talked to my peers, many of whom were in AP English Language and Composition with me last year, they all got low grades as well.

The next essay came around and proved the first one wasn’t just an anomaly. Again, no prompt was provided. He told us to write an essay that analyzed how a toy from our childhood prepared us to later fulfill gender roles. He gave us a packet of photocopied texts from which we were required to cite evidence. After a painfully condescending speech about how our last essays showed him we do not know how to write at a college level or how to cite evidence, he typed an “exemplar essay” in class. For almost thirty minutes, we sat and watched as he typed an introductory and body paragraph. As his writing started to take shape on the projector screen, I revised his paragraphs silently in my head. The questions I would ask as a peer writing coach were running through my mind. However, I remained silent.

Students in Manual High School’s AP English Language and Composition course (Fall 2015).

By the third week, we walked into class and were greeted by the following warm-up: “Write about how and why you are failing this class. Why do you think your peers are failing this class?” He proceeded to tell us that of the almost thirty students in our class, the one student with a C holds the highest grade.

On one of my peer’s essays he wrote: “You need help with basic English syntax… consider taking a course on grammar and punctuation” and “know that I am being generous with points here.”

At this point you might be wondering why am I telling you this story. It is not to vilify one professor or to complain about concurrent enrollment. It is to point out the injustice that minority students who make it to a college setting are left with the exhausting task of challenging low expectations.

This is a shared experience for students whose identity marginalizes them in the academic world.

In Fall of 2015, one Latina senior at Manual in a concurrent enrollment English class had a professor write on the top of her paper, “be sure to put ideas in your own words.” When she confronted the professor and asked what that meant, the professor said “it didn’t sound like her words”; even though this was one of the first essays of the course and the professor could not possibly know what kind of writing to expect from her yet.

One year later, another Latina student and Manual graduate had a philosophy professor in her first semester of college tell her, “stop trying to sound sophisticated to please me.”

FullSizeRender (23)
Comments from a community college professor on an essay written by a Latina senior at Manual High School (Fall 2015).

Even our credibility as peer writing coaches in the Writing Center we built ourselves has been questioned. At the beginning of the year, the professor of my English class encouraged us to utilize our Writing Center by offering extra credit points to anyone who went there for feedback. A couple weeks later, after finding out that the Writing Center staff included many of students in his class, he retracted the statement and recommended we submit our essays online through the community college tutoring website because it could offer better feedback and support.

Despite credentials, degrees, and tangible accomplishments, our value and capability in the classroom is forever in question. In my research to write this piece, I discovered many people of color are facing these types microaggressions on college campuses across the country.

A Suffolk University professor’s comments on an essay by sociology student Tiffany Martinez.

Tiffany Martinez, a sociology student at Suffolk University, had a professor write at the top of her paper: “Please go back and indicate where you cut and paste” and circle the word “hence” noting beside it, “This is not your word.” This feedback left on her paper reveals a deeply painful and prejudicial assumption that “the only way [she] could produce content as good as this was to ‘cut and paste.’” The professor proceeded to tell Martinez in front of the whole class, “This is not your language.”

Dr. Hillary Potter, a Black professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is forced to fight against her own invisibility due to the fact that she does not represent what people believe to be “the image of a professor.” Potter is forced to “work twice as hard and produce twice as much” just to validate that she “belongs] in academe.”

This is discrimination. This is racism.

When we are told our writing is “too academic” to be our own it reinforces the false narrative that we are less academically capable. Intelligence is not determined by one’s race. As a Latina student, I am tired of microaggressions like being told that being smart is  “acting white” or that formal academic writing is “not my language.”

A Suffolk University professor’s comments on an essay by sociology student Tiffany Martinez.

Even though I know these microaggressions are unjust, it is still hard to ignore them. Sometimes I even start to doubt myself and my abilities and think that maybe I am less capable. In fact, I didn’t turn in the second essay to that college professor because I figured I was going to end up getting a failing grade either way. Social psychologist Claude Steele analyzed this in 1991 when he examined how the achievement of students of color was being undermined by “the endemic devaluation” many of us face in society and in school. Recent studies at the University of Washington have shown that “in hostile environments, students of color graduate at lower rates, jeopardizing not only their academic careers, but also future success.” 

Microaggressions and stereotyping in college lead students of color to feel unsafe making it more likely that they will leave college early. We are forced to be outsiders in higher education.

Being confident, resilient, and intelligent won’t be enough to protect me from low expectations in college. As I step outside of the tight-knit community of Manual High School, my last name and ethnic identity will make me a target of doubt. Institutions of higher education were not built for people like me and as a member of an underrepresented group, I realize that I will have to spend significant time and energy over those four years proving myself to my new peers and professors.

A photo campaign featuring the voices and faces of Black students at Harvard College (2014).

However, I refuse to let this stop me from going to college. Instead, my peers and I spent our last year of high school dedicated to founding a writing center. Throughout our education students like us are made to feel like we don’t belong and like writing isn’t for us. We built the The Writing Center to carve out a space where we can experience ownership and belonging and to create the kind of “wise schooling” that Steele described in 1991 as the “missing key to the schoolhouse door.” We wanted to ensure all students at our school experience “a valuing and optimistic atmosphere” in which of all us “can ‘identify’ with learning.”

A photo campaign highlighting the faces and voices of Black students at Harvard College (2014).

As a peer writing coach, I get the chance to be a teacher. At Writing Center events, I share my voice as a writer. These experiences have made me feel powerful. Writing has became a form of authentic expression for me. The Writing Center has given me a place in the world of academia and within the Manual High School community, I am seen as capable and knowledgeable.

I am grateful for this experience because I know it that it has and will continue to give me the strength to resist internalizing low expectations, microaggressions, and stereotypes.

Feeling valued is fundamental to learning. Feeling a sense of belonging is fundamental to learning. If our educational experiences continue to tell us that we are in need of remediation or if the only way for us to experience academic success is give up our cultural identity, then school will continue to be a place where “more concertedly, persistently, and authoritatively than anywhere else in society” we learn how little value we hold.

Copy of IMG_3581
Peer Writing Coaches at Manual High School during their student-led day of reflection and professional development (Winter 2017).

One Comment Add yours

  1. Brother Amouzou says:

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    Excellent depiction of the reality many students of color face once they reach University.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s