When Will We Learn?

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You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have!

“Twice as good” is the standard set for generations of black and brown children across America (and beyond), a warning consistently administered in stern but loving tones from parental figures as dissimilar as the fictional Rowan Pope and first lady Michelle Obama. It’s an admonishment that’s helped fuel the ambitions of our best and brightest, bolstering the successes of HBCUs, sororities and fraternities, Jack and Jills, Olympic and academic champions … and, likely, even our sitting president.


Before we even begin, we’re made fully aware that we are already behind. Therefore, we must be better—much better—if we hope to compete at the same level they do. And we never need to be told who "they" are: They are the standard-bearers, the default history taught, the bar set so high that we must be at least twice as good to reach it. So we study, train and work our asses off to prove that we are good enough—even when we’re better.

And yet once we proudly gain access, eager to demonstrate our prowess and earned privilege—against seemingly insurmountable odds—we’re often indicted for acquiring the very skills required for entry.

This was the experience of Tiffany Martínez, an award-winning and published scholar, aspiring professor, current undergrad and consistent dean’s list recipient at a prestigious private university in Boston. On a recent morning, she found herself publicly humiliated when a completed writing assignment was handed back to her in full view of her classmates.

The complaint? The paper was too well written for the professor to believe that the words were Martínez’s own. Cited as proof? Her correct usage of the word “hence.” Corrective notes scrawled across the pages she’d so painstakingly written stopped just short of accusing her of outright plagiarism, instead asking that she indicate from where she had “cut and pasted.” Shockingly, the professor proceeded to announce this unfounded accusation in front of the entire class:

“This is not your language.”

It bears mentioning that Tiffany Martínez is also a first-generation U.S. citizen of Dominican descent, and first-generation college student. Devastated, she bravely recounted the incident in her online journal, taking care to ensure that her impressive list of achievements prefaced her retelling of the incident:

I name these accomplishments because I understand the vitality of credentials in a society where people like me are not set up to succeed. My last name and appearance immediately instills a set of biases before I have the chance to open my mouth. These stereotypes and generalizations forced on marginalized communities are at times debilitating and painful. … Therefore, I do not always feel safe when I attempt to advocate for my people in these spaces. In the journey to become a successful student, I swallow the ‘momentary’ pain from these interactions and set my emotions aside so I can function productively as a student.

But this conflict isn’t exclusive to students. The persistent deficiency of people of color in academia creates a culture in which even those who create successful careers are often insultingly asked to provide "receipts." For ethnomusicologist and professor Alisha Jones, the need to “prequalify” oneself is all too familiar:

Even though I have completed education at top-tier schools in my field of research, I am still presumed to be an affirmative action candidate. Initially, I would preface conversations and introduce myself to students with some mention of my pedigree, but I have learned to stop doing that … I committed to allowing my work to speak for itself … forcing my doubters to find me in my research.


Academic achievement has long been perceived as a great equalizer for traditionally marginalized groups. But if academia (mistakenly) presents itself as a means to escape being over-policed in our communities, it’s worth considering that in environments where we are underrepresented, our intellects may be policed in place of our bodies. As literature professor Kinitra D. Brooks notes, “I simply think this is why having faculty that look like the student population is so important; faculty that recognize the brilliance of all their students … ”

Because even when the drive to academically achieve manages to overcome the deterrents, what is the potential psychological cost to a student? A recent study suggests that racial bias affects the academic performance of traditionally marginalized students at least as early as adolescence, indicating that the swallowing of “momentary pain” is just one of many survival skills learned alongside basic algebra, as reported in The Atlantic:

[T]he physiological response to race-based stressors—be it perceived racial prejudice, or the drive to outperform negative stereotypes—leads the body to pump out more stress hormones in adolescents from traditionally marginalized groups. … What emerges is a picture of black and Latino students whose concentration, motivation and, ultimately, learning is impaired by unintended and overt racism.


Indeed, while Tiffany Martínez can readily list her many accolades alongside her ambitions, she also admits that the scrutiny has repeatedly taken a toll on her self-esteem, feeding doubts that eerily mirror those projected onto her by her errant instructor.

“I look down at a blue-inked reflection of how I see myself when I am most suspicious of my own success,” she admits.


Unequivocally, the responsibility for creating safe learning environments for all students—be their names Martínez, Mohammed or even Maiysha—lies in institutional commitments to hiring and giving tenure to fully representative faculties and supporting campus-diversity initiatives. But for Pacifica Graduate Institute psychology professors Susan James and Helene Lorenz (pdf), the challenge of creating a safe space for their students became both a personal and proactive one. To better help their students effectively address and work through racial issues both on campus and off, they proposed the formation of two voluntary student groups: one specifically for students of color; the other for those considering themselves “allies” for racial justice. The two groups repeatedly met separately and together in what they termed a “de-colonial reconciliation process.” The result?

[T]he basic question put forward for the Allies Groups was whether white students could recognize when their classmates were feeling assaulted by Eurocentric or racist ideas, and could then work out how to be supportive and stand up for the values they shared. … Participants in the Students-of-Color Group summed up their process with audible sighs of relief because they felt as if they had an opportunity to have the issues they faced in the classroom addressed in a concrete way, including the inherent emotionality and lack of personal safety in intellectualized racial dialogue.


For now, one can only wonder how the existence of more forums like these in academic environments might have prevented the type of trauma that Tiffany Martínez and so many students like her regularly experience in academic environments—or, at least, provided a safe space on campus for it to be openly addressed. Similarly, one can only wonder how broader administrative support of these types of forums might foster a greater level of respect from professors interacting with students of color. Because as Professor Brooks firmly states, safe spaces begin with the community each educator creates within the classroom:

We have so much power as educators—we must consistently be aware of it … we must constantly read the room and our students. First and foremost, our students are human, and so are we. We must balance challenging our students with our compassion for them and ourselves.


Maiysha Kai is a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, fashion model, devoted auntie and Brooklyn, N.Y.-based, single black bombshell who recently strutted into her 40s. She is also an expert at oversharing who chronicles her attempts at dating—and adulting—on 40onFleek.