Natalia Martinez was excited.
She’d just passed her spring fitness exam in preparation for what she thought would be a good soccer season at Georgia State University.
The freshman pulled out her phone, snapped a photo with a friend and posted the good news on a private Finsta account — a secret version of Instagram — with a caption that included a racial slur.
Within a week, that excitement crumbled.
Martinez ended up withdrawing from the university amid death threats over the controversial post.
In an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday, Martinez said she isn’t a racist and the word was “used out of excitement and not toward anyone, and taken out of context. And for that I’m sorry.”
The apology comes a week after she withdrew from school following social media backlash, including from fellow students who urged school officials to expel her.
“The truth is, I could give you excuses, and I could give you a story, but what you need to know is what’s in my heart,” Martinez said.
Her voice unwavering and firm in her apology, Martinez repeatedly emphasized she was sorry, that the word was horrible and that she didn’t want to make excuses for using a word with a weighted history, often used as a derogatory term toward African-Americans.
She has since deleted all of her social accounts and is living with her family in south Florida.
Martinez said she didn't expect the post to go viral: “I was honestly in complete shock. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I was accused of (being) something that I’m not.”
The controversy came to light when Martinez’s soccer coach received an email with the photo containing the caption.
“I was called into coach’s office and was shown the post that was emailed to him,” Martinez said. “I was suspended immediately. As soon as it blew up (on social media), I decided to take matters into my own hands and withdrew.”
Martinez made her decision before she could meet with GSU administrators, who were notified of the post Jan. 19.
The school’s athletic department encourages student-athletes to use social media in “constructive and positive ways,” but they are urged to “remember that he or she serves as representatives of GSU and, as such, the student-athlete’s sites are reflective of his or her team, coach, and University.”
It’s a statement Martinez said she remembers officials echoing when she signed her contract with the school.
“I was told that athletes (represent) the school and everything we put out there can be seen,” she said.
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The policy also states student-athletes are subject to discipline for social media posts that include derogatory or defamatory language.
Martinez’s attorney said his client is paying the ultimate price for her words.
“I don’t think there’s anything that has been done to Natalia than that punishment that she has inflicted on herself,” he said, referring to the withdrawal. “As for what the future holds, she’s taking it day-by-day.”
Martinez is hardly the first student-athlete to come under fire for racially insentive comments shared on social media.
The latest came early this week when Appalachian State men’s tennis player Spencer Brown, who is white, was suspended from the program indefinitely after rival North Carolina A&T State player John Wilson tweeted that Brown made racist comments following a match.
Hey #NCAT this is Spencer brown, a tennis player at Appalachian state. During our match today, along with other racist comments, Spencer told me, “At least I know my dad.” Their coach responded by saying, “..we have a black guy on our team.”— John Wilson IV (@jpheze) January 29, 2018
Black twitter, do ya thing. pic.twitter.com/ZRN61zCU2n
“During our match (Sunday), along with other racist comments, Spencer told me, ‘At least I know my dad,’” Wilson said in the tweet. “Their coach responded by saying, ‘... we have a black guy on our team.’”
Appalachian State apologized for the tweet, but Wilson, who is black, said it had not apologized to him directly.
Martinez’s mother, Daniela, said she was upset with her daughter for writing the racial slur, but didn’t expect for her family to get attacked.
“I was confused at first, very confused,” she said. “I didn’t understand the true magnitude until I started seeing social media blow up.”
Daniela Martinez, who said she is Latina, said what upset her most was that her and her husband don’t use the slur in their home: “We don’t speak that way, which is why my husband and I were so angry with (Natalia),” she said. “That’s just not how we speak at home and not how my family speaks at all.”
But one possible factor for why Daniela Martinez thinks her daughter used the word: “Today’s millennials use this term as a new form of slang.”
Clark Atlanta University communications professor Nicole Dukes said context is everything when it comes to language.
“Words don’t have any power by themselves,” she said. “Once you look at a word and what history it has, then it gains all of this power.”
Dukes, who said she doesn’t personally use the slur, said the word and its use is often discussed in her classes each semester.
“I think that based on how people grow up, it becomes more emotionally charged than other times,” she said. “Language is so historically charged that if we don’t know our language, it can endorse some sort of stark ideology.”
But Daniela Martinez said that wasn’t the case with her daughters’ post, which she said was “conveniently cropped” to hide the rest of Natalia’s words about passing the fitness exam.
“There was absolutely no ill intent when that story was written,” she said. “You couldn’t see exactly what she wrote and what it was about it. That’s just not who we are and what we’re about. My parents were immigrants; we are minorities. I can’t tell you that enough.
“I truly feel in my heart when these kids are talking his way, they really don’t understand the magnitude of the meaning behind this word,” she said, adding that the slur is heavily used in popular culture, including movies and music.
Still, she said she wishes she’d had a discussion with Natalia about the use of the slur.
“I’m actually saddened that I didn’t have the conversation with her earlier,” the mother said. “Had I, this wouldn't have happened.”
As a former Los Angeles elementary school teacher, Dukes has had to inform students about how offensive the word can be. Dukes said a black fifth-grade student was explaining something to her and referred to another male student, also black, by the slur. She decided to have a conversation with him about the word before recess.
“He was so confused,” she said. “He said, ‘Well, what did I say?’ ... He said, ‘That’s a bad word?’”
Dukes said later that day she overheard the child explaining to another student the meaning of the word.
“It was interesting to see what he learned,” she said.
In Natalia Martinez’s case, Dukes said it does make her wonder what she’s posted in the past.
Daniela Martinez said she can guarantee this: Her daughter will never say the word again.
“She’s not a terrible monster,” the mother said. “This is a life lesson she’s going to take with her for the rest of her life.”
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