Every academic has to experience this rite of passage. A peer or a journalist approaches you, seemingly for a mutually enriching exchange of your ideas. They express curiosity at your work and probe you for insights. They may even ask you for a formal interview, promising to share the final product as well as credit for contribution.
The next time you see those ideas, they are published and your name is nowhere to be seen. And you feel violated.
That’s the feeling that I am experiencing after granting my very first interview to Alexis Sobel Fitts, a freelance journalist who sold my ideas to the Huffington Post without so much as alluding to my existence.
Ms. Fitts found my name through the University is Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication, which houses a new program called the Media Action Research Collective. Her biography states that she is from Philadelphia, so perhaps she thought the university was easy pickings for naive young graduate students who would happily allow her to profit and advance her own career on the backs of their uncredited research.
But it turns out that what Ms. Fitts didn’t know, because she is not emotionally or genuinely intellectually invested in the knowledge production and transformative power of a Black public sphere, is that a major part of my work is exploring the practice of stealing Black women’s intellectual labor for self-advancement and White voyeurism.
While Ms. Fitts was more than happy to reproduce some of my ideas out of context, which are reproduced below, her simplistic analysis of #takeitdown steals some of the building blocks of my analysis while simultaneously misrepresenting their conclusions.
Some readers may think that this doesn’t look like a ton. But the fact is that my hour long interview provided the background information and context that this journalist needed to even understand what she was writing about. Some snippets are easy to identify as wholesale paraphrasing of my thoughts during our interview, while others exist in the way that the writer was able to connect ideas about a movement she admittedly understands only partially. In other cases, she quotes a White male scientist who made some of the same claims that I did. How did she make the choice of who to include?
My own analysis contradicts the more marketable representation of #takeitdown as a simple, successful and discrete social movement. My analysis also recognizes #takeitdown as the result of collective, strategic action facilitated by thoughtful activists, rather than a spontaneous emotional upwelling that belies the intentionality of Black social justice movements.
My thoughts about the #takeitdown hashtag are based on a year of literature review in multiple fields, as well as my own daily immersion in conversations about Black life on Twitter. While I am not a prolific Tweeter myself, I directly credit much my intellectual development to the theoretical work of Black women in the Twittersphere, which I read as both a Black woman as a social scientist interested in increasing the efficacy of Black liberatory collective action.
#TakeItDown was an organizational mechanism for a larger movement, a movement of radical Black love shorthanded as Black Lives Matter. It was started by three queer Black women, whose continued influence is completely absent from Fitts’s article. In fact, intersectionality is on the whole missing from Fitts’s article even though it is decidedly NOT missing from the actual Black Lives Matter movement, including the #takeitdown hashtag conversation. Where, for example, is a single reference to Bree Newsome? Where are any references to the nuanced debates about how the symbolism of the Confederate flag compares to that of the American flag in a global context?
When intellectual theft happens, it’s rarely possible to ascertain malice aforethought on the part of the thief. It’s even harder to suss out whether there was a conscious evaluation of the original thinker’s vulnerability due to intersecting identities such as Black womanhood (although she did find space to quote a White male scientist whose ideas mirrored my own). But what such theft does incontrovertibly show is a deep power imbalance. People don’t engage in intellectual theft when they fear the consequences. Either Ms. Fitts wasn’t afraid of the repercussions of stealing Black woman’s work because of the relative social powerlessness of Black women, or she dismissed that work’s value, even while using it as the backbone of an entire article. Regardless, the only people who seem to lose sleep when a Black woman’s ideas are stolen are other Black women, which suggests the exploitation of privilege (a type of power).
I wish this essay were just about the specific journalist who did me wrong in a specific circumstance, and not about a long-occurring, notable trend in how academics and journalists engage with Black women as knowledge producers. But this is just one example of how White privilege (including White female privilege) renders Black women invisible as producers, while capitalizing on what they produce and laying claim to it under the general umbrella of “culture” or “American culture.”
In Yearning, bell hooks reflects on “how often contemporary white scholars writing about black people assume positions of familiarity, as though their work were not coming into being a cultural context of white supremacy, as though it were in no way shaped and informed by that context” (124). I must wonder how much of that familiarity emerges from Black women doing unattributed intellectual work behind the scenes. Fortunately, thanks to those same women, there is a space on the web in which I can lay claim to those ideas as mine and theirs.