When Plagiarism Does the Work of White Supremacy

Every woman knows the feeling of sitting in a meeting room, or restaurant kitchen, or email chain and having their ideas repeated by a man. Many of us in media know the feeling of doing the work and having a man’s name tacked on to the byline, sometimes replacing our own.

The stealing of ideas is one of the more regular ways patriarchy can ruin a woman’s day. Like mansplaining and manterrupting, plagiarism is one of the ways men, sometimes unwittingly, keep their grip. In the creative economy ideas are currency, and men are determined to control the capital.

White supremacy works in similarly sinister ways. Whiteness controls its position as the power-holding default by asserting itself just below the radar. And white people, like men, use plagiarism as one of their tools.

There is a long history of the ideas and creative labor of people of color being usurped by white colleagues. It’s found in the minstrel shows, and the vaudeville acts that used black culture as fodder. It’s in the contributor lists of every magazine, and the credits of every “woke” white journalist. It’s in the cables we use and air we breathe.

And in the world of the hot take, idea theft is harder to define and harder to spot. All of us writers are racing to the pitch. We fight and scrape and go without sleep so that ours can be the one that travels furthest and forces readers to think hardest.

As Amanda Ann Klein and Christian Exoo wrote in 2015:

“ Idea theft is a troubling trend in journalism, one in which writers who find themselves in constant need of content and ideas begin to look for shortcuts, inspiration and, yes, appropriation, in the near-constant stream of content, the ambient world of prose, that is the internet.”

When something fuels the internet outrage machine, online editors must sift through dozens of pitches on the same issue, only to publish one. Often they will publish the piece from the biggest name. Because this is likely to be the white writer the marginalization of writers of color continues in the name of business.

Often, writers tie at the finish line. Other times though, a piece by a white writer will be published in the days to follow. These will often be phrased as more considered pieces. More thoroughly researched and sourced. In other words, the writer reads every one else’s articles and blogs and use these as their basis. The luke-warm take becomes the think piece.

This happened recently with two writers I know. I will call them Zaima and Christine. Here’s a timeline:

  • Something horrifyingly racist happens.
  • Zaima spends two days writing a thoughtful, impassioned piece drawing on her own experience as an Arab woman and her many years of scholarship on racism and white supremacy.
  • The piece is published by a national online women’s title.
  • Three days later a shockingly similar piece is published by the same title by Christine. It mentions Zaima but fails to attribute her ideas or quotes.
  • Zaima asks the publication to take Christine’s down. The publication refuses.
  • Zaima feels defeated because again her industry has let her down.

The saddest part was that, from the outset, the largely white community of feminist writers seemed to form a protective circle around Christine and leave Zaima out in the cold. Christine’s side of the story — that she was rushed and overlooked the need to properly attribute her work to Zaima — was heard at the expense of Zaima’s own experience.

Klein and Exoo wrote, “ the only way for women of color to protect their online content from idea theft is to band together and support one another.” While this is true, it’s also really fucking sad. People of color should not have to do this work alone. It is up to white writers and artists to protect the ideas of people of color. And when we see plagiarism or the theft of ideas, we need to speak the hell up.

In the same way that feminists encourage others to trust women when they share their experiences, woke white people need to believe people of color when they say they are the victims of erasure.

The piece by Klein and Exoo does a great job of breaking down the legal issues surrounding plagiarism and idea theft.

For lists of non-white voices available to editors, see Writers of Color (US/North America) and Media Diversified (UK, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland).

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