cultural appropriation, property rhetoric, acknowledgment

The feminist blogosphere has been erupting lately, showing our strengths and our weaknesses and faultlines. One of those faultlines is race, and the discussions over Amanda Marcotte (of Pandagon)’s work, BrownFemiPower’s work, and cultural appropriation have brought this out.

I’ve stayed quiet thus far on the issue, mostly because I have too many thoughts, and not enough time to do the full book-length essay I want to do and have been futzing about with for several years now.

But, since I am a feminist blogger [in addition to being an information activist blogger], and this issue is on the nose for my interests, I wanted to post something. I’ve been tinkering with a draft for a week or more, but finally scrapped it and wrote this one. And since this post is all about credit where credit is due, I’m going to single out two posts that influenced me and this post:
* Twisty’s recent post on the issue (Schooled, 4/23) helped me think through the need to speak sooner rather than later when I have the perfect statement;
* The Angry Black Woman’s post that she’s not going anywhere –in the missing voices of those who *have* gone away. (ABW Not going anywhere, 4/26). See also ABW On Feminism Part 2, 4/28.)

As Feministe (4/26) said: The question stopped being about plagiarism a long time ago, but that’s what I find myself still responding to; that’s what Amanda continued to respond to. (Well, long ago in blogospheric terms!) I understood this passage to mean that the plagiarism stuff was just the tip of the iceberg that has been revealed and now we’re talking about the whole iceberg, that is, racism and cluelessness in (white) feminism. As to what has replaced the plagiarism/appropriation, I’ve included links at the bottom about one of the issues — the imagery associated with the Marcotte/Seal Press book. But since this blog and my passion is about information and autonomy, it’s the plagiarism / cultural appropriation that I want to deal with (even though it’s “long ago”, as in, days and weeks old).

note: This post is long and rambly and goes a lot of places before it gets to its destination. Be forewarned. (This post was edited & tweaked & updated & corrected for a day or two after initial publication, as is my wont.)

Briefest of backgrounds
Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon published an article at Alternet about immigration. BrownFemiPower noted that she did not link back or credit any of the work of people of color on this issue, and tied that to the larger questions of cultural appropriation. The blogosphere picked up on this; it was occurring about the same time as the Seal Press uproar. Seal Press is a women’s press run by two white feminists and they made some boneheaded comments / assumptions that exhibited all the hallmarks of that immediately recognizable liberal white anxiety/defensiveness/guilt when confronted about issues of racism. IMO these two issues amplified each other and led to massive feminist/WOC blogospheric uproar & outrage.

Lots of people were posting and throwing around words like plagiarism and appropriation. And too, lots of backlash about women’s presses and marginalized voices. All of this stuff is stuff I’ve been thinking about for almost 15 years now, so I wanted to write something that addressed my qualms about the language and models of property, while acknowledging the real concerns that are being voiced using that language. And it took me a while to get this out there.

My baggage
So a statement about my identities, beliefs, and baggage.

I’m a feminist and I’m white, and so, along with many other identities and issues, I have white privilege and am certainly prone to the impulses and problems that women of color have identified with white feminists. I am anti-racist by inclination and analysis, which means that I am actively trying to work through my own white privilege, racism, and how to be an ally. That is a work in progress. I like what WOC PhD said: My feminism is global, decolonized, and supports ALL women.

Information activism, property, and social justice
But I’m also an information activist and critic, and I have real problems with the language of “cultural appropriation”. My blog is called derivative work for a reason!

I think “appropriation” is the wrong word to capture the problems and injustices of asymmetric access to and inequitable exploitation of information. “Appropriation” is very much about property: it connotes theft, one person taking someone else’s property. Property implies a right to exclude; a practical ability to exclude; a right to control disposition. Increasingly it implies capitalism and so-called “free trade”.

I hate this language, and I fight against its use and misuse to control information and communication. I believe the term “property”, and all its baggage, is not just not a good match for the creation and transmission of information, knowledge, and culture. Information moves, grows, references, builds, morphs. Knowledge is as amorphous and permeable as our shared reality suggests. Like electricity knowledge is a current that in some real sense exists only insofar as it is moving, as it is shared across a differential. Culture is promiscuous. Ideas have a tendency to slip in when you’re not paying attention and then make themselves so at home it feels like they’ve always been there.

Such are my philosophical and critical problems with the terminology of “appropriation”.

Even more, I have a practical concern: These concepts impede our ability to analyze the very situations given those names. “Appropriation” and its concomitant, “property”, offer the sort of totalizing metaphor that is positively inimical to a clear and accurate understanding and assessment of any given instance of “cultural appropriation”. For instance, we might use the term “cultural appropriation” to describe a very wide variety of “things” (cultural artifacts or bits of knowledge or analyses or cultural practices), and a very wide variety of exploitive relationships (colonizer, agent, dealer, buyer, slaver, plagiarist, fictional depicter).

But all of the critical distinctions in these situations are elided by using the single term “cultural appropriation”. More, they get subsumed by a rhetoric that carries with it a presupposition of a particular type of capitalist property exchange: Wrongful appropriation is contrasted with the implied rightful appropriation which includes payment to and authorization by the rightful original owner.

This is despite the fact that many cultural artifacts and types of knowledge were not conceived of as Western-style chattel property, until they were “appropriated”, and that wrong was identified with that term. Or they may have been thought of as “property”, but with a different set of norms and expectations for sharing or using that property. There is not, actually, a monolithic concept of Property: the purposes, restrictions, and meanings of property vary according to time, acquisition, owner, use, interests of non-owners, and so on.

If we want to understand what has happened in a particular situation, and how and when people are being economically disadvantaged or exploited, or how and when their ideas and ideals are silenced, perverted, transmuted, decontextualized, discredited, uncredited, or recredited — in short, if we want to examine the social justice of information economics — then we have to closely examine not just the “thing” that was “appropriated”, and not just the act of appropriation, but the background use of the appropriated thing in the absence of appropriation.

In short, I really wish “appropriation” and “cultural appropriation” weren’t the language we use to discuss these issues. The property metaphor is itself a type of colonizing rhetoric. Words are important, and context is important, as we see again and again.

Missing the forest for the trees
But. One can get hung up on rhetoric and miss the real issues. That is where we in the information-freedom and free-speech and civil-liberties communities so frequently fail to connect with allies in economic / social justice, anti-racist, and feminist movements. (That, and the very real issues of privilege and bias that come from a movement dominated by white people – professional class people – American people – men.)

So, white libertarian geek SF computer guys & girls who get Creative Commons and copyleft and all the rest of it, this is a check for you and for me on our racism and our white privilege.

Forget nitpicking about “appropriation” and “property” and reification of heroic authorship and ownership of ideas and information wants to be free. It’s all true, but right now, in the Pandagon v. BrownFemiPower discussion, those are distractions from the real issues. The real issues are:

(1) Where the context includes power differentials, then it is incumbent on the parties to recognize and address those power differentials. To do otherwise is to acquiesce in those power differentials.

(2) To work effectively as allies, we must seek out and promote the perspectives and work of others. If we are in a position of privilege, no matter how we got it, earned or not, if we have it, and are using it, then we can and should use it to bring in the perspectives and voices of those who are not in that position of privilege.

(3) Where others’ work has come before, or even contemporaneously, we have a duty to our audience, to our colleagues and peers, and the discourse itself to identify that work as best as possible.

When you’ve gotten lost in the woods

Acknowledging others and giving appropriate credit is sometimes hard to do. I know it’s hard, because that’s my field. It’s hard not just because it’s hard to keep track of our open browser tabs, but it’s hard because culture is promiscuous, our minds are permeable, knowledge is constantly being created and recreated, information is always on the move, and it’s not always clear when or how or what should be credited.

It is not shameful to fuck up. [Accidental fucking up, as opposed to intentional fucking someone over. I am assuming good faith and accidental fucking up, on issues of credit and cultural “appropriation”. I’m making those assumptions in part because of my legal training and in part because I want to assume good faith, and I think there is some reason and past precedent to.]

We all fuck up. I open up a lot of tabs in my browser and then read them and then forget the links that I followed to get there, so then I can’t properly document the breadcrumb trail. And yet I’ve read the words from one of the missing links, and maybe a phrase sticks in my mind. This is how people work, and there is no shame in it. Our minds and perspectives are wholly derivative works.

It’s actually a lot of work to figure out credit and do it correctly. We do it out of a duty to ourselves and the work we’re trying to do. But ally work demands it.

Shoe, meet the other foot

It is painful to feel yourself unacknowledged. How many women have had the experience of sitting in a meeting and making an observation, and then a guy in the same meeting makes the same point a bit later and suddenly there is much nodding and murmurs of appreciative acknowledgment? Maybe a few times we look at that situation and say, well, I wasn’t very articulate when I said it or that bus drove by and maybe people didn’t hear me or sometimes people just need to hear something twice for it to sink in. But after a while it starts to become apparent that there is a systemic bias at work.

So what should a guy do, when he is benefiting from sexism? When he knows or suspects or becomes aware that he got a plum speaking engagement or assignment that she should have gotten? Maybe he’s legitimately coming up with ideas himself, and he thinks he deserves the credit. Maybe he’s legitimately good too and he thinks why not him. Maybe he thinks it’s most important just to get the message out there.

But if he thinks that way then he is complicit in sexism, and he is using his privilege. Even if he didn’t initiate it, even if he didn’t do anything “wrong” — he is benefiting from his privilege. So long as he accepts the plum assignments, the jobs, and what-not, he is benefiting from privilege. And even if he doesn’t accept them, he’s still had the opportunity to do so — so either way he benefits from privilege. Because it’s inescapable, and it’s not something we give ourselves — it’s something that institutional bias gives us.

The only thing he can do in this situation is take responsibility for what comes out of his privilege. That might mean renouncing some of the benefits of privilege, or going the extra mile to not fuck up, or taking extra heat when it’s merited, or taking extra heat when it’s not merited. There’s no perfect solution because it’s a fucked up situation, but he has to do something, and just as he gets to live with the perks of privilege, he gets to take on the downsides of it too. Hard decisions to reject material benefit, hard conversations that say, “yeah but so-and-so would be better,” hard conversations that involve hearing other people’s justifiable anger even when it feels, in that instant, unjustifiable.

What to do?

What to do? In terms of the cultural appropriation at issue in the Amanda Marcotte / BrownFemiPower dispute, it’s easy. Be generous with acknowledgments, attributions, and credit. You can never go wrong by acknowledging, attributing, and crediting other people whether they are your influences, your opposition, or your colleagues doing parallel work.

Yes, as I said before, it’s hard to figure out accurately and precisely what and how to acknowledge, to precisely judge influence and history, and appropriately give appropriate levels of credit where credit is due — all that is hard, and keeping track of your reading history can be hard — but the solution is easy. If you know about it, acknowledge it anyway. You don’t have to be accurate and precise when you’re acknowledging other people working in the area — simple and clean suffices at a first pass: My work in this area was influenced by the work of X, Y, and Z.

You can acknowledge people’s influence on your prose, or their knack with a turn of phrase that completely captured some concept for you, or that you are summarizing or exporting someone else’s work for a different audience, or that someone else had an insight that completely revolutionized your thinking, or that this or that section was written after reading X, or that you did X and here are the leading thinks who have also done X, or so on. If the influences are too many do it summary style at the top or the bottom.

Even if you think someone else’s work in the same area didn’t influence your own work — acknowledge it anyway, because if you knew about it, it probably did influence your work. (Remember how those sneaky ideas slip in and take up residence in your brain.)

To sum up:
What does this mean for Amanda Marcotte?

  • IMO, it means she shouldn’t feel embarrassed to note, even after the fact, that she got ideas or information or knowledge from BrownFemiPower; or, that BFP and others were laying out this issue for a longer time, more in-depth, etc. I seriously want to take the shame and stigma out of “borrowing”, and put the shame and stigma where it belongs: On using privilege. If some promiscuous idea has snuck into our brains, we should tag it and identify it and give its provenance as much as possible and reasonable, and when we forget or get it wrong or misjudge what is appropriate — then we fix it. … We all borrow and derive our ideas from other people in one way or another. Amanda contests actual direct copying or deriving from BFP, and I have no reason to doubt her truthfulness on that. Acknowledging others — even after the fact — is not shameful, and does not constitute an admission of plagiarism or anything like that.
  • Do more to acknowledge & cite in the future. Citing is not just good for you — it’s delicious. It’s fun. Amanda should get to feel happy and pleased to be able to point people to BrownFemiPower’s analyses and work (if only it were still available). This is important work for the movement and as allies: Bringing the work of other voices, and more expert voices, to the attention of one’s audience. It’s like introducing a friend to other people who you know will appreciate her and get her: it’s a privilege (!) to be able to do it. It’s satisfying. (And it’s a lot easier for the message to be heard when you’re not the only one saying it.) … Even if Amanda feels she has done a bang-up job about this in the past, she probably needs to promise, and try, to work harder to acknowledge others in the future.
  • Amanda doesn’t need, I don’t think, to feel too embarrassed about not stepping up on this earlier. People get busy, and that makes it easy to avoid things that are tough. It’s tough to acknowledge something in the face of criticism, and being told one is inconsistent about one’s deepest values is hard and painful and one wants to deny it. And I, as a conflict-avoidant person, am well aware that it is sometimes — oftentimes — really difficult to face up to the fact that people are pissed off and they might stay pissed off and maybe you’ve lost some friends. But it’s not embarrassing to stand up. The thing that’s embarrassing is not standing up and sucking it up and saying “oops”, and when you stand up and suck it up and say “oops” — then the embarrassing part is over, and the learning and reconciliation and making amends parts can begin.
  • Amanda may have legitimate issues or disputes with her critics’ rhetoric, with their analyses, or with their understanding or knowledge of the facts. But the important thing right now is to acknowledge not her own legitimate issues, but her critics’ legitimate issues. Working out the details and defining terminology and getting facts straight and clarifying blah blah blah — none of that can happen until she recognizes the other side’s valid concerns, and takes responsibility and owns it. To do otherwise is the essence of Privilege: the privilege to ignore one’s own privilege.
  • She does need to address this squarely, as non-defensively and openly and honestly and generously as possible. To not do so is embarrassing for her and harmful for the movement. The movement that we are all a part of — the movement towards making this earth safe and just and equitable and free — that movement needs broad coalitions of feminists and womanists and anti-sexists and anti-racists working together, and if something is happening that is hurting that movement, and you have a chance to do something about it — you have to do that. If someone is telling you that you fucked up, you have to listen to them, and if they’re so upset about it that it becomes apparent the whole thing is hurting your mutual movement — then you can’t let it go, you must acknowledge, you must deal, you must suck it up and do the hard thing and confront the problem and your own responsibility. This is not the time to nitpick and say “yes, sorry for x, but–“. So, one has to be big, own up to one’s own actions that caused the situation, and listen. Then one can try to figure out and engage publicly in figuring out solutions for what went wrong, and this is where one can do the finer analyses about what did or did not happen and therefore what does or does not need to get fixed.
  • If she did plagiarize or use her privilege deliberately, or do anything else that is, well, obviously, willfully wrong — then she needs to own up to that and make it right. I cannot and will not assess that from the facts available. I do note that she has denied wrongdoing (on the feministe thread linked below), and given a plausible explanation for her source of material. That doesn’t solve the larger problem of being in a position of privilege, and therefore being responsible for what happens from that position.


I’ve read a lot of posts on this issue, and a lot of other stuff on cultural appropriation more generally, and this post is definitely a mash-up of all that. But with my own spin. I think.


original dispute(s) over Pandagon/BrownFemiPower:
* Twisty’s recent post on the issue (Schooled, 4/23) helped me think through the need to speak sooner rather than later when I have the perfect statement;
* The Angry Black Woman’s post that she’s not going anywhere –in the missing voices of those who *have* gone away. (ABW Not going anywhere, 4/26).
* ABW On Feminism Part 2, 4/28.)
* don’t hate appropriate @ problem chylde 4/8
* from blackamazon @ problem chylde 4/26
* this has not been a good week for women of color blogging, post at Feministe that talked about this and the Seal Press issue, and ended up pissing a lot of people off. Lots of links here though, and an overview of the situation, and a lot of good conversation in the comments.
* comment by Mnemosyne 4/12 @ 223am:

Honestly, I can see why BfP felt she needed to shut down her blog to try and pull the plug on the controversy, and I don’t think it was only because of one side. Her original point — that she felt that the article at Alternet was yet another example of a white person being able to present ideas gathered from people of color and be listened to — got subsumed in the timeline of the fucking WAM conference and who was on the grassy knoll. Once people decided that BfP was talking about a literal appropriation and started looking for the kerning, well, we were off to the races. Which really sucks, because BfP had a really good point that Holly is trying to bring us all back to.

* Mandolin 4/12 @ 225am:

If, systemically, a white woman can say ideas that a black woman can also say and get more attention for it, then it becomes problematic when she repeats those ideas. Because, all of a sudden, people are paying attention. If she doesn’t attribute those ideas to their sources, then the words of the people who originated them disappear. The black women’s words are subsumed and become assumed to be those of the white woman — they are appropriated by her, intentionally or unintentionally.

* Business as usual, debunking white
* pretty fizzy paradise
* regarding-appropriation-brownfemipower-and-amanda-marcotte/ “regarding appropriation, brownfemipower, and Amanda Marcotte” and dear-seal-press/ “dear seal press” as long as we’re at it
* Feminism, plagiarism, and women of colour
* Dear white feminists, quit goddamn fucking up (the blog);
* amanda marcote @ kgb bar in manhattan
* physioprof 4/13, and update, 4/27 – link via twisty. physioprof says:

[E]ven though we were totally unaware of this earlier work, and weren’t even indirectly influenced by it in the way that Holly described since we literally just unintentionally stumbled into the area, we still had a clear unambiguous obligation to acknowledge that earlier work and its relationship to our own. Ignorance, absence or influence, and good intentions are simply not an excuse.

Physioprof then quotes Janet Stemwedel of Adventures in Ethics & Science on a different but relevant matter:

The resistance to acknowledging another scientist’s work or contribution to the field once you’re aware of it is not tantamount to scientific misconduct, but it shows a lack of grace and a short-sightedness about what might contribute to a healthy scientific community.

I pause to note an off-blog conversation I had that distinguished the various citation norms in academia, news, and blogging.
* appropriation-made-of-suck/ “Appropriation: Made of Suck” by Mandolin, 4/11, @ Alas A Blog

* BFPfinal: some context.

racist imagery links
Links about discussion of the racist imagery in the book (and the title: the imagery flowed from the title, and the title partakes in the same problems of relying on the racism in old images without engaging it):
* comment by Radfem on feministe
* WOC ‘Engage best through negative discourse’: Seal Press (quoting from the original blackamazon post that led to the Seal Press blow-up that had nothing to do with the Amanda Marcotte book)
* Excellent post by karnythia on the ABW blog Seal Press, Amanda Marcotte… Proof that feminism and racism go hand in hand (4/25) about racist imagery in Amanda’s new book.
* see update @ dear white feminists
* i guess it’s a jungle in here too huh @ feministe 4/25
* book cover @ pandagon back in 2007/8/20 in response to the original cover being replaced with the current cover
* on those pictures and on privilege (4/26)
* why seal press is off the syllabus part 2 @ WOC PhD
* seal press 4/25 apology
* the blind spot, 4/25, pam spaulding @ pandagon
* i’m sorry – amanda marcotte, 4/25, @ pandagon

original Seal Press dialog links
on the original seal press eruption, which was in my original version of this post – basically black amazon made an off-the-cuff comment “fuck seal press” without context; seal press staff chose to take it as some kind of serious critique and then in the comments section demonstrated a certain cluelessness & insensitivity to racism; the blogosphere took umbrage:
*WOC PhD covered it
*naamen pointed me there
*broadsheet also covered it
That’s way too few links to give remotely an accurate picture of this dispute but I can only cover so many major blog eruptions at a time! These will get interested readers started.

and other good stuff stirred up by all of these issues:
* why i will not disavow the “feminist” label @ diary of an anxious black woman
* one of those “something’s gotta give” moments hugo schwyzer 4/25
* how to fuck up, portly dyke, @ shakespeare’s sister, originally posted @ portly true stories nov 2007 – after writing my post i saw this post that was a bit more succinct about what to do:

When you “Fuck Up” (whether the fuck-up is minor or major) practice the “Four A’s”.

1. Acknowledgment
2. Apology
3. Amends
4. Action

including my favorite part:

#4) Action — This may be the most important of the 4 A’s. If you know that you did something that was fucked up, and you’ve expressed that you’re genuinely sorry that you did this fucked up thing, then really, the only concrete evidence of this will be that you will change what you do in the future. For me, if I don’t take this step (action), the other three are just so much manipulation.

* q-when-is-criticism-like-wilding-a-never-never-never/ “when is criticism like wilding? never never never” @ alas a blog 4/26 (I loved this)
* Some links to law review articles on ‘appropriation’ gathered by Ann Bartow @ Feminist Law Professors, 4/25 (many of these articles are brilliant and actually readable, and there are a couple that i haven’t even read but judging by the company they’re probably also great)
*also: How Not To Be Insane When Accused Of Racism (A Guide For White People), amptoons @ alas a blog, 12/2/2005 – one of my favorite posts