ETA: I learned that brownfemipower has now made her final entry available here. Note that I use the word “feminist” pretty liberally throughout this entry, and I was reminded as I read bfp’s words (I couldn’t see the entry when I wrote this) of her position of explicitly rejecting feminism. So I now recognize that “feminist” was kind of a clumsy and inaccurate way to characterize bfp’s and others’ philosophy, but I hope what I meant is still clear. I mean, if it ever was to start with. –scg

The Rotund and Sheana recently summarized a very bad situation, in which a prolific and respected woman of color (brownfemipower)’s ideas (as expressed in her writing over the past few years) were intentionally or unintentionally appropriated without acknowledgment by a higher-profile white feminist writer (Amanda Marcotte) in an article for a major web site.

I have hesitated to throw my opinion into the ring in any of the public forums where this scandal has played out, because frankly I really don’t feel I have much of a right to an opinion. Here’s why, by way of a disclaimer.

1. Although I am a feminist and sympathize strongly with feminist and progressive viewpoints, I am not a regular reader of feminist blogs. I have major issues with time management and I seem to spend way too many hours just on the few fat acceptance blogs I do read and comment on, and now on my own blog. I think this says some bad things about me in terms of my work ethic, the extent to which I take up concerns that do not affect me personally, and how committed I am as an activist. I do pretty poorly on all counts. This is something I would like to change, but for now it would seem I’m a pretty apathetic feminist, and furthermore it seems like a poor choice to waltz into communities that I don’t participate in and drop my opinion out of thin air.

2. Not only that, I can’t even think of any books on feminist theory that I have ever read. So my contribution to the discussion would be nothing more than a “gut feeling,” and I’m sure blog owners need that like a hole in the head when even the intelligent, informed commenters seem to be having trouble navigating this situation.

3. Worst of all, I was not even aware of the extent or activity–or hell, let’s be honest, the existence–of feminist WOC blogging communities until maybe 6 months ago. I am a white woman living in a small, Northern, affluent, majority white town, and this is just more evidence that my understanding of the world is incredibly insular and my connections almost entirely to others just like me.

I did read BFP a little–I stayed up almost all night reading back entries and linking to other WOC feminist blogs when I saw a link to her blog a few months back, and I was introduced to numerous new, important, and (for me) radical ideas in so doing–but I kept forgetting to revisit her site and of course now that I can’t anymore, I deeply regret that. That I missed her remaining entries between then and when she took her site down is due to my own laziness and apathy, pure and simple.

4. Furthermore, Tara’s entry at Fatshionista several weeks ago was a reminder that the fat acceptance community in particular needs to examine its own shortcomings if it truly wants to understand why relatively few women of color identify with the FA movement. And if that is the case, and it seems it is, then surely I have the most work to do of any in the FA community. I recognize this, but certainly simple recognition of ignorance does not make me by any means qualified to do anything at this point other than try to listen and learn and improve.

But despite all this ignorance I do have an opinion on the current situation, so I figured my own space would be the best place to air it if I was going to.

First, even if Marcotte was being truly sincere and BFP’s work never entered her mind when she was preparing the AlterNet piece, upon being notified by one or a few or many readers of the piece that she had failed to credit an important writer in this arena for extensive earlier work, it seems to me that the only logical response, even if she did not believe that she had appropriated BFP’s ideas, would be to add a note directing readers to BFP’s site, acknowledging BFP’s work in this area, and encouraging readers to take advantage of this resource if they were interested in learning more (if AlterNet would not allow modification of the article after publication, perhaps a post on Marcotte’s blog to this effect would have been the best option).

Taking this further, perhaps Marcotte saw these concerns but did not agree that BFP was a definitive resource on the topic, which in the abstract I can understand. But since Marcotte herself is not considered an authority in this specific area either, it is hard to believe that she would not have developed an opinion in the course of her lit review about someone whose ideas were considered authoritative, and–upon recognizing that some readers felt she had not disclosed enough information about her sources–she could have alerted readers to the other author’s or authors’ work instead of or in addition to BFP’s if that seemed more appropriate to her. It seems to me that I have seen blog authors do exactly this on many occasions, and I see it as a service to readers as well as responsible credit to sources. Most book authors also seem to bend over backwards to acknowledge those who inspired their interest or blazed a trail for future work. Why wouldn’t you want your readers to learn as much as they could about a subject about which you are conducting advocacy or activism? Isn’t that the whole point?

It also seems to me that the previous point goes double when the author is white and is writing about a topic that is personal to many women of color and especially to immigrants. Again, speaking as an outsider and completely theoretically (so granted, it’s easy to say what I “would have” done if it were me–there is every likelihood I would have fucked up horribly), I can’t imagine any appropriate response upon being notified, “Hey, this woman of color or immigrant author already covered this topic in depth here and here” other than to provide a link to that content if you checked it out in good faith and agreed that the source was indeed important and germane. Or, perhaps it would be better to instead check the source’s reputation among other WOC researchers and authors to determine whether to link to it.

On the surface it seems not only arrogant to assume that you as a white woman could have a full understanding of a topic that is not the main focus of your research or writing and that is not personal to your own life, but also does a disservice to your readers by failing to expose them to the work of certain specialists who have created extensive prior writing on the topic and/or have extensive personal and direct knowledge of the topic. As an example that other commenters touched on, how many of us would accept as authoritative a male author’s one-off article about a feminist issue previously covered in depth by a female expert, especially if he refused to cite the woman’s prior work even in a “for additional reading, please see the work of…” sense?

In the same vein, even if Marcotte had disagreed with all of the above, it seems (and perhaps she did feel this way; it’s impossible for me to know, but she did not acknowledge this argument one way or the other in the Feministe thread (via The Rotund)) that she would have felt a personal or “on-principle” unease upon reading the WOC posts and comments pointing out that their writing on the article topic had largely been done on their own time, without pay, and without a widespread audience, and the publication of Marcotte’s article at least contributed to the appearance that a topic is not really important until a white woman decides to write about it. It seems to me, and again hindsight is 20/20, that crediting or at least mentioning BFP or other WOC authors whose work she saw as significant to the topic might have functioned as almost a tiny act of activism to strike back against a mainstream that gives white voices much more weight than WOC voices.

And despite the fact that BFP shut down her own site of her own volition, apparently to avoid becoming the center of a shitstorm, the end result is that her work is no longer there in the public domain–which I have to believe Marcotte, like so many others, would recognize as a problem. No, nobody forced BFP to take down her site, but in most cases it seems that we would recognize this as the outcome of a complicated chain of events–and we would recognize that race is most likely NOT incidental to that chain of events and its outcome, even if no individual explicitly “meant” to cause BFP any harm.

Finally, on sort of a personal note, it was extremely frustrating to me to see so many commenters pouring out their hearts, logic, pain, and anger on the Feministe thread, many making several separate posts in an earnest attempt to explain to Marcotte the many potential problems with what she had done–and then to see every response by Marcotte intentionally or unintentionally stonewalling, stubbornly focusing on outrage at what she said had initially been accusations of plagiarism by some (followed by so-called “moving of the goalposts” in her opinion to appropriation of ideas) and never any acknowledgment of the many valid points her critics made. I recognize that accusations of actual plagiarism are extremely serious, and I’m not disputing Marcotte’s right to defend herself and her academic integrity against such accusations. (So at least initially, I could see why she felt it necessary to make the debate “all about her” while she firmly and unequivocally established her statement that she had not plagiarized or engaged in academic dishonesty. As she argued, her reputation and career were potentially at stake.)

But honestly, most of the discussion as I saw it focused on larger issues of appropriation and the necessity of working with women of color, and I thought Marcotte’s insistence that she could not eventually move on and engage these larger issues because of the plagiarism accusations rang hollow. Again based on my woefully limited experience, I have often seen white feminists at least pay lip service to concerns about appropriation, failure to create communities that are inclusive of concerns of women of color (or to actively work to advance or at least not impede WOC communities), and failure to educate themselves (and to encourage their “followers” to educate themselves) about feminist issues affecting all women. I would have assumed Marcotte, at least in theory, shared those concerns, so it was jarring to me that she appeared to refuse to consider that these issues might be at play in this situation.

That may be the one good aspect of my ignorance of the dynamics and relationships associated with this situation–I don’t have any “goalposts” to move. It never would have occurred to me to accuse Marcotte of direct plagiarism in this instance, though I recognize that others view her actions that way and I respect their opinions. The things I find myself troubled about–again, as an outsider looking in–are the larger issues I tried to outline above.

I think to some extent this all boils down to whether talk of solidarity with WOC feminist communities among mostly-white feminist communities is mostly just that–talk–or whether we (they? Again, I am an apathetic fuck and I should hardly be speaking in lofty big-picture terms here on topics of which I know so little, but I can’t quite seem to get the words right) as white feminists are at a point where the talk shifts to action. I don’t really know the answer to that, but as a newbie who is struggling to understand concerns and anger that I have probably selfishly glossed over and dismissed in the past, I have found this situation and its aftermath discouraging, saddening, and a little scary.