If it’s “stealing”, you’d better prove it: on Amanda Marcotte, BFP, and RH Reality Check

The part of me that likes to avoid conflict wants to stay quiet. That part of me is not on display this morning.

Certain radical women of color bloggers (RWOC) are accusing Amanda Marcotte of “stealing” her ideas for this RH Reality Check piece: Can a Person Be Illegal, from this speech by Brownfemipower at WAM. The speech was given March 29 in Cambridge; the Reality Check article was published on Wednesday, April 2 (and republished by Alternet five days later). Here is Brownfemipower’s post, and Sudy’s,and Sylvia’s, and Rebecca’s.

Amanda has explained, in comments on various blogs, that she had already outlined the Reality Check article in an editorial meeting well before she, Brownfemipower, and all the rest of us were gathered for WAM. Brownfemipower has not acknowledged that claim, and has chosen not to name Amanda, changing her name to an “X” in her comments section.

Radical women of color have rightly suggested that “mainstream”, predominantly white feminist bloggers need to do more to cover broader issues of social concern. Amanda, who has been writing about a wide spectrum of justice issues for years, chose to tackle the immigration/language issue in her Alternet piece because, as she says, immigration is a vital contemporary issue, much in the “zeitgeist.” And inevitably, when people who share the same progressive concerns start focusing on an issue, the chance that they will independently come to similar conclusions is pretty high.

Perhaps the Reality Check article ought to have had more links within it; I don’t know what Alternet’s particular policy is to citations. But the accusation of “stealing” — a charge now being repeated on multiple blogs today in regards to Amanda — is very serious indeed. It’s also a charge that requires far more proof than has been offered, and if that proof cannot be found, it’s a charge that ought to be withdrawn. It’s one thing to be frustrated, as many women of color bloggers are, that radical ideas are not getting published. It’s another thing altogether to accuse a fellow feminist of theft when she does take on, in eloquent and thoughtful terms, the very issue you’ve been demanding that mainstream white feminists address.

Certain words are matters of perspective and opinion. You can call me elitist and pompous; you can call me a clueless, self-serving asshole; you can call me a self-loathing fuckwit. (I’ve had all of these thrown my way in the past year.) It’s not a crime to be pompous; I can’t be sued for being a fuckwit. But to accuse someone who makes their living with words of stealing is a very, very serious charge — one that is normally subject to civil litigation or severe academic discipline. To make that charge without compelling evidence is to damage a writer’s reputation in perhaps the most serious way possible. No amount of frustration or anger justifies it.

There are larger issues here that may be driving some of the anger towards Amanda. Her new book (which I reviewed here) has just been published by Seal Press. Representatives of Seal Press got into a nasty exchange with some women of color bloggers at WAM. The community of “radical women of color bloggers” has suggested that Seal needs to do more to publish serious works by non-white feminists; Amanda’s article in RH, repeated on Alternet, coming so soon after both the publication of her book and the conflict with Seal, is understandably exasperating. Why some folks get book deals and others don’t, why some folks get articles published and others don’t — these are issues worth discussing.

Here’s what’s not okay: assuming that if Amanda Marcotte writes an intelligent and interesting piece about immigration right at the same time that Brownfemipower makes similar points at a conference, then somehow the former has “stolen” from the latter. The struggle for justice for undocumented migrants is an important one. Those who come late to the issue ought indeed inform themselves by listening to those who have been publicizing the struggle for a long time, but that doesn’t mean that the right to publish on the subject is limited to those who were writing about it first.

The charge of theft against Amanda has spread fairly widely, despite her clear statement that she had designed the article well in advance of the WAM conference. BFP’s powerful speech, read side-by-side with Amanda’s article, in no way constitutes a “smoking gun”, proving that Marcotte’s piece was plagiarized. Amanda seems caught between a rock and a hard place: if she doesn’t write about issues like immigration, she’s ignoring an issue of vital concern to women of color. When she does produce an intelligent, provocative piece on the subject, she’s accused of having stolen the idea.

There are some charges for which there are no proofs or disproofs: “clueless”, “racist”, “elitist.” But theft can be proven, and if you’re going to use the language of theft, you need a hell of a lot more evidence than you have so far produced.

UPDATE: The links to Brownfemipower are defunct, at least from my blog. If you don’t go through me but through one of the other links listed above, you can apparently still access the post. I don’t want to link where I’ve been explicitly asked not to do so any longer (Chris Clarke’s Faultline), but since this post is already up for discussion and receiving many hits, I did want to explain the difficulty folks might have in obtaining access.