It Is Just Me, Or Does Activist Writing Need A Citational Practice?

Frances S. Lee
Jun 7, 2019 · 9 min read
Photo of wall of graffiti with text “ALL WE NEED IS MORE LIKES” by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

When I was in academia, my professors and mentors hammered into me the necessity of citing the work of others that have informed my claims of knowledge. Not doing so would mean committing the sin of plagiarism. Citing is standard practice in academia, as giving due credit to people’s intellectual property is supposed to lead to those people getting jobs, tenure, grants, book deals, and other professional opportunities. It’s not that simple and doesn’t always happen that way due to a tangle of institutional inequity; however, not citing was certainly not an option.

Citing others also situates yourself within current conversations you want to contribute to and puts you on the map; it shows that you recognize that big exciting things were already in the works before you came onto the scene, and you exhibit respect by naming others who did the work to get you there.

In my cohort of students, we went further and adhered to a politics of citation in an attempt to rewrite the academy from within. (Read more about this origins of this concept on the Critical Ethnic Studies Journal page and Sara Ahmed’s blog post Making Feminist Points.) If there were white male scholars who were constantly being cited in our textbooks, we committed to reading and citing queers and women of color. My Alaska Native colleague intentionally only cited Indigenous scholars (mostly womxn) in her dance performances and papers. For many of us, citing moved past being an annoying academic requirement to becoming an ongoing work of reflection, intentionality and bringing others who influence us into our creative expressions.

Citing (and not citing) is an exercise of power. While so much is rotten in the marrow of academia, the practice of citation is one that I would love to see more present in popular thinkpieces, popular “unpopular opinions,” books, and other media that build the rich culture of social justice and movement work.

As early career writers and creatives, too many of us are familiar with being disappointed by peers and allies who have appropriated our ideas and labor and benefitted. We deserve to be cited and given credit more often. Sharing our writing and art publicly and online is a huge risk, every time. We willingly put ourselves in a position to be examined, misinterpreted and critiqued, even by people who don’t love or want good things for us. It can be strenuous, burdensome and unrewarding. Yet we keep creating and putting ourselves out there because our work is needed. We deserve to feel good and proud for our mighty contributions to our communities and movements. Likes are nice, but we need a more thorough recognition of the cost and legitimacy of our work.

Together, we can make this happen by adopting and encouraging a practice of citing others whose work we are building upon.

Too often, I will read really great articles about timely social justice topics that are devoid of citations and references, which becomes apparent when I notice other articles and media engaged in the same conversation floating around in the same spaces. To be fair, a large part of this has to do with the lack of access to all those other resources, especially if the author wasn’t trained in XYZ subject or is newer to activism. Happily, when more writers cite, more resources will become widespread.

Not citing your sources contributes to the unfortunate cycle of cultural amnesia that restarts with each generation. This is what Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile have called “the social organization of forgetting, which is based on the annihilation of our social and historical memories”, it is “crucial to the way in which social power works in our society” (from the introduction of the book, Another Politics: Talking Across Today’s Transformative Movements by Chris Dixon). People think they are the first ones to consider an idea, when usually they are unaware of the archive of prior articles, poems, books, entire lives, movements that have all been chipping away at the same big questions and experiments. This has been a humbling experience time and time again when I broach a new (to me) topic, which means I have much to learn. I am thankful to all the readers and peers who have reached out to me to inform me about similar writers and publications, past and present.

Audre Lorde gently reminds us, “There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.” This quote gave me pause when I first encountered it. My knee-jerk response was to feel like I had nothing new or useful to offer anyone, but then I moved into the expansive freedom of this truth. All the social justice concepts we strive towards are ancient- love, compassion, freedom, grace, humility, righteousness- so instead of feeling anxious about needing to be the authority on any of those values (impossible), our only charge is to freshen them up for ourselves and our audiences.

Doing preliminary research matters. For example, if I am a non-profit executive and I just learned about “anti-blackness in the Asian American Pacific Islander (API) community” and I want to write a blog post introducing my readers, I should do some Googling and reach out to local and national API activist/community groups to find the conversation around it first. Not only does it make sense to see what else is out there, but it allows me to cover my bases. Nobody wants to come off as an ignorant fool, like the white male director who, when called out for his outdoor organization’s racially hostile diversity program claimed, “there’s not a lot of road maps [to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work in 2019].” Um, what?

Sometimes, the writer, media maker or communicator who neglects to cite is operating out of inferiority or scarcity, and positioning themselves as the “owner” of a trending idea or concept. Often times, we are pressured to do this from external sources, like friends or clients. Whatever the reason may be, this is not OK. When we fail to give credit to the authors of the ideas we are building upon, we are preventing people from being acknowledged for their gifts, and even robbing them of the ability to get paid. When we do this knowingly and blatantly, it’s unethical.

As a writer, I am very concerned about inadvertently appropriating other people’s ideas, and my goal is to keep improving my citations and who I cite. When I first started to write publicly, I was hesitant to link to the work of others far more brilliant and interesting than me. I thought doing so would make my writing and thoughts appear derivative and unsophisticated. I was wrong. I realized that all ideas and their popular interpretations are meant to be worked over and played with, lest they become dogmatic and lifeless. Including citations only strengthens my writing and celebrates my intellectual mentors and spiritual ancestors by leaving trails to their work.

When I was generating content for this piece, my friend Danni Askini eloquently pointed out that too often, “people who do not write (either because of disability or they are too busy surviving) have their work “translated” to an upper-middle class audience for profit — while never lending or giving credit to the origin of those ideas. The act of citation is vital, especially in social justice work — as much of our theory comes directly from our actions, friendships, and relationships.”

Citing is also a politically charged act. Don’t limit yourself to citing only published works and paid writers with online presences. Cite your friends, acquaintances, family, colleagues, neighbors, elders, mentors and other people who share the depths and the ordinary moments of their lives with you. Like Danni said, cite people who don’t possess the ability, capacity, and/or desire to format their theory and ideas into public writing. It’s an act that any writer can do. Take what is a dry academic practice and mutate it into a looser, more humane version that gives back to the experienced, kind and wise people who sharpened your theory or helped your thinking shift onto more solid ground.

Here’s where I get prickly: Even if you cite someone, yet are presenting their ideas and framings as your own, you are committing plagiarism. Twice, I’ve experienced influential, like-minded people taking my ideas and repackaging them into their own brand. One was a well known social justice blogger who wrote a post that rephrased all four of my essay arguments in their own words, even though they linked to my essay. Their post got a great deal of hits, Likes and compliments. Another time, I was invited to do an interview about a recent essay. When I got on air, the host began by making all the points that I had made in my writing, as if they were offering them to me as new insights. When they stopped to give me a chance to respond to my own regurgitated ideas, I was stunned and had little to add.

To recap, if you are writing or producing a piece of media that has been informed by anything other than your own experience, please consider citing those people, conversations, books, organizations, etc. If you already put this into practice, consider citing more often. (If it’s from a private conversation or post, ask for their consent.) What might it look like to cite?

  • Linking to other people’s online writing, archives, personal websites, social media accounts, upcoming events and retailer book pages.
  • Writing out the names of your influences so that they become familiar to yourself and to your readers. Notice when/if their names and works become common and inducted into social justice lexicon (hooray), and expand your citations to include lesser known, equally awesome changemakers.
  • Including a formal works cited, if you want to reach a more academic audience. I did this in my essay, The Pain of Belonging.

When in doubt, cite, refer, mention, link, @. This is especially pertinent if you’re someone who commands a large network or are operating from a position of power, like an Executive Director, established writer, or “cultural influencer” who self-publishes. In recorded radio shows, when my producers are shortening my writing to be under a certain amount of speaking time, they have asked me to drop the names and long titles of my influences, and I always suggest other content cuts. If you are working with a big media company, push your editors to keep your links and references. As my colleague Sian Wu pointed out, these editors want readers to stay on their site for as long as possible and be exposed to their ads, rather than be directed away with outside links.

When I put up my new website last year, I included a page that lists the people who drive my writing and thinking. It is my attempt to model my personal citation practices. The reason is that everything I write or make is always a collaboration, and it’s my responsibility to convey that as best as I can. Believing that anyone is a self-made writer or creative promotes the dangerous notion that we are all islands of individuals competing for scraps in the attention economy.

By now, it’s clear that there aren’t any universally accepted citation guidelines for popular works and essays. Who first published or used the phrase XYZ? How do I rework an idea into a “new way of feeling” it? When has a concept morphed into something else that it needs a new name? It’s such a gray area and I want to avoid suggesting adding rigidity to online mediums, which were created to be freer of traditional publishing restrictions. Perhaps what is called for is not another set of rules (and another reason to punish each other), but a generous spirit of giving credit to others without whom your work would not exist (or if it did, would not be nearly as good). It’s less about the particulars of how we do it, and more about why we do it. If you feel inspired, here are some recent online posts that I think are good examples of including citations:

  • cozibae’s post on Instagram: I HAD TO UNLEARN MY OWN ABLEISM — Mentioning the IG handles of three other people who helped start the conversation for the post to be written.
  • Mia Mingus’s post on her blog, Leaving Evidence: Transformative Justice: A Brief Description — Starting the post with a long paragraph acknowledging the people who helped shape the post and groups who “have greatly influenced [her] understanding of TJ.”
  • Interview with Frances Weller: The Geography of Sorrow — The interviewer noted in the introduction that “[Weller] often quoted philosophers, poets, and sages, saying he’d committed many verses to memory because they helped him in his work.”

Adopting citation practices might not seem like a big deal, but it can be a crucial piece in the project of shifting power to be more equally distributed among all of us. Thank you for reading, and happy citing!

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Frances S. Lee

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Writer, Cultural Activist, Designer.

The Startup

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Frances S. Lee

Written by

Writer, Cultural Activist, Designer.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +725K followers.

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