That’s a great idea; can I steal it? Knowledge, the academy, and the colonial project of ownership

After I shared an idea for revamping/redesigning how research courses are taught with a co-worker, this exchange ensued:

Co-worker: That’s smart.

Me: Yeah, thanks; I’ve been thinking about it for awhile.

Co-worker: No, that’s really smart.

Me: Yes, I know.

Co-worker: [after a pause] That’s really a great idea. Can I steal it?

Me: Um…

To this person’s credit, he apologized to me after the interaction, asking if, in fact, that was a quintessentially colonizing move. Yes, I confirmed for him, it was. Notwithstanding his apology, I still shook my head for a little while because that’s how microaggressions work – they linger in the minds and bodies of those affronted, and might be forgotten, unrecognized, or at best sought to be cleansed through an apology (Davis, 1989; Pierce, etal, 1973) by the perpetrator.  This interaction echoed some of our social locations. Women of color are “presumed incompetent” in white-dominated spaces, as documented recently and thoroughly in Gutierrez et al’s juggernaut edited volume from 2013. Before he asked if he could steal my idea, this co-worker noted the value of the idea three times, perhaps reconciling in his mind the initial dissonance of an innovative idea coming from a peripheral member of the academy. Perhaps not; I’ll probably never know definitely and don’t need or want to; I am purposefully emphasizing impact over intent. Colonization is a mindset, and ways of thinking are ingrained, fast-acting, and slow to respond to minor moments of dissonance (Richeson & Shelton, 2005).  In light of this, many scholars and activists (e.g., Perry, 2010; Sen, 2013) have called for a focus that moves past intent to understand the dynamics and experiences of oppression and inequity. Intent, although popular in mainstream discourses of culpability and harm, is a remarkably shallow concept for teasing out harm and what drives snap judgments.  From this interaction, I do know, and care more about the fact that this exchange between a white male and a female of color reflects more than interrupts the patterns of who is associated with intelligence and knowledge (white, usually male, of middle to upper class).

As I was shaking my head, I was reminded that his words accurately reflected how knowledge and ideas have become commodified in the academy, in keeping with its place in post-industrial settler colonial societies. Capitalism obviously is about owning things, but nowadays we can also own ideas and knowledge, and even brand ourselves. In academic writing, it often looks something like this: “In this study, the participants displayed what I call “x” kind of behavior.” In those three little monosyllabic words, what I call, the author has branded the naming of whatever phenomenon as his/hers. That way, if others want to use the phrase or reference the idea, they have to/are supposed to cite the original source, the first one who had the idea published next to his name.  While this sounds relatively straightforward, it’s a great deal more complicated when we consider it from the standpoint of consciousness rather than capitalism.

Note that in the previous paragraph I didn’t say the first one who thought of the idea but rather who was able to publish the idea. Having an idea attributed to you involves societal mechanisms of recognition, preferred linguistic codes, and social connections. And yet, as the old saying goes, everything has been done and said. Even a cursory understanding of human cognition, culture, and consciousness tells us that, as Bakhtin (1986) so eloquently published years ago, our ideas, our words, have all been said before. He put it like this:

“Every utterance must be regarded as primarily a response to preceding utterances of the given sphere (we understand the word ‘response’ here in the broadest sense). Each utterance refutes affirms, supplements, and relies upon the others, presupposes them to be known, and somehow takes them into account… Therefore, each kind of utterance is filled with various kinds of responsive reactions to other utterances of the given sphere of speech communication” (p.91)

Image Bakhtin means response not only in the literal sense of what was just uttered before but in a much farther-reaching sense, including people near and far and myriad contexts. Responses involve speakers and listeners. There is an answerability in the roles we have with each other. Furthermore, how we interact is not just about that specific moment and context but echoes across contexts. It’s not dissimilar from Bourdieu’s theory of habitus: how we carry ourselves and act in the world are embodied performances of our dynamic mixtures of capital, status, and shaped experiences. Our social location impacts not just what we say but how we say it, and what meanings are made of our utterances.

For example, think of the last time you received food that was not to your liking, maybe it was flat out the wrong item or just not prepared as you  preferred. How you handled that situation probably reflects something about what you’ve learned about your place Imagein the scheme of  social relations. You might have demanded the correct meal. You might have politely requested, if it’s not too much bother, to be   given what you asked for. You might have even apologized if you had yourself made a mistake when ordering (even if you hadn’t). You might have said nothing and made peace with the hamburger that you got instead of the black bean burger you ordered. Or maybe you just stayed surly about the mixup, said nothing, but left a pittance of a tip. The point is that you have learned certain ways of being in relation to the service industry and those who work in it. And just because you might once have been a waiter doesn’t mean that you would therefore be a big tipper. You might be harsher, depending on your relationship to your former identity as a waiter. It’s complicated. Across the various dynamics of personhood and context, these kinds of interactions tell us about our relationships to power, relatedness, and entitlement (Bourdieu, 1989; Hill Collins, 1989; Smitherman, 1991).

The same thing is going on in our relationships to knowledge and ownership.  Because most readers of this text have been raised in a world where it’s important to compete and win but also to collaborate, we have mixed relationships to knowledge. Having different social locations means that some learn that it is both logical and right to seize a good idea and claim it. Natural in fact. Meanwhile, others, often women, have learned that their roles are to support work, whether it be in the home or in the classroom, but not necessarily be the person on the stage  or in the head office who receives the credit and corresponding pay scale (Grumet, 1988).

Add to this complexity that the owning of ideas is treated differently in different professions and cultural spaces. If we’ve been paying attention to music, the arts, or fashion, we’ve also learned implicitly, if not explicitly, that borrowing and building on others’ ideas is core to the creative process. Within the field of education and the learning sciences, the role of more knowledgeable others and apprenticeship has been theorized and studied as foundational to experimenting with and extending upon established ideas and practices (Lave & Wenger, 1998; Vygotsky, 1962).

Kutz, Rhodes, Sutherland and Zamel (2011) break this down in their piece on plagiarism and writing. As college writing instructors, they have learned to work with instead of against an information age where access to texts and altering them is exponentially easier and wider than ever before. Rhodes in particular compares the ways in which borrowing, copying, and sampling are treated drastically differently by musicians than by universities and urges the reader to consider that by overly protecting ideas as commodities, we are doing a disservice to the idea itself. Rhodes, through examples of songwriters and musicians, pushes us to consider that ideas are much looser and more porous to interaction than solid objects like, say, hammers. But capitalism and colonization have purposefully made little distinction between owning a hammer and owning an idea. When all you have is a hammer, everything you see is a nail. When all we have is capitalism, everything is ownable, inalienable, but not by everyone. And that is where the fundamental difference between innovation and appropriation is found: in treating knowledge as common or as property.

Harris, in her landmark essay, Whiteness as property, documents how property rights include land but also culture and knowledge as tactics for staking claims and subordinating, in her discussion, black Americans to white Americans. In fact, this practice of owning ideas dates back to initial invasions of this land by Europeans and continues through contemporary times. Cultural appropriation are acts by those in the upper strata of society that appropriate, take ownership, of the culture of those in lower social strata, but without having to know or experience any of the negative aspects of being a member of a lower

Imagerelegated culture. Gwen Stefani can sport an Indian bindi or mashup of Japanese female youth culture but she retains her status as a white American pop star. In fact, she profits from the appropriation, syphoning the symbols from their sources for the latest spin on her persona and style.

Contemporary scholar Adrienne Keene ( has expertly documented the ways in which indigenous cultures, in the classic insult to injury move, are appropriated, flattened and commodified by non-native peoples. In a recent mainstream example, Johnny Depp portrayed a savage-like version of Tonto and wore a mashup costume of dead birds, feathers, and chaps, inspired by painter Kirby Sattler, who, by his own words, holds little regard for the ‘the constraints of having to adhere to historical accuracy,’ (Sattler, as quoted by Keene, 2013).  What Sattler dismisses as constraints could easily be experienced by someone in a different social location, perhaps of indigenous  heritage, as integral to personal and collective identity. Sattler’s apparent tone deafness or perhaps apathy to act out of responsibility to anything other than his artistic processes co-ops and profits from Indigenous cultures while removing them from their rightful place of centeredness.

This is where I find myself reckoning with what I know, and love, about the nature of ideas, learning and consciousness and what I know about the ongoing projects of colonization, whiteness as property, and cultural appropriation.  The work of Jodi Byrd, Frantz Fanon, and Vine Deloria has taught me that colonialism is about feeling and acting entitled to spaces, ideas, and people, even though, perhaps especially when, they are not yours. If someone else was there first, the colonial project is not about honoring that relationship but removing it. In settler colonialism, erasure is key to claiming ownership. Cultural appropriation works to erase the source and temporarily profit from the cultural symbol.

As displayed in the opening example, social location is always at play, and core to understanding social locations is that these places of learning mean we have different and particular views of the world. This explains, in part, how experiences of the life in the United States is historically divided between whites who claim colorblindness and people of color whose reality is defined by their racial ascriptions.

Because we live in a stratified racist society where intelligence and capability are automatically associated with some while at-riskness and challenge reserved for others, it matters who is aligned with the idea, the product, the song, and ultimately giftedness and intelligence. Consider an example from outside the academy. In the documentary, 20 feet from stardom (2013), director Morgan Neville showcases the stories and lives of jaw-droppingly talented black female vocalists from the 60s and 70s whose prowess lifted if not powered hits by artists like the Rolling Stones, Elton John, and Bruce Springsteen. However, the analysis and reflection in the film comes not from these singers or even the sizeable resource of contemporary black female scholars of music, gender and culture (e.g., Rosa Clemente, bell hooks, Imani Perry, to name just a few) but white male singers and producers and one male academic. Neville drops the ball on aligning images and sounds of intelligence and knowledge with anything but white male culture (Hutchinson, 2013). The social order, with black women’s ontological history of being property (Harris, 1995) stays mostly intact.

Similarly, universities have long been white property. First by explicit code of who could attend and who could not, then through the knowledge and knowledge sources documented in the academy, and consistently through the social and cultural capital networks of who is in the ivory tower, universities are central locations of white property. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising, then, that in such contexts of colonization, ideas are more about status and ownership than creativity and collaboration. Ideas and knowledge are not, at their core, though, property, yet when treated figuratively and then materially become capital, they maintain the durability of settler-slave relationships.

I don’t have an easy answer to how to reconcile the fundamental nature of knowledge and ideas with the long-standing material realities of capitalism and colonization, but I do know being mindful, humble and respectful of social locations has to be in there somewhere. All things are not equal. Our present moment will more than likely echo and refresh previous colonizing moments if left unchecked. Appropriating and even improving on an idea is possible but it is insufficient and harmful if it does little to rupture the thin slice judgments that reproduce associations of talent, intelligence, ownership with some and backstage, service, and labor for others.

Additionally, I know that we must act with integrity to the idea itself. This will necessitate loosening our grip on viewing ideas as something that we use in the name of career or status. Bakhtin provided some key language terms and phrases as cognitive tools (Kozulin, 1990) to better think about dialogism, including answerability. Answerability means that we have responsibilities as speakers, listeners, and those responsibilities include stewardship of ideas, not ownership. Perhaps instead of citing references as a way of displaying “foundational” content knowledge, we could choose to cite references showing where our ideas have come from, even if they haven’t been published in peer-refereed academic journals. Not all ideas come from journals that cost, on average, several hundred dollars per subscription. Answerability also means that we consider the social context of ideas, and that includes weighing and acting in respect to social locations. Put another way, for academics who work with each others’ ideas and write about equity and social justice, there should be some synchrony across what we are writing about and how we do that writing.

As I weigh these various ideas, and think back to the conversation with my colleague, there are several ways our conversation could have gone if he had been more aware in that moment of his social location as a white male in the academy, the person whom knowledge, authority and expertise is automatically bestowed upon, speaking to a colleague whose presence on campus is seen as ‘diverse,’ not automatic and certainly not rightful. First, he would perhaps not have taken three utterances to recognize what I had shared as smart. And here are some possible other iterations that I see as preferable to asking if he could steal said concept:

“That’s a great idea. How can I help support it?”

Or maybe:

“That’s a great idea. Can I learn more about it from you?”

But I like this version best of all:

“That’s a great idea.” End scene.

Works cited

Bakhtin, M.M. (1986) Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. by Vern W. McGee. Austin, Tx: University of Texas Press.

Davis, P. C. (1989) Law As Microaggression.  The Yale Law Journal, 98 (8), No. pp. 1559-1577.

Grumet, M. (1988). Bitter milk: Women and teaching. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Hutchinson, S. (2013). Walking on the “Wild Side”: 20 feet from stardom and the black female gaze. Racialicious. Accessed 6 August 2013 at

Kozulin, Alex (1990) Vygotsky’s psychology : A biography of ideas. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press.

Kutz, E., Rhodes, W., Sutherland, S., Zamel, V. (2011). Addressing plagiarism in a digital age. Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge, 9(3), 15-36.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge University Press.

Perry, T. (2010). More beautiful and more terrible: The embrace and transcendence of racial inequality in the United States. New York: New York University.

Pierce, C. M, Carew, J, Pierce-Gonzalez, D & Willis, D (1978). “An experiment in racism: TV commercials”. Television and Education. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage. pp. 62–88.

Richeson, J. A., & Shelton, J. N. (2005). Thin slices of racial bias. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 29, 75-86.

Rhodes, W. (2013). If I were a master thief. Imaginary Boundaries. Accessed April 20, 2013 at

Sen, R. The racist mind. accessed August 5, 2013 at

Vygotsky, J. (1962), Thought and Language, ed. & trans. E. Hanfmann & G. Vakar, Cambridge, Mass: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

One thought on “That’s a great idea; can I steal it? Knowledge, the academy, and the colonial project of ownership

  1. Pingback: Please post syllabus here | Decolonizing educational research

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