Scenario: We walk into the monthly faculty meeting expecting announcements, Dean reports, and lively discussion about academic policies. In our attempts to articulate potential consequences of a proposed course schedule change, I shared my concerns that the change would disproportionately harm our low-income students as well as those with full-time jobs, family responsibilities, drive commutes of up to an hour each way to attend class, and several other marginalized groups. No one responded to my comment. Three comments later, a white male faculty member voiced his observation that the change would introduce obstacles for working students and those with children. His plea that we should attend to the needs of these students is met with widespread agreement and follow-up commentary from the broader group.
What just happened? Could you sum up my experience in one word? Until recently, we did not have a succinct way of naming this very common phenomenon. But now we do. What happened to me in that meeting is known as the “he-peat.” The standard he-peat occurs when a man repeats a woman’s idea without citing her as the original source and no one in the room acknowledges her as the idea generator. Not only is the woman and her intellectual contribution rendered invisible, the man’s he-peat is rewarded with positive reinforcement and accolades for the supposed insight. This behavior may also come from an unexpected source: women “she-peat” women. Often, this takes the form of white women she-peating women of color. The she-peat persists because we are all soaking in a tub of the same culture that renders women’s contributions invisible. Women are not immune to implicit and unconscious bias against women.
These seemingly small slights are more accurately recognized as microaggressions that cause psychological harm and emotional stress. When your colleagues act as if you never spoke, ignore your contributions, then praise another for the same ideas, there is a swift impact and clear message. Clearly, the comment does not carry weight until a privileged person provides the perceived legitimacy. In other words, power renders the comment worthy. The he-peat erases you from existence through social isolation and withholding of proper credit. When this occurs, we are telling the target(s) they are invisible, dispensable, devalued, illegitimate, and lacking professional credibility. It is no wonder so many of us struggle with imposter syndrome.
New Terms for Ally Action
Given the topic of this blog focuses on taking credit for the ideas of others, I want to model ally behavior and name the original creative minds behind our new terms. In 2017, Nicole Gugliucci tweeted (@noisyastronomer) that her friends coined the term “he-peat” in response to these all too common experiences. Within that same thread, a tweeter named Spice (@masterq_) added the term “re-white” as a common parallel experience faced by people of color whose ideas are overlooked, then repeated by White colleagues. Speaking to intersections, I suppose we need a term for use by women of color referring to the multiplicative effects of re-whites and he-peats.
By naming the behavior, we label the harm done AND can plan for ally action. New terms help us become more aware of invisible phenomena and create a shared understanding that can be built into a cultural shift (if enough people use the new terms). Back in the 1970s and 1980s, women experiencing sexual comments and persistent degradation at work did not have access to the term “sexual harassment.” After the term took hold, women could literally name their experiences and identify the behavior of male supervisors and colleagues as illegal (note that harassment can be same-sex and women harassing men). We need allies across and within marginalized groups to help spread the use and understanding of the terms: re-white, he-peat, she-peat.
Action by Privileged (aspiring) Allies
First, stop being a person that subconsciously repeats another’s idea as if it is your own. You must work at truly SEEING all of the people in the room as full and whole credible contributors to the discussion. As Peggy McIntosh notes, we face the challenge of not seeing what we were taught not to see. So your role is to look for these harmful instances of s/he-peat and re-white theft. This is the plagiarism of conversation, but somehow socially acceptable in academia where failure to properly cite your source is comparable to outright theft. STOP doing it. If you do and then you realize someone else had said it first, go back and publicly give them credit.
What we need from the privileged is for you/us to use your cultural capital, social capital, institutionalized privilege, and assumed credibility to call attention to s/he-peat and re-white situations. Ally actions do not have to be disruptive or challenging, but can have an impact on awareness and raising positive visibility and inclusion. Speak up. Add to the conversation and call back to the original speaker. Sometimes I will contribute for the sole purpose of reminding people who initially came up with this great idea. For example, “I agree with Matt’s last comment. It sounds like he is in agreement with Sharon’s original idea about incorporating student voices into policy decisions. And I want to thank Sharon for bringing this up so that we could have this productive conversation.” The women staffers in the Obama White House called this ally behavior “amplification.” The more we engage in amplification, the more we can credit the work of marginalized colleagues, increasing their visibility as crucial contributors, and hopefully deepening their own sense of belonging.