I usually feel a wave of panic come over me when most people tell me that I "inspire" them. While the popular and predictable response to my panic would be for some people to suggest that I have Imposter Syndrome—since this unsolicited diagnosis is often used by people to mask everything from interpersonal distress to other mental health issues to structural issues and oppression; it is often used as a way to victim blame people—the reality is, my panic is related to dealing with years of abuse and exploitation from people who claim that I "inspire" them. I am aware of what type of "kindness" (not kindness at all) fuels what most people mean when they say that I "inspire" them. I am acutely aware of what usually comes next.
The Phases Of "Inspiration"
Phase One: Unknown/Antagonism - People either do not know who I am (I do not mind; for years I have made my stance clear on social media "status," and "attention," as things not of interest to me) or they do know who I am and they resent me and whatever attention I receive, that they think I do not "deserve." This determination is sometimes specific to me and my work, although most of the time it is general misogynoir and the belief that Black women should never have anything that could be deemed "good." (Nevermind the fact that I do not find hypervisibility to be "good." Hypervisibility without resources is especially hell.) Admittedly, some people skip the phases of "inspiration" altogether and their trajectory looks more like this: Troll/abuse ➝ use "it's not that deep" and similar statements to discredit my work ➝ see profitability in performing "wokeness" ➝ declare themselves "woke" ➝ plagiarize me and (usually) other Black women doing similar work ➝ erase our work as the origins of their own ➝ develop and are praised for their new phony platforms.
Phase Two: Consumption - People become aware of my work—sometimes ironically though plagiarists who eventually vaguely mention my name—and start engaging some of it, as well as some positive opinions people have of it. In this phase, they are more aware of me or less antagonistic towards me than they were before.
Phase Three: Hyperconsumption - People become gluttonous over my work. They easily favorite over 100 tweets of mine in a week, desperately comb through my blog archives, reblog old writing in a chronology-averse and context-averse manner, cross-platform contact me on multiple types of content in a single day (often with unsolicited advice and inappropriate comments), consistently appear in my tweet threads without adding any substantial points, and are more concerned with being noticed by me (and being seen speaking to me) than learning anything at all. I mention "learning" since to such people, I am not a full human being anyway, but simply a Fact Portal or "positive resource." (I explained this before in When Online Consumption Gets Disgusting, on Gradient Lair.)
Phase Four: Declaration - People admit that I "inspire" them or something similar to this statement. They usually do this by sharing too much information in private (often including triggering material that I did not previously consent to discussing with them or stuff that should be discussed with a licensed therapist, for which I am not) or via public declarations where I should be "thankful" for the pedestal that they made for me, which I did not consent to. Their "inspiration" is usually based on superficial perceptions of my life and my work that they themselves have fabricated to turn me into a consumable narrative for them to personally project on. (I discussed this before in The Painful Side of "Role Models," ''Mentors" and "Goals".) Sometimes this declaration of "inspiration" is presented to me as something that should replace payment for labor. This phase involves a lot of free labor demands and it is repulsive and at times very painful because they will come from people who claim to "like" me and care about me, when they clearly do not care about me beyond how they would care for a lawnmower or a blender, as just another useful tool. They use their feelings of "inspiration" to justify the next phases, when things become more abusive and/or exploitative.
Phase Five: Imitation and Echoing - People partially copy things that I have done in my various arts and bring them to me in the way a child shows a parent a crayon drawing to be placed on the fridge. (There is something to be said about them engaging in a child/parent manner when I am a Black woman, re: the controlling image "mammy," but I will not get into this here and now. You can see Gradient Lair for that type of analysis though.) This imitation is sometimes harmless (and I do not mean people with actual friendships and connections bouncing ideas off of each other or genuinely sharing and learning). At other times, it suffocates me. People also echo me. They use my scholarship and work that they learned from me, and regurgitate it back to me as if they are "teaching" me new information. Some people have a difficult time figuring out where they themselves end and someone else like me begins; this is mainly due to them perceiving consumption as "identity," which is a major issue that I discussed in an extended collection of years of my work titled Media Consumption Itself ≠ Automatic Unity, Identity, Feminism, Activism. (@FeminstaJones recently discussed how this relates to plagiarism, among younger people in particular, in a Twitter thread titled The Value of 'Woke' Currency and The Rise of Millennial Plagiarism.) In this phase, unsolicited advice becomes more common as they need a way to assuage their discomfort with the very same pedestal that they shoved me on, and one way to do this is to pretend that I am too incompetent to manage my own art, work, life...anything. It is a lot of projection on their part; they turn their insecurities into a "pathology" in me that they must fix...using my work (as if it is their work) as the remedy.
Phase Six: Plagiarism - People blatantly plagiarize my work. Some do this because they have a zero/sum perception of knowledge or creativity. As long as I exist, somehow this "erases" their chance for shine, so by replicating whatever I do, in their minds they are equally as good, or better, and I am no longer a "threat." Some plagiarize as opportunistic plagiarism. Opportunistic plagiarists are people with writing/publishing/academic deadlines to meet and/or "status" to acquire and they are too lazy and/or afraid to do their own work. Some plagiarize as punitive plagiarism. Punitive plagiarists can be opportunistic too, but they also want to punish me for not being flattered by the pedestal that they tried to force me on, as resentment for creating things that they feel they cannot create themselves (and some could create what I do and better, if they actually tried; instead, they blame me for their lack of confidence, so they punish me for my own confidence), or as sheer sadism towards me for rejecting them in some other way, a real or perceived rejection. They enjoy the harm plagiarism causes and enjoy being praised for the stolen work. (To be clear, of course plagiarism itself also can occur independently of the phases of "inspiration.")
Phase Seven: Erasure - People discontinue relationships with me altogether. At times, they erase tweets/posts where they cited my work or admitted that they learn from me. They erect superficial platforms—especially in a social media age where performing "wokeness" is social currency—based on a superficial understanding of my work (and other people's work that is ethically similar to mine). Rarely can such people deeply and independently articulate content that I created or that I helped developed the concepts that frames that content, without plagiarizing me once again. They view their 1-2 new bylines and handful of plagiarized threads on such concepts—primarily consisting of work stolen from me, at that—as "equal" to my development of that content for spans of years, sometimes concepts with over 100 pieces/content collections. They deliberately credit my work to other people when a simple Twitter or Google search reveals different origins. They cite people involved in work with me, but not me. This is not to support the aforementioned people, however. It is solely an act of targeted erasure on me. Some of these people eventually block me and orchestrate trolling/blocking campaigns against me with other people in this phase or with opportunistic/misogynoiristic strangers. (To be clear, of course erasure itself also can occur independently of the phases of "inspiration.")
When I (or people that I know) call people out for phases 6 or 7, the latter people usually have much more support than I do. A lot of people adore and support exploiters because many people exploit. They identify with the exploiters, not with me. Others dislike me more than they care about being ethical. This is deemed normal, and disappointingly so in spaces and around people who claim that they are about "justice." By the time anyone who was "inspired" by me is in the erasure phase, they could have easily gone from saying "you are all of my goals" to me in one year to being advised to steal from me and block me to punish me for not nurturing them as they erase me the next year. They go from vaguely mentioning my intelligence to someone else to having their articles published with work they plagiarized from me (including an instance of an article later modified to reflect my work linked as sources, although the publication still refuses to name me or take the plagiarized article down altogether). They go from speaking on concepts that I help spearhead—and faced inconceivable abuse while doing so, for years—to writing on those concepts, without citation, while still smiling in my face as if nothing has happened. They admit that they learned something from me in 2013 yet plagiarize me in 2015; learned from me in 2014, yet plagiarize me in 2016. They go from suggesting that I am why they are "aware," "woke," "political," a feminist, a womanist, an artist etc. to blatantly plagiarizing my work over and over without so much as a mention of my existence. They go from respecting me a year or more ago to not even allowing an hour to pass before plagiarizing one of my tweets today. They send me free labor requests despite hyperconsuming my work about labor exploitation itself. It is a complete devolution. And sadly, I am encountering this more and more.
I am not so special. I am not Kara Walker as a visual artist. I am not Alice Walker as a writer. This has less to do with my actual intelligence or skill level and has more to do with how some people cannot engage with what I know and what I do unless they are harming. How can they really be "inspired" by a person they do not consider or engage as a person, but as a tool? This has nothing to do with arrogance on my part, though having boundaries is deemed being "arrogant" when you are a non-famous, generationally poor, unaffiliated, yet hyperconsumed hypervisible Black woman. It has to do with how people consume violently—regardless of their privileges/experiences with oppression, since everyone consumes—and deem this consumption itself as something "radical." Since consumption in of itself is deemed a "radical act" in a capitalist society, especially so in social media spaces, plus the notion that plagiarism and erasure themselves are not just okay, but are especially okay when the people doing them claim to be "woke," most people do no think anything is wrong with the seven phases of "inspiration." Many people weaponize "inspiration," and call it "allyship," "solidarity," "unity," "sisterhood" and/or "community" too. Many people cannot think of how to be inspired without being violent. Inspiration in of itself is not the problem, of course. The way some people express "being inspired" by me, as a pathway to rendering me an object to use, abuse and discard is.
I rarely trust people that say that I "inspire" them. I wish that this "inspiration" was rooted in kindness, not greed, envy and/or exploitation. So many people are "inspired." So few people are ethical, honest and kind. I wish that these people thought of my labor as valuable enough to be paid for, cited, respected and consumed with temperance or respectfully disagreed with. This is for people in general. Intraracially, I wish that the exploitation of fictive kinship (Zora Neale Hurston taught me) did not occur so frequently that some fellow Black people use "inspiration" as an excuse to plow through my boundaries and exploit me down the path of "wokeness" for their name's sake. As I have mentioned for several years now, and as recently as last month here, people still continue to hover around my work on Gradient Lair (and some of my other work and tweets) and refuse to stop the plagiarism and erasure. They are desperate for "wealth" in a social media "economy" where performing "wokeness" is "currency" and they will acquire this "wealth" by any means; ethics be damned. Part of this is either erasing my work and my role in how people know certain concepts today; another part is simply lifting the work and pretending it is their own. They will even assert that this abusive behavior is being "woke" itself. For some people, nothing matters more than "doin' numbers" (getting a lot of retweets and interactions, regardless of the quality or originality of the original content) and being "famous now" (being thought about in the moment of the viral content, yet forgotten like an old ATM receipt the next day).
No creator or artist of any type is an island. Of course we are influenced by those who come before us, our peers and those younger than us. Art is quite the exchange of ideas, aesthetics, philosophies, practices and more. (For example, I was inspired by "Rose In A Concrete World," by Joe, "A Rose Is Still A Rose" by Aretha Franklin and "The Rose That Grew From Concrete" by Tupac Shakur when I made the iPhone photograph in this essay.) Thus, I do not pretend as if I am not influenced by anyone. The difference is I know that I do not become less of an artist, woman, Black person, Black woman, human being by citing those influences and sources. By respecting other people's work. By not haphazardly running around more concerned about building a reputation that is nothing but theft and a superficial command of that stolen work, versus actually building body of work referred to, cited, learned from, accessed and engaged nationwide for some of it and globally for others. As I alluded to in One Day I Want To Dazzle, I really am only concerned with thoroughly impressing myself...the most critical audience of one. At the same time, I respect people who manage to engage me and my work fairly and respectfully, outside of the terrible phases of "inspiration." I appreciate their support. It is unfortunate that such people have rapidly become the minority.