When anthropologist Christen Smith attended a conference last year, she listened in disbelief as a speaker paraphrased a long passage from her book without citing her work.
Fuelled by this experience and those of her friends, Dr Smith, associate professor of African and African diaspora studies and anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, designed T-shirts emblazoned with “Cite Black Women”.
Last November, she took them to the National Women’s Studies Association meeting in Baltimore, the theme of which was the 40th anniversary of the Combahee River Collective Statement – a key document in black feminism. The T-shirts were an instant hit, selling out within 24 hours.
Last month, when she took another batch of T-shirts to the American Anthropological Association’s meeting, they again sold out rapidly.
“I was surprised that so many women who weren’t black were excited about them, which I was really happy to see,” recalled Dr Smith. “People kept coming up to me and saying how important it is to do this kind of project, because people don’t cite black women in the way they should.”
Female academics began wearing the T-shirts to their panels and sessions and posting selfies on Twitter.
Encouraged by the response, Dr Smith created Cite Black Women accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and began tweeting quotes from black women.
In the new year, she posted five resolutions that have come to define the project: read black women’s work; integrate black women into the core of your syllabus; acknowledge black women’s intellectual production; make space for black women to speak; and give black women “the space and time to breathe”.
Next, she encouraged fellow academics to suggest black female authors for their courses.
“I was overwhelmed by how many people responded and said they were putting black women on their syllabus,” Dr Smith said. “What was really fascinating about it is that I got the impression that some people hadn’t even thought about it [before].”
Most black women in academia agree that they are not cited enough, she claimed.
“People want our ideas, they want our energy, but they don’t actually want to give us the credit,” said Dr Smith. “I think that’s something very visceral for many people, and something that we need to draw attention to.”
The project is not about diversity for diversity’s sake, she stressed.
“It means actually allowing our work to drive the way you think about a subject, as opposed to putting together a syllabus and saying: ‘Oh, everyone here is white, let me put a black woman on there.’”
Dr Smith said that the blame for the problem lay in the patriarchal structure of academia, which she described as an “old boys’ network”.
“It’s very much about getting published in prestigious journals and who you know,” she said. “Black women often don’t have access to those spaces. So our writing is often in lesser-known journals and less-known spaces. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less meritorious.”
And it’s not just white men and women who are guilty of not citing black women, she added. “I want to emphasise that black men often do it to black women. People say ‘Oh, this is all about race’, but it’s intersectional.”
It’s still early days, but Dr Smith has high hopes for the future of the project. “The most important thing,” she said, “is that people are not feeling alone any more.”