Imagine you’re the child of immigrant parents at the University of Toronto and part of the first generation of your family to attend a North American university. Working on your upcoming essay on The Catcher in the Rye, you come up with the argument that Holden Caulfield’s red hunting cap represents his unresolved grief for his brother Allie. You ask a white classmate named Becky to proofread your essay. Later, Becky turns in an essay containing the red hunting cap argument almost verbatim, with a few minor changes in wording.
Becky committed an academic offence on a major assignment. Should Becky deny that she plagiarized, she would be required to attend a Tribunal hearing, which has the same gravitas as a legal trial. If Becky is found guilty of the offence, she will face sanctions, which may include a grade of zero on the project, as well as the potential for suspension. It is therefore understandably frustrating when, instead, Becky receives an A on her assignment and is applauded by the instructor for her creative thinking and strong work ethic.
The Becky scenario is analogous to many other instances in which white individuals have stolen ideas from people of colour. Recently, this happened to Michelle Obama when Melania Trump took passages from her address at the 2008 Democratic National Convention and proceeded to present them as her own at the Republican National Convention eight years later.
Jarrett Hill, a freelance journalist, was one of the first on Twitter to note the similarities between the two speeches at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Hill particularly remembered the quote, “the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them,” which Trump borrowed heavily, only replacing “reach” with “strength.”
[pullquote-default]Numerous news outlets have dissected Trump’s speech and have presented an overwhelming amount of evidence that it was plagiarized.[/pullquote-default]
Though they may seem like unrelated incidents at first glance, Becky’s and Trump’s actions fall in line with systemic, racialized patterns of theft of ideas that stretch beyond modern times. White people have been robbing people of colour of their due credit for centuries; consider the British stealing tea from China or the appropriation of Indian culture and Hinduism in various colour runs, such as Run or Dye™ or Color Me Rad™.
The robbery of ideas erases the contributions people of colour have made to society and ignores the customs and traditions of cultures that are considered to be far removed from Western society. The mentality that causes white people to forcefully take ‘ownership’ over the ideas, customs, and belongings of people of colour has led to actions so flagrant as European colonizers stealing land from Indigenous peoples, all under the premise that anything that can be conquered automatically belongs to the conqueror.
In the case of Trump, Hill brought up an interesting point about the scandal. “If you are a Republican, you cannot be friends with a Democrat, let alone agree with them or give them praise, right?” he said. “The Trump campaign would never want to quote Michelle Obama.” This highlights the tendency to refuse to give credit to those who are the true owners of ideas that are stolen, on the part of Trump and others in her position.
The Trump campaign has actually denied the fact that the incident constituted plagiarism, despite evidence to the contrary. Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s campaign manager, responded to the allegations of plagiarism by saying that there was “no cribbing of Michelle Obama’s speech,” but that “these were common words and values.”
[pullquote-features]Feigning ignorance to the similarities between her speech and the speech of the First Lady — especially given the frequency in which Donald Trump criticizes the Obamas and their administration — is unforgivable.[/pullquote-features]
To further Manafort’s thoughts about “common words,” the Republican National Committee Chief Strategist Sean Spicer added that the same ideas expressed by Obama and Trump were also expressed by Twilight Sparkle, a character on My Little Pony, who said, “This is your dream. Anything you can do in your dreams, you can do now.” This was apparently an attempt to defend Trump’s actions, arguing that none of the words she had used in her speech really belonged to anyone.
The “common words” argument is faulty because it completely overlooks the context in which ideas are generated and spread. For Becky, it would be difficult to believe that the similarity of ideas was merely coincidental, given the close circumstances of the shared classroom setting. For Trump, the wife of a prominent politician, feigning ignorance to the similarities between her speech and the speech of the First Lady — especially given the frequency in which Donald Trump criticizes the Obamas and their administration — is unforgivable.
Perhaps this is the most problematic aspect of Trump’s speech: her utilization of Obama’s words are meant to advance an extremely separate agenda. Where Obama advocates for racial and gender equality, the Trump campaign is built on the oppression of people of colour, through racist comments in speeches, as well as the proposal of destructive anti-immigration policies. The significance of the use of Obama’s words to further a xenophobic agenda cannot be overlooked.
It is clear that the Trump incident is not an isolated occurrence — it is just a particularly notorious instance of the pervasive, if subtle, oppression of racialized voices. Considering this, we ought to be mindful of its implications in broader context.
Avneet Sharma is a second-year student at Trinity College studying English and Book and Media Studies.