Race and Rhetoric (and my thoughts)

This semester, I’m in a graduate seminar on rhetorical criticism. As someone with absolutely zero background in rhetoric (my undergraduate degrees were Cinema Studies and Media Studies), it has certainly been somewhat of a steep learning curve as I dive into this mysterious new world (and field).

One thing that has unfortunately stuck out to me is the inherent problem of diversity and inclusion in the work we’ve read and the history we’ve covered. The history of rhetorical criticism is inherently a history of wealthy white men, and the voices of others are rarely heard—if at all. Granted, this is an issue that (in my experience, at least) exists throughout Communication Studies more broadly, and is in desparate need of attention. It seems that in recent years, people in the field have become somewhat better about at least talking about the issue of race, but in many ways this has not yet gone far enough. It’s one thing to write about issues of race and identity, but another thing entirely to make sure that there are spaces for people of color and other minorities to actually exist in academia.

Anyway, with these contexts in mind, my rhetorical criticism seminar spent a week discussing the issues of racial rhetorical criticism specifically. As part of this, we read the 2018 Special Issue of Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, a collection of several essays specifically responding to questions of race and rhetoric. Before each class session, we submit a brief post online to summarize our thoughts, ideas, and discussion prompts and share with the class. Typically, I give very little thought to what I’ve written after the fact. However, for this class session specifically, I found myself writing a significantly more lengthy post, and having felt much more personally invested in it as well. With that in mind, I felt it was important to keep a record of what I wrote, and to not let it fade away in the confines of an old class discussion post.

Broad imperatives:

  1. Do better.
  2. Actively keep these things in mind at all moments – not just in the token “race” week (ironically, this is a bit of what we’re doing right now in this class – so we must carry everything we discuss now into the rest of the term, and the rest of our work)
  3. Recognize the cultural construction of race
  4. Don’t do drive-by race scholarship

Discussion Prompts

  • What are the systems and structures within our own department that reinforce the white-centric hegemonic norms/history of the communication field? How do we move beyond these?
  • What do we really mean when we say diversity/inclusion? How is this different (is it different?) than calls to do racial rhetorical criticism? Why are the two often conflated?
  • We keep talking about the proposal to “throw out” or seriously critique the traditional canon in terms of “radical” or as if it’s a fringe suggestion? How does this very framing reinforce the hegemony of that white canon?
  • These 10 essays cover a wide range of views, opinions, and interpretations. But I want to push us to ask a question we should always be asking – who’s still left out? Or rather who is still not directly addressed and considered? How do we get these voices into the conversation – and into the discipline?
  • When we say the word “race” what do we actually mean? How is it different than “ethnicity”? Is the distinction even important to dwell on?

Broad Issues/Themes/impressions:

I want to apologize in advance for my lengthy and verbose discussion post. Typically I direct my usual tendency to write too many words into the production of visual and memetic content. however, this is a topic that is deeply personal and deeply important to me, and I feel that it was important to capture as many of my thoughts as possible while reading this special issue. What follows is a partially-summarized, partially-stream of consciousness, record of my immediate reactions to the ongoing conversation about race and rhetorical criticism.

To start out, it’s important to note that I am mixed race. So while I am kind of white, I’m also kinda of not white. Kind of a person of color, but also kind of not. It’s a constant uncertainty and negotiation, and while in many ways I have benefitted from being able to often pass as only white, the truth is that racial ambiguity presents a whole set of challenges. These challenges have been present my entire life, but became increasingly apparent (due to many different reasons) after entering the M.A. program here at CSU, and has raised many questions on what place is there for people like me in this department, in this discipline, and in academia more broadly.

I really found myself connecting with Báez and Ore’s essay, and the day-to-day experiences of scholars of color, particularly how seemingly innocent things such as the “need to keep things civil” can actually reinforced power structures and systems that favor the white hegemony. Calls to “remain civil” and “not stir the pot” actually severely limit the ability for people of color to name whiteness and actually tell the stories of their lived experiences. And perhaps even worse, it is all too common for other colleagues and classmates to sit idly by as people of color are effectively silenced and disciplined by calls for civility. Yes, there are certainly “rules to the game” and certain norms and practices that are inherent within academia. But that isn’t necessarily also to say that we should not ever turn a critical eye on ourselves and question who is being harmed by our so-called “rules of the game.”

One of my biggest issues has been that there is a conflation between “doing racial rhetorical criticism” – that is centering race as an object of study, critiquing raced rhetoric, and critiquing the logics of race – and inclusion. The two are certainly related. And there certainly is a lot of overlap. But they are not the exact same thing. By inclusion, I mean actually creating a field/discipline that has space for people of color. I mean a system that does not disadvantage these already disadvantaged populations.

And yes, an increased trend of doing racial rhetorical criticism is good. And we absolutely must do that. And it absolutely will help (a bit) with inclusion. But it’s not the whole story. Because if we only do this, what we’ve done is the classic trend of putting the responsibility of education/remedy onto the shoulders of poc, who already face undue burden. Yes, we must center poc narratives, and avoid speaking for them. But they are not the only ones who should be doing racial rhetorical criticism.

Doing scholarship on race should not be the only “effective” means for a poc to enter academia and establish a career. Everyone should be willing to do it, and we must create space in all areas of our field (even in Comm Studies more broadly) for poc to do the work that they want to do. And if that work is race, great. But poc should not be placed into a predicament where the implication is that the only work available to them is racial rhetorical criticism. As Flores notes, we don’t all have to be race scholars.

This is the tension that I negotiate constantly and it is absolutely exhausting. Law and Corrigan speak to this conundrum directly, when they call for substantive change, noting that “Without more substantive transformation, such spaces of inclusion may only exacerbate the problem, however, as scholars of color ask themselves if they have been invited to participate only because of their nonwhite identity” (328).

A lot of these essays reference the recent #CommunicationSoWhite publication (Chakravartty et al), which was important measurement study of the overwhelmingly white citation statistics across several communication journals. This is certainly an important wake-up call, and calls us to think not just about the topics that we cover in our discipline, but to consider who is allowed and empowered to write/publish as well. However, I think it is important that we follow this imperative, and turn a critical eye even to these pieces. With this in mind, I think that Chakravartty et al. have at least partially done “drive-by race scholarship” as defined by Colpean and Dingo with #CommunicationSoWhite. For methodological reasons, they collapse race into a single binary variable; all scholars are either white or “non-white.” However, this methodological decision is not wholly discussed, and all the essays in this special forum which cite it seem to do so without turning a critical eye – for instance, by collapsing the variable of race in this way, people like me are entirely erased from view. As a mixed race individual, I know first-hand what it’s like to live between categories and never be fully sure where to find yourself. Their methods (surmising white vs. non-white solely based on visual determination and by looking at last names) very well could inadvertently lump people like myself into the “white” bucket, even though this may not be the most accurate label. My point in bringing this up is not to suggest that we completely ignore Chakravartty et al.’s findings, but as a reminder that we must always be diligent about critiquing race – even for things as simple as inserting a citation into our work.

tl;dr – race is difficult to talk about, but we definitely need to keep talking about it.

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