Provincializing whiteness—this deconstructing move lays bare the absolute power of racial supremacy that faculty of color housed in communication studies and other departments have faced in US academia. Yet, acts of racial supremacy reveal how provincial that way of thinking is. There is a plethora of her-his-stories that are better suited to coexistence and tolerance without privileging Western modernity.
Meritocracy contradicts the principle of equality.hannah arendt1
A call for papers for this special issue on merit, privilege, and diversity urges contributors to reflect on strategies of resistance. Whereas solutions are hard to find, strategies and tactics endure. I assert provincializing whiteness2—a deconstructing move that lays bare the absolute power of racial supremacy that faculty of color housed in communication studies and other departments have faced in US academia.3 Yet, acts of racial supremacy reveal how provincial that way of thinking is. There is a plethora of her-his-stories that are better suited to coexistence and tolerance without privileging Western modernity.4 The academy has grown increasingly global and globalized in stature, therefore the situation warrants attention. On the heels of realizing that I am a participant in a global organization, I wish to revisit the term.5 I introduced provincializing whiteness in an earlier publication examining the extent to which whiteness informs politics and policies of reproductive health in the Global South, in the end subjugating bodies of its denizens. It was published in Whiteness: The Communication of Social Identity, edited by stalwarts Thomas K. Nakayama and Judith N. Martin, two decades ago.6 First of its kind in communication studies, this anthology set off the discussion on whiteness and introduced the work of scholars who would make it their life's mission to toil for equity and justice. Admittedly, the trajectory of academic life was not as smooth as one imagines, and so this narrative essay is a step toward reclaiming the right to speak from the margins. To recap, here are some initial observations that the collection of essays garnered: (a) Whiteness is an evocative rhetorical space that signifies power. As such, it is invisible. (b) The invisibility of whiteness gives it strength to devour that which is oppositional to the established Eurocentric norm. Being able to contribute early in my career to a volume that ushered in whiteness studies in the field, it was important to continue the struggle of teaching communication students that race, nation, and positionality are central to the field and not delectable delights that enhance the perks of studying communication. But first, here is a small step toward applying a deconstructing tactic, namely provincializing whiteness that displays a central disagreement in the field about merit, race, and privilege.
WHITENESS PLAYED OUT
Juxtaposed here are two quotes by Martin J. Medhurst and Mohan J. Dutta from their interchange that reveal those differential structures of racial privilege held by white versus “other” scholars.7 Medhurst says in his response to Dutta, “The work of the field, has been enriched as it has become more diverse.” The grudging acknowledgment of “diversity” (“more diverse”) is written in the third person (“the work of the field has been enriched”) thereby making diversity strange, distant, or estranged without real centrality within the field. One would imagine that there are no human actors involved.
Medhurst privileges “the work of the field” tapping into a universalizing story within academia while minoritizing and provincializing the labor of faculty of color.
Dutta responds by saying: “The fact is Mr. Medhurst that we, scholars of colour, have to work much much harder for you to even ‘see’ us, for us to be visible, heard, and counted in ways that matter. The fact is Mr. Medhurst that after all that hard work, you and your colleagues, sitting behind some opaque cloak, will discount the work as ‘political,’ ‘activist,’ or ‘not just good enough.’ In doing so, you will see no need to offer evidence, facts, and warrants. That you can simply make claims, we scholars-of-color, have to accept at face value.” The outrage (“we … have to work much much harder for you to even ‘see’ us”) that Dutta expresses becomes even more poignant because the passive voice of the Medhurst quote makes the intellectual capital of scholars of color seem like an effortless set of activities. The reward from these efforts only pays deferred dividends. The pursuit of methodologies such as long-range ethnographies, often self-funded, maintains our marginality. Research using critical theories complexifies communicative action; therefore, publishing in standard disciplinary outlets takes longer. This does not bode well for scholars whose paths are likely transnational, and continually evolving since earning a doctorate.
After the Medhurst musings on merit and faculty-of-color, it is clear that we must provincialize whiteness in our professional lives.8 Medhurst's thoughts and writing evoke a raging sense of betrayal for those such as I who regard communication studies as my intellectual home but have chosen recently to work in an interdisciplinary social sciences department. I continue to publish, research, and teach communication courses, and to attend national and international communication conferences. In the usual flow of things, Medhurst's writings about merit and diversity would not have created a flutter as suchlike unctions are applauded, not criticized. But the critical mass of faculty of color has changed as we are products of the interconnectedness of transnational flows, not the disconnection and social isolation of Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man.9 We need to be thankful to Dutta for making this sleight of hand stand out. I am disturbed by the precarity and judgment placed upon me as a communication scholar and woman of color when I read Professor Medhurst's reparté. This will to power or an uncalled-out whiteness has become common to communication studies.
MERIT FOR THE MERITORIOUS: QUESTIONING MERITOCRACIES
Employing a universalizing counternarrative to chart out exclusivity and elitism in the field is one strategy for provincializing whiteness. After performing significant, yet unrewarded, care-labor and administrative duties, I appealed to top administration to move me to another department from my tenure home in communication. I had worked there for 18⅔ years. It became exceedingly obvious that my workload was unsustainable for scholarly progress. A junior tenure-track colleague said knowingly to me: “Do you think they will ever let you become full professor?” Another added, “I hear you in faculty meetings. They don't listen to your good suggestions. If anyone else says the same thing, they listen.” My credibility was constantly questioned, and other faculty could clearly sense that. Perhaps it was time to move on? Bickering and attempts to stop me from “taking my tenure-line away” began after I let my thoughts be known publicly, especially to senior faculty who had direct power over me.10
Five years after my transfer to another department, I am bound by the politics of saving face for colleagues by feigning that I made a willful career move. As this call for papers states, “these messages [signifying whiteness] are complemented by norms of civility and politeness to exclude, erase, and marginalize, as we witness the experiences of Professor Steven Salaita, Saida Grundy, and Marc Lamont Hill.”11 Noteworthy is the fact that in my 24 years of being at the university, the communication department did not hire any other tenure-tracked faculty of color or one who conducts critical theory–cultural studies research in communication studies. Perhaps this is chance. But seemingly innocuous events occurred with great frequency, as when a faculty member, seeming to echo the thoughts of others, said after perusing an applicant for a tenure-track job, “Oh why would we need someone just like Priya [emphasis mine]?” referring to my scholarly focus in intercultural communication, reproductive health, grassroots movements, and South Asia. This declaration was perceived as a benign remark, not acknowledging the need to hire more than one “diverse scholar” for a subfield (cultural studies) well-liked by majors, to allow it to grow.12 As always, an honest faculty-led conversation about strengthening our intercultural offerings was never had.
Furthermore, the merit-pay processes, of which there have been three cycles at the university in the recent past, left it to the discretion of the chair (the same person in my case for all three cycles) and once to a committee of senior faculty to disburse money that would serve as a boost to low faculty base salaries. For each of the three cycles of merit-money disbursal, I was the lowest paid tenure-track faculty member in the communication department. The faculty union at the university has typically been circumspect about merit monies, knowing that departmental organization in most universities, though autonomous, is far from equal. It is worth mentioning that current merit processes have evolved into fairer models in which department chairs are not the final arbiters of merit. In the first two cycles, the same senior, white-male faculty member was the beneficiary of merit money. As the only other eligible candidate, I was not informed of the decision or criteria for merit. I was also adjudged least meritorious for the third cycle by a committee of fellow senior faculty who paid scant attention to workload issues in the department. After an eye-opening realization that my labor13 would be adjudged as defiance of traditional documentation in the three institutional criteria of research, service, and teaching, I knew I would never be recognized toward a promotion. I had no choice but to move on. Definitions of meritocracy did not allow room for outlier activities such as guiding working-class students on a paper or thesis long after office hours, and creating self-help communities of graduate students learning research methods with their cohort, or making sure that a distressed student receive proper attention from the care team of counselors and legal professionals at the university.
ELITE STATUS, COLONIALISM, AND GLOBALIZATION: ARE WE ALL CALIBANS?
Global finance and its mobility promised academia profits, and most universities set up efforts to diversify and internationalize. Efforts bore fruit as large numbers of international students flooded US campuses.14 Faculty saw their universities become “global” without the guidance to use professional development resources to broaden their knowledge of the field or seek out partnerships overseas where they could learn how cultural contexts change learning within their fields and subfields.15 Diversity became a buzzword rather than a guiding philosophy and therefore lost its teeth. Diversity implementation in academia did not have oversight and bottom lines as in for-profit organizations, where clients and managers have to live with the diversity of their markets and of the workplace.
The elitism of academia in contrast seems intractable as Edward W. Said explicates in Orientalism that the West colonized the East not just with its army but also with its imaginative resources.16 Art, cartography, and fiction are creations that capture the East in its gaze and further size it up in its imaginative literary resources. To make a case for provincializing whiteness, for abjuring elitism, for decolonizing our minds, I would like to invoke the work of Aimé Césaire, the father of the Negritude movement, who takes Shakespeare's tragic-comic play, A Tempest (Une Tempête, published in 1969), and mindfully transforms it into a tale of resisting colonialism where Césaire's Prospero, in the aspect of the colonizer, is the master of two men, Ariel and Caliban (sounds suspiciously like Cannibal).17 Caliban believes in direct rebellion whereas Ariel appeals to the moral conscience of the colonizer. Caliban wants to be his own master and accuses Prospero of lying and of taking him to be inferior. Here is Caliban's speech to Prospero, wherein he rejects the power of the colonizer:
This final scene reveals Césaire's stance toward colonization—that the colonizer is duplicitous and deceitful and makes the colonized feel unworthy of living. This image of the outraged colonial subject from Césaire's A Tempest gives us pause as it might be us, seeking to decolonize our minds and consciousness with a view to provincializing whiteness.