In this essay, we argue that we have an imperative to dissect how global anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity unfold in academic institutions and how these ideologies emerge in local, precise phenomena, such as the recent National Communication Association's Distinguished Scholars (DS) controversy. We provide descriptions of anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity ideologies and explain how meritocracy in academic institutions and the DS controversy are entrenched in both. The study of the ideologies together—in the same way that we, a Mexican man and a Black man, converge as researchers from distinct positionalities—is important because both intersect from similar roots, such as White settlerism, and foment solidarity.
The recent controversy surrounding the National Communication Association's (NCA) Distinguished Scholars (DS) award selection process, and, most notably, the defensive posture from White DS to defend the traditional and merit-based process, is a rhetorical moment that reminded us—a cis, cuir Mexican man and a cis, quare Black man—of Lisa A. Flores's “imperative of race for rhetorical studies.”1 Flores urges researchers to stop marginalizing non-White scholarship via censorship and exclusion. In a recent special issue addressing Flores's imperative, scholars point to the (c)overt perpetuation of Whiteness in research studies and citational practices.2 In the special issue, Karrieann Soto Vega and Karma R. Chávez argue that Flores's imperative is urgent, though attention is needed to understand “the particularity of racialized groups under consideration, the specificity of racializing processes for different groups, even if the same ‘racial scripts’ are operating, and the ways certain racial formations negate or erase others.”3 Soto Vega and Chávez recommend that we investigate the particular processes of anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity to avoid amalgamating violence against Black and Brown persons—our peoples—under a broader racial study.
Drawing from Soto Vega and Chávez's recommendations, we argue that we have an imperative to dissect how global anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity unfold in academic institutions, including communication studies, and how these ideologies emerge in local, precise phenomena, such as the DS controversy. We view anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity as different ideologies that emerge in modern/colonial systems and are normalized by White settlers, though their manifestations can be understood separately and often antagonistically.4 The study of anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity together—in the same way that we, a Mexican man and a Black man, converge as researchers from distinct positionalities—is important because both intersect from similar roots, such as White settlerism, and foment solidarity.5 In the rest of this essay, we provide descriptions of anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity and explain how meritocracy in academic institutions and the NCA DS controversy are entrenched in both.
MANIFESTATIONS OF ANTI-BLACKNESS
Anti-Blackness ideologically views Black people as inferior, expendable, and nonhuman, and it is the foundation for people's attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that motivate policies and violence against Black communities.6 Anti-Blackness works to structurally and globally marginalize Black people through actions, policies, and norms enacted by White and non-White groups.7 Extensive historical analyses show that anti-Blackness emerged from the beginning of civilizations, the transatlantic slave trade, and the creation of liberal democracies, including in philosophies, such as John Locke's social contract.8 In this history, scholars explain that anti-Blackness manifests in many ways, including materially and psychically. We explain both types of manifestations as they are relevant to the DS controversy in the rest of this section.
The DS controversy showcases how anti-Blackness is material. On 23 June 2018, a group of scholars wrote a letter, “Lack of diversity in NCA's journal editorships and editorial boards,” to the NCA to express frustration with continued lack of diversity, including the paucity of Black participation, in all areas and publication processes of the organization.9 To address the concerns, the NCA Executive Committee (EC) decided to change the process of selecting annual DS by designating a new voting group and nomination system. According to the NCA website, DS are “nominees [in] senior stages in their professional careers with an established record of service to NCA”; DS are required to have at least 20 years of scholarship and are the “cream of the crop.” In a “Memorandum” by the EC, the authors explain, out of 64 total DS from 1992 to 2007, none of them were scholars of color and only 10 were women. From 2008 to 2015, out of 27 total DS, only 1 male scholar of color and 7 women were chosen.10 The authors of the “Lack of diversity” letter and the EC identified that the DS process was spearheaded predominantly by White men, which, according to anti-Blackness critics, exemplifies exclusionary practice in higher education. The selection of one male of color signifies, materially, an anti-Black practice, despite the abundance of Black scholarship that has contributed greatly to communication studies. We see this as a problem of structural omission because, as Annie Olaloku-Teriba explains, anti-Black structures fortify themselves by omitting the complex histories and contributions of Black people.11 The author adds that anti-racist movements, too, have made the mistake of denying validity to Black thought by amalgamating their needs with those of other groups. Furthermore, democratic bodies, institutions, and resistance movements never fully understand Black people and their needs. In a similar analysis, Jalil Bishop Mustaffa looks to the colonial and pre– and post–Civil War eras to argue that the system of meritocracy played a key role in excluding slaves who had no access to higher education and other institutions.12 Black people's contributions are either excluded or not seen as sufficiently distinguishable.
Secondly, anti-Blackness manifests psychically, as evidenced in the DS controversy. When the EC announced its changes to the DS selection process, several White DS published angry letters to the EC and to the president and executive director of the NCA, including the “Letters from David Zarefsky to the EC.”13 Despite quantitative data about racial inequity, Zarefsky and other scholars accused the EC of denigrating the merit process, assuming that the DS were prejudiced, and not appropriately consulting the DS. It was not until another collective letter, “An open letter on the diversity in the Communication Discipline,” which exposed the racist reactionary postures in the DS letters, that several DS apologized and retracted their signatures on one of Zarefsky's anti-EC letters. Several DS, including Zarefsky, specified regret over any hurt they may have caused. The DS's defensiveness, retractions, and apologies point to what we, Luis M. Andrade and Deven Cooper, define as a “psychic life of anti-Blackness,” a recurrent, cognitively intentional, and ego-driven system of valuation of White rationality, bodies, and emotionality over and against Black flesh.14 We explain that White subjects view Black people as flesh without intelligible value or use outside of obedience to White ways of knowing the world. The DS never considered the painful consequences of their anger or judgment. Yet, White subjects feign innocence or ignorance, or apologize to wash away injury, but they forget that pain is exacerbated in oft-traumatized Black people. Consequently, psychic anti-Blackness prevents empathy toward Black bodies. We remain nonhuman and disposable flesh to be consumed and interpolated by the White gaze within educational spaces.
MANIFESTATIONS OF ANTI-INDIGENEITY
Anti-Indigeneity is an ideology that manifests in beliefs, attitudes, and actions against colonized people. Anti-Indigeneity emerges from White settler colonialism and historically energizes genocidal policies and epistemic violence to extinguish Indigenous people.15 Anti-Indigeneity is a global force that parallels anti-Blackness though the ideology differs from the former in the specific ways it targets Indigenous populations.16 Sheelah McLean explains that one way of perpetuating anti-Indigeneity is through the myth of meritocracy, which allows settlers to create land and educational policies for White, wealthy families to succeed.17
Anti-Indigeneity arises when White settlers express themselves as if they are entitled to unconditional authority. In one of his letters, Zarefsky argues that the EC never respected his opinions after a meeting in Salt Lake City, UT. The letter also states, “There are metaphysical problems with an attempt to resign either as a past president or as a life member. But there are other tangible ways in which I can make clear how dissonant the EC's action is with my own values and principles. I hope instead that the weight of the argument and the recognition of the intense ill will you have aroused will impel you and your colleagues to take the appropriate corrective action without delay.”18 Drawing from Cheryl I. Harris's historical analysis of “Whiteness as property,” Subini Ancy Annamma argues that what historically started as legal protection of White ownership of stolen lands morphed into feeling entitled to control academic standards and decision making.19 Similarly, White scholars feel entitled over decision making because of their perceived dominant subjectivity. This principle of “Whiteness as property” is evident in Zarefsky's lexicon, including the author's need for appropriate “consultation,” “corrective action,” and respect for his personal “values and principles.” He threatens us with leaving the field and places blame on us to change because of his perceived infallibility. White settlers make current academic institutions insular and untouchable on a colonial landscape that was stolen, while shifting blame onto the colonized, including the scholars of color who penned the original criticism of the White DS.20
Additionally, anti-Indigeneity thrives on epistemic violence, as was the case in the DS controversy. To start, dozens of Latinx and other Indigenous scholars have pointed to the importance of interrogating Eurocentric/White ways of thinking and/or researching. In Turning Points in Qualitative Research, scholars, including Dwight Conquergood, provided research to show that non-White communities have different ways of communicating, thinking, and feeling that exist outside current White frames and asked us to interrogate coloniality in our research and methods.21 Sadly, it appears that many distinguished scholars preferred to sidestep—repel—all of these publications, including the constant criticisms of meritocracy, to defend the traditional processes of the status quo. DS scholarship itself has spotlighted the importance of questioning tradition, using self-reflection and critical thinking, but the DS did not listen or critically self-reflect before penning their letters. They compartmentalized previous publications into shelves to be forgotten, which is a prime example of (un)conscious epistemic violence that, according to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, is “the remotely orchestrated, far-flung, and heterogeneous project to constitute the colonial subject as Other. This project is also the asymmetrical obliteration of the trace of that Other in its precarious Subjectivity.”22
CONCLUSION AND BROADER RECOMMENDATIONS
We firmly believe scholars have an imperative to dissect anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity in the present moment because they negatively affect the survival of our people. This essay is merely a snapshot of the global ideologies' emergence in the DS controversy, a specific rhetorical moment, though we find that the ideologies merge to preserve the sanctity, scholarship, and Whiteness of those who so ardently protect current structures.
Beyond a dissection of the DS controversy, we urge our peers to place anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity at the center of praxial discussion and to not rely on piecemeal solutions for problems, such as changing editorial boards or focusing on diversity initiatives that do not attend to the needs of Black and Brown people. For instance, beyond an increased attention on non-White scholarship, meaningful Black and Brown group participation is important. In addition, the following is a nonexhaustive list of problems in academia that are intersected with anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity and require intentional solutions: racial achievement gaps between Black and Brown and White students; housing and food insecurity; exploitation of part-time faculty and educators of marginalized groups; low hiring rates of Black and Brown faculty, which negatively affects success and retention rates of students of color; and lack of protections on campus for Black and Brown students and marginalized groups against hate crimes. Rather than remaining insular, curricular and structural changes beyond the NCA DS controversy are urgent and vital to tear down the anti-Black and anti-Indigenous barriers in communication studies and academia writ large.