Whiteness structures intimacy and belonging in institutional life. In this essay, we unpack how meritocracy relies on exclusionary networks of belonging structured by Whiteness. We argue that meritocracy can be displaced through a recentering of radical intimacy. Critical love and failure are crucial to building coalitions across difference that resist structural violence. We unpack the possibilities of radical intimacy by recalling our embodied experience in co-creating and maintaining our friendship in the context of a Predominantly White Institution.
We are both struggling.
At the meeting, a tall and imposing white stranger asked, “What are you doing here?” I cannot believe all the departmental photographs are mostly white folks. Should I assume nothing about this space is safe?
My partner and I have been separated for six months, and I have not told anyone in the department. I feel like they hired me because I am married to him.
I feel like they hired me because I am black.
I have been trying to keep everyone at a distance. I feel numb.
I have been trying to keep myself separate from everyone. I feel scared.
I want to help Kina because it is unjust, but there is also a part of me that resents it.
I resent constantly having to ask for help. I am so tired of constantly appearing inept. I can see how much this stresses out Ashley.
I know I am complicit in her pain and experiences here. I say I am sorry and tell her the truth about what is going on at home.
I had no idea Ashley was going through this stuff; they are actually as overwhelmed as I am.
We cry. I cannot believe we have been so disconnected.
In the “Open Letter on Diversity in the Communication Discipline,” our colleagues eloquently articulate potential structural changes that the leadership in communication studies can enact to respond to systems of Whiteness1 and meritocracy.2 In pursuit of these important institutional changes, we cannot forget how power, and Whiteness in particular, structures intimacy.3 Whiteness demarcates being and belonging more broadly within the academy.4 It governs who “belongs” among the Distinguished Scholars, as well as what we normatively define as “civility,” “professionalism,” and “excellence” in our departments and institutions.5 Whiteness has a profound impact on relationships and subsequently on professional networks, hiring practices, and our ability to recognize and fight for the dignity and humanity of others.
In setting the terms of belonging in the context of settler colonialism in the US nation-state, Whiteness governs disconnections. We have seen Whiteness sever Indigenous peoples from land; European settlers from their ethnic heritages; and colonized peoples from their mother tongues. Despite potential class-based solidarity across racial lines, W. E. B. Du Bois and David R. Roediger argue that poor, white, working-class subjects dissolve ties with people of color because there are psychological “wages” of Whiteness: It feels good to feel superior in the social hierarchy.6 Whiteness has always required such a divorce. A compulsory severing of organic materials.
We came to our friendship through crisis, trauma, and co-conspiracy within the context of a Predominantly White Institution (PWI) in the South. I—Ashley—am a white, queer, tenure-track assistant professor. I—Kina—am a black, heterosexual, Christian cis woman and a non-tenure-track faculty member and director of forensics in our department. If Whiteness had had its way, intimacy between us should not have happened. Structures of Whiteness have long worked to displace, diffuse, and derail deep coalitions across difference.7 In this essay, we call for a reimagining of intimacy as an intentional series of radical acts that resist by reconnecting what Whiteness never wanted to be connected in the first place.8 We join others in this endeavor of centering practices of critical love and failure as crucial in building coalitions across difference.9 Rachel Alicia Griffin writes that “love seems untapped as a tool, resource, and strategy.”10 Simultaneously, we recognize the institutional gaslighting that often privileges the resolution of racism as merely “interpersonal challenges” as insufficient substitution for institutional change. We insist both structural transformation and reimagining intimacy work in partnership to create sustainable changes. We unpack these possibilities by recalling our embodied experience in co-creating and maintaining radical intimacy.
Black parents across generations are hypervigilant about how their children act in public. This disciplining is articulated in quips such as “When we get into this store, you better not act up” and “Don't be acting a fool in front of these white people.” Arguably, these are lessons on survival within white spaces. Upon beginning a new job at a PWI and realizing I am the only black faculty member, I am keenly aware that I need to “mind” these lessons. Identifying as both black and a woman left me tightrope walking.11 When asking for support and resources, I prefix emails with assuring greetings such as “I hope you are well!” I routinely hedge and qualify. No matter how much I try to articulate a deferential communication style, I feel I am interpreted as an aggressor. I receive responses to emails in ALL CAPS and nonverbal messages of disapproval in face-to-face interactions. In time, I realize no matter how many of these rules I follow, I will still be seen and experienced as incompetent, unreliable, and unsuccessful. Angela P. Harris and Carmen C. González write that “women of color too frequently find themselves ‘presumed incompetent’ as scholars, teachers, and participants in academic governance.”12
Early on, I am told people are worried about her “competence” because she “asks too many questions” and makes too many mistakes. My first instinct is to laugh at the ridiculousness of the conclusion based on the evidence. She has been here only a few months and has not been properly trained or supported by the university. Making mistakes is how you learn! The weight of the hammer following her “mistakes” is brutal and noticeably different. Travel paperwork sucks and we all regularly mess it up! But white mediocrity is acceptable, sometimes encouraged. It feels as though any mistake she makes is going to be used as evidence that she is incompetent, even though it seems the system has set her up to fail.
Apparently, as appointed faculty liaison, I am now directly responsible for her job training and oversight. It is made clear that her success or failure is seen as my responsibility. This directive should have fractured any solidarity we do have by making her a “threat” to my job security. Now, I can either participate in a mob against her or I can try to help her meet the ever-shifting expectations of “success” and “excellence” in the meritocracy of our PWI. I have been given the space to learn the rules of the bureaucracy, of engagement, of the shifting expectations of white meritocracy. My best attempts to support her within the constraints of institutional power end up feeling futile. Our combined efforts to exchange dialogue are not going to change the environment. Sympathy unbacked by action results in each of us living in survival mode. I know this means something different for both of us. We talk on the phone to negotiate each action and potential reaction. Trying to negotiate this together feels circular. Exhausting. Turn one way and face backlash. Turn the other way and face the consequences. We both recognize that no amount of training in institutional processes is going to fix this. Both together and separately, these negotiations have costs. The pushback is heavy and unsettling.
RULES OF (DIS)ENGAGEMENT
I try to support her the best I know how against racist hostility and microaggressions. But sometimes I am the source of that aggression. I get frustrated, wanting to support her but also simultaneously anticipating the inevitable blowback we will face at every turn. I feel overwhelmed by all the responsibility—I still have to research, teach, and advise graduate students. I snap. I find myself obsessing over every little detail, not wanting to give the institution or our colleagues any reasons to see incompetence. We cannot be incompetent. I want her to feel successful and safe. Is this me helping or internalizing my Whiteness? Am I upset at her or upset because I feel threatened by the precarity we both face?
I have been institutionalized in many ways to associate white womannness with leadership, support, and competence. Yet, in my community I am reminded to be careful and to never be too trusting of white motivations. These dual realities are exhausting to manage. What does it mean to experience white women or femme-presenting folks as a source of both support and suspicion? I need to believe there can be moments when you can mark a person as safe. I try to solely relate to the individual in question as someone worthy of trust and intimacy. During my onboarding I desperately need my colleagues (who are white) to be figures of care and safety; I am too exhausted to see them as otherwise. One colleague suggests that I (the only full-time black faculty member) need to “teach white folks how to act.” I realize the moment is unsafe in multiple ways. I am dealing with the discomfort of another human being violating a boundary I did not know existed. Additionally, I know my colleagues see me as Other, separated from the Them I so want to be a part of. I am angry with myself for forgetting the interminable lesson of childhood: white folks can never be fully trusted.
Our intimacy is approached intentionally. Trust revisited and rebuilt in perpetuity. We are tested. There are many, many moments of conflict when one or both of us question, “Is this me at peak Whiteness?” I face my mistakes and take accountability. She labors to call out my privilege or what we refer to as “white shenanigans.” I am thankful. I commit to doing better. But there is no “end point” where I stop being racist or “arrive” at enlightenment. I caution myself against projecting racism only onto others. I have to remember that it cannot be Us versus Them without it being Us versus Me, too. I am a part of Them.
INTIMACY IS A THREAT
In our experience, radical intimacy and solidarity that resists Whiteness is actively suppressed in institutions. Our friendship is seen and marked as a threat. A rumor circulates that I just “hired my friend,” implying that she did not deserve the job. Us being “friends” is mobilized to dismiss or demean the actions we have taken to resist Whiteness within the institution. I am told: “I know you are friends, but …,” suggesting that I do not “need” to take on this fight “just” because she is my friend.
I am told multiple times that, “you have friends in high places.” Is it unjust to align myself with those who are not occupying my part of the hallway? It becomes obvious that people are observing who I walk into meetings with. This is not the first time our relationship has been mentioned. I am bothered by the assumption I have purposely sought white allies. Allies are illusions for those who still believe in them.
When we talk about the ways our friendship has been critiqued, we are acknowledging that our relationship is not supposed to be a real one, and yet, we continue to do the work to maintain intimacy in spite of this. This commitment is radical because it is always a choice to speak back against the institutional powers that would have us exchange the grandeur of merit by way of forsaking our shared humanity. We are here in this moment, in partnership. At least for now, our laboring continues.