This essay builds on Cheryl I. Harris's conception of racialized property and bell hooks's notion of aesthetic inheritance to analyze the “double down” and “call-out culture” as performances at play in the aftermath of Martin J. Medhurst's 2019 editorial about the National Communication Association Executive Committee's decision regarding the selection of new Distinguished Scholars. The essay offers a descriptive analysis that places merit and inheritance in conversation and argues for five specific strategies for countering white supremacy in the academy.
In “Whiteness as Property,” Cheryl I. Harris describes the ways in which the concept and function of property in the United States is bound up in racial categorization. She argues, “through this entangled relationship between race and property, historical forms of domination have evolved to reproduce subordination in the present.”1 The subjugation of blacks and Native Americans is fundamental to understanding the relationship that Harris theorizes, “the former involving the seizure and appropriation of labor, the latter entailing the seizure and appropriation of land, undergirding both was a racialized conception of property implemented by force and ratified by law.”2 Much like the economic stratification of US culture, the US academy generally, and the communication studies discipline specifically, is fabricated on racialized notions of intellectual property, expertise, and merit. The hierarchy of merit and its symbiotic relations with whiteness came to the fore in the controversy surrounding National Communication Association (NCA) Distinguished Scholar (DS) and editor of Rhetoric & Public Affairs Martin J. Medhurst's 2019 editorial in which he casts “identity” as opposed to “scholarly merit.”3 In response to the polemic that became apparent as statements of admonishment and disavowal rolled in after the editorial was made public, and building on Harris's conception of racialized property, this essay contextualizes the problematics and possibilities of and for communication studies as related to class-based and racialized performances by articulating the role of what I call “meritance,” or the inheritance learned and sometimes unearned bequeathing of academic merit and status. Further, I argue that the reaction period to the Medhurst/DS affair is epitomized through two differing (though not entirely oppositional) rhetorical performance strategies: doubling down and calling-out. I offer a descriptive analysis of “the double down” and also of what some refer to as “call-out culture” in order to preface and frame five specific strategies for countering white meritance and white supremacy in communication studies, in the academy, and in everyday life.
MERIT OR INHERITANCE
The racial wealth gap in the United States is heightened by continued structures of white supremacy. As Cecilia Conrad contends, “current disparities in wealth accumulation stem from historical racist policies, contemporary practices, and government policies.”4 White people, who have directly and indirectly benefited financially from the socioeconomic landscape, continue to pass down their capital from generation to generation, extending the timeline and disproportion characteristic of US wealth distribution. That history and everyday actions conspire to disadvantage people of color is no surprise to this community of scholars. But how and under what conditions does this passing down of assets, this transferal of property, this bequeathal of resources occur? What I am getting at here is not only that wealth is inherited, but also that with that inheritance comes the knowledges, languages, and performances required to maintain that wealth. The concept of merit works similarly in the academy. Not only is merit inherited from, say, old guard Distinguished Scholars, this “meritance” is accompanied by the policies, rhetoric, and practices designed to uphold the privilege and power that emanate from it. Considering the Medhurst editorial and the responses to it, I read meritance in two distinct ways: One is a meritance that calls upon the performance of doubling down, and the other calls upon a different performance, calling-out. Both meritance performances have racialized practices and histories passed down and worthy of exploration.
THE DOUBLE DOWN
The colloquial phrase “double down” comes from the card game blackjack, describing the strategy of doubling one's bet in exchange for picking up just one more card, but the saying has evolved to refer to the practice of indignantly and self-righteously insisting on the inherent truthfulness of one's position. The person employing the double down is often fact-averse in their arguments, they offer no real explanation, and they scoff at even the idea that they should. Many of President Donald J. Trump's assertions are double downs. For example, his tenacious and zealous insistence that he is the best and most popular president would fit into this category as there is (1) no evidence to support his claim, (2) ample empirical and narrative evidence to disprove his claim, (3) reactionary and unthinking repetition of his claim, and (4) an obnoxious and resolute quality to the performance of the claim.
By contrast, the rhetorical style of the president who preceded Trump, and to whom he often compares himself, President Barack Obama, is less simplistic, more nuanced, and embodies the antithesis of the double down, double consciousness. Robert E. Terrill evokes double consciousness to describe the core of Obama's speech, noting that he is “something of an avatar of two-sidedness.”5 Unlike Trump, whose doubling down actively resists self-reflexivity and is authoritarian in nature, Obama's double consciousness is inquisitive, is elastic, seeks rather than refutes experiential and empirical knowledge, and is socially driven. Let's take Medhurst, for example. Medhurst's editorial was a fiery and accusatory admonition of the NCA Executive Committee for taking away the selection powers of the DS without giving them ample opportunity to diversify their ranks. In his blog, Mohan J. Dutta remarks on this double down strategy, pointing out, “Mr. Medhurst does not tell us the reasons underlying the non-selection of the three among the four scholars of color that were recommended. He wants us to take his assurance on face value that there is no basis for the implicit assumption of racism. There are no facts to back up this claim here, except to assure us to accept the benevolence of Whiteness.”6 This particular double down strategy was launched in response to being informed of new democratizing procedures, which prompted Medhurst's apparent perception that his (and his peers') institutional power was under attack.
Absent, in this case, the kind of self-awareness and intellectual curiosity needed to engage in complex discussions about identity and merit, Medhurst instead leveraged his meritance. He used academic policies, languages, and practices in an attempt to reverse any eventualities that would lead to greater diversity, equity, inclusion, and access in DS decision making. His double down performance deployed the infrastructure of the association (the formal letter format, the self-publishing prerogative of the journal editor, and later the inscribing technology of CRTNET, the listserv published by NCA), to achieve his goal—no change. Additionally, while the operations of white supremacy in the academy are often subtle, behind closed doors, and hushed, the double down is obvious, conspicuous, and loud. Browsing through my Twitter and Facebook feeds, talking with friends and colleagues, and reading the multitude of comments in online communities involved with NCA during the tumult, I was hit over and over with “So they are just doing it out in the open now?” or “Tone deaf much?” or “This is such a slap in the face.” These performance-oriented phrasings represent the extent to which the actions and language of Medhurst and his supporters just begged to be called-out by folks who were equipped to enact another type of performance, one that would push back against the double down, articulating and moving toward another vision of the academy, of communication studies, of certain areas within the discipline, of departments and campuses, and of everyday life, rooted in justice and equity rather than status quo and tradition.
RECLAIMING CALL-OUT CULTURE
If the institutional structure of NCA has supported white supremacy, providing the technologies for holding on to power, and the powers that be continue inheriting from the powers that have been, what, then, is the academic inheritance of scholars of color and other scholars who have not benefited from the system as it is? What is our meritance; our own definition of merit that we have gotten from our forepeople? How do we navigate the double consciousness of existing in a profession in which we are suspect participants? And how do we shift the narrative of merit in ways that will edify and fulfill us as scholars, teachers, artists, and students?
In Yearning, bell hooks describes an everyday and culturally derived “aesthetic inheritance,” a creativity that is built on a hodgepodge of experiencing, witnessing, and being in the company of our own.7 Michel de Certeau might just call this “making do” with the visceral knowledges that we have been given.8 I believe that some noteworthy performances around the Medhurst/DS situation and subsequent reverberations were those that employed specific aesthetic inheritances for the dual purposes of resisting white supremacy in the discipline and of reclaiming academic space for ourselves and those like us to come.
The aesthetic inheritance that I speak of now is perhaps comprised of an array of performances that make do within the context of academic deliberation in an online environment. These performances drew from everyday practices, and were variably received and celebrated in the communities involved. Chief among the meritance strategies of a coalition of scholars advocating for change and supporting the decision of the NCA Executive Committee to take diversity seriously was the “call-out.”
What has been termed call-out culture has been pejoratively characterized as “the tendency within progressive and activist spaces to publicly highlight instances or patterns of oppressive policy, behaviour and language use by others.”9 While this seems entirely appropriate, this performance is often questioned on the basis of intentionality, anti-shaming politics, and differential positionalities with respect to region, race, and job precarity within the US university system. For my part, I have done my share of calling-out, and I admit to sleeping much better after I do it. To assert oneself and one's experience in a space where that experience is not valued is not easy, often necessary for everyone involved, and initiates a disorientation of existing power relations. It is my argument that while Medhurst and his supporters were focused on the subject of a self-assured and reifying concept of merit, coalitional agents of change were more concerned with the question of inheritance. Oh, they are taking away your power? Where did that power come from in the first place?
The call-out might be conceived of as a convergence of two different performances enacted in everyday life, which are particular to communities of color and those exposed to them: call-and-response, and the shout-out. Call-and-response refers to the communication phenomenon whereby an initiator utters a phrase, and then a group of responders well versed in this precise cultural language practice answers back, usually in a group. A shout-out is the performance, usually on a communal platform such as the radio or on social media, whereby a member of the community publicly acknowledges someone else in that community, usually to express gratitude or appreciation, to give praise where praise is due. The complexity of these two performances was on full display during the Medhurst/DS matter, as many and more scholars of color, coalitional change agents, NCA Division leaders and members, and interested parties employed these strategies on social media and CRTNET.
The least contentious aspect of the performances of meritance was the shout-out. “Thank you—fill in the blank—for your work!” However, within the diverse audience, a more nuanced performance, call-and-response, evoked a more nuanced reaction. The call-and-response is epitomized in back-and-forth chants such as these:
While the first two examples evoke cultural knowledge and specialized language within black church experience and can be gained through exposure or participatory practices (some of which have permeated into everyday US culture), the last example represents a kind of challenge for diverse community audiences—especially community audiences in which there are non-black members. While they may be semi-woke or entirely woke, they cannot participate in the response “I'm Black and I'm Proud” without appropriating or minimizing African American culture. This is as it should be. However, the result of nonresponse or silence in the face of a different kind of call—say, the call to speak out publicly in support of the NCA Executive Committee and diversity, equity, inclusion, and access—can be interpreted by some in the community as ignorance, apathy, cowardice, and privilege. While I'm sure these attitudes abound, we must continue to strategically deploy our voices and performances in ways that will accomplish our goals of diversity, vanquish the enemies of equity, and build lasting communities of inclusion.
ALSO, WHERE TO NOW?
I am all too familiar with what is going on in communication studies now. I have experienced it at almost every institution I've been part of. And it has a name: white supremacy. “White Supremacy is that voice in our collective heads that says it makes civilized sense that one group of people gets to annihilate, enslave, incarcerate, brainwash, torture, sterilize, breed, and terrorize other people. White Supremacy establishes, upholds, and normalizes hierarchy based on the premise that the less Black you are the closer you are to God.”10 If it is not clear—in this analogue and in the academy—merit is God. But, based on my own experiences with doubling down and calling-out, I offer the following mini-bible for fighting white supremacy while affirming our own meritance: Expose, Espouse, Excite, Educate, Endure.
Call them out; white supremacy flourishes in the dark! Language and actions that seem innocuous should be exposed and brought into the light. For example, the phrase “This candidate is just not the right fit” may seem appropriate on the surface, but within the context of hiring Faculty of Color (FOC), this common assertion may be more about racial and experiential sameness than it is about academic complementarity. In order to tease out what it may mean to “fit,” we must first expose, or call-out, the unquestioned use of the concept, and we must also pose direct and unflinching questions to practitioners of latent white supremacy.
Hone our arguments and maintain dignified authority and righteous indignation: double and triple down! The double down works not only because of its confidence, but also because the strategy causes the opposing party to question the truth of their own experience. We must learn to lean into the ethics of our speech and actions, letting the plain truth do the work for us with its clarity and common sense.
Get all parties involved in the response to the crisis (there will always be a crisis), and view it as an opportunity to create exciting new questions. Invariably, there will be stakeholders to enlist in our cause. The combined power of tenure-track faculty, non-tenure-track faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, clubs, organizations, and administration all working together to create an anti-racist community would be a terrible force to reckon with.
While it is most definitely not FOC's job to educate our colleagues on matters such as this, we do it every day. We can and should continue to use our inherited ways of dealing with white supremacy through tough love. What would we do if a student constantly did not do their homework but always had an opinion in class? My guess is that we would employ a constellation of strategies: call them out, put them in charge of doing research on the topic, have them demonstrate their knowledge through questioning, perhaps ask them to remain silent and listen. All these options constitute education.
Do not let up. Even though we understand, as Lisa Nakamura points out, that we are caught up in a white supremacist economy where “the hidden and often-stigmatised and dangerous labour performed by women of colour, queer and trans people, and racial minorities who call out, educate, protest, and design around toxic social environments in digital media”11 is unpaid and these people are overworked and rarely receive even the occasional shout-out, we must continue fighting stagnation with innovation, building lasting partnerships and communities, sometimes boarding the ship and taking over, reframing and reclaiming space and time.
Where to now? What will we pass on to our students and to the scholars who come after us? Let us capture this moment and fill it with new performances, languages, and policies designed to end the oppressive structures that constrain our creativity so that one day we will bring our whole selves to the academy. This will be our lives' work. And this will be their inheritance.