This essay examines how, in the academy, the language of merit is used to discipline and conform bodies to the standards set up to uphold conditions that benefiting whiteness. Therefore, the violence of merit is one of the ways whiteness reasserts itself.
In my previous work I argued that cruelty is the joy with which whiteness asserts itself and that “joyful assertion of whiteness, as an affective attachment and orientation, is a necessary condition under which an act of symbolic or physical violence can be deemed as cruel.”1 To understand whiteness as an affective attachment, I argued, is to consider how it needs to be constantly reasserted, reattached, and reaffirmed or, as Sara Ahmed articulated, an orienting bodies forward and away from things.2 That continuous act of reaffirmation of whiteness can be characterized as the joy of asserting power because, in our society, whiteness is intimately tied to power and because asserting whiteness also means enacting cruelty against others. In the context of the recent implosion in communication studies,3 it has become obvious that one of the most joyful ways that whiteness asserts power is achieved through the language of merit. Therefore, the violence of merit is one of the ways whiteness reasserts itself. I use the word “violence” here purposefully. In the academy, and in so many other professional fields, the language of merit is used to discipline and conform bodies to the standards set up to uphold conditions that benefit whiteness. Merit asks bodies to perform according to expectations that have been originally set up to ensure intellectual dominance of whiteness. Violence does not need to be physical to be violence. Merit is violent because it tries to make us “enough.” And it is inherently abusive because, as with any abusive relationship, there is never “enough.” Merit, as enforced through the joyful exercise of whiteness, is cruel. It ruins lives, destroys psyches, and leaves deep, permanent scars.
I want to be clear about few things. Merit is not a value-neutral category; most of us, including myself, have been guilty, at one time or another, of deploying merit as a gatekeeping function of whose work counts and whose does not; and it is cruel because it allows for a joyful proximity to whiteness. Power is an intoxicating thing. There is also no doubt that it is destructive to the very nature of academia and, more importantly, to bodies of those who—no matter what they accomplish—will never be “enough.”
In the recent months, partly as a response to the crisis in communication studies, and partly as a long-overdue reckoning, excellent analyses by academics of color offered a critique of merit and its relationship to whiteness. For example, Mohan J. Dutta powerfully argued that “the very standards of what constitutes merit are embedded in the ideology of Whiteness. It may further be argued that this ideology itself protects mediocrity under the guise of standards.”4 In another post, Dutta asked us to critically interrogate “the taken-for-granted logic of merit as the basis of the current system” and to ask questions about the role of networks, social capital, word-of-mouth, and interpersonal relationships in determining how the rewards of merit—such as awards, tenure, and other forms of recognition—are distributed in the academy.5 Once these questions are asked, there ought not be any doubt that merit rewards knowing the “right” people; having access to the “right” networks; speaking the “right” version of English; and behaving in the “right” way. In other words, contrary to its own ideological claims, meritocracy does not provide equitable access to academic rewards, but rather enforces standards of thought and behavior, all of which, in this society, are measured by their proximity to whiteness. Even supposedly “objective” measures of merit are complicit in the ways they evaluate proximity to whiteness. Most recently, the American Sociological Association released a statement on student evaluations of teaching that acknowledges what so many of us knew already: Student evaluations are biased against women and scholars of color and should not be regarded as an objective measure of teaching success.6 The statement, signed by a dozen professional organizations, including the National Communication Association, implicates one of the main standards for getting and keeping a job in academia as a tool of monitoring teacher behavior to ensure its closest possible proximity to whiteness.
All I can add is a personal story that grapples with the violence that merit inflicts on bodies as it disciplines them into being “enough,” while asserting that nothing those bodies do will ever be “enough.”
I am a white, heterosexual, cisnormative woman scholar. No doubt I have benefited from the privilege that this brings. I am also a refugee.7 I came to the United States at the age of 15 and could not speak a word of English. Even now, some 30 years later, I speak “wrong,” I think “wrong,” and I write “wrong.” Over the years, I have managed to cloak myself in my wrongness and my foreignness. I wear it as a suit of armor. I make jokes and I relish in my toughness. Underneath it all, I am scared and I am scarred by the violence of merit.
My entire academic career, white distinguished scholars tried to make me “enough.” I was told repeatedly that I did not live up to the standards of merit, whichever they were, and that they were trying to make me less “wrong” and more “enough.” Merit was the measuring stick, the tool, and the arbitration mechanism by which “enough” was determined. This was done, supposedly, to help me to succeed—yet another meaningless phrase rendered powerful by the violence of merit. I was told by a white distinguished scholar that, although I was the brightest student in her class, she could not write a recommendation letter for me because my performance was “not consistent enough”—yet another weapon in the arsenal of merit. Later on in my academic career, another white distinguished scholar ridiculed my research proposal in front of my graduate peers because he was trying “to help me to write better.” Abuse in the name of merit is a confusing thing to comprehend. Later on, the night before my dissertation defense, yet another white distinguished scholar told me that I really ought to learn English better. This was another useful reminder that foreignness is a liability in the pursuit of merit. And speaking of student teaching evaluations, I have lost count of how many times I have been dinged for having “an annoying voice,” “not understanding culture,” and “not respecting white male perspective.”
So many of us, who will never be “enough,” have these stories. I have a whole lot more, some very recent, some old, but all of which have left scars and all of which remind me that nothing I do will ever be “enough”—that it is merit's job to abolish foreignness, to destroy everything that does not confirm, and to prop up a standard of accomplishment based in whiteness, a standard that no foreigner can really fully achieve. Not without completely obliterating our own bodies, our own minds, and our own stories. And even then the ability to orient oneself in proximity to merit, and, by extension to whiteness, is doubtful.
Merit is not about how many articles or books one has written, or about publication venues, or about speaking invitations, or about anything quantifiable in an academic vita. It is about the power of some to assert their dominance over others. It is about the power to say that some are “enough” and others are not. It is about how discourses of success are used to discipline flesh. Here I am indebted to Alexander Weheliye's theorization of what he calls habeas viscus—“You shall have the flesh”—“to signal how violent political domination activates a fleshly surplus that simultaneously sustains and disfigures said brutality.”8 Merit as a form of violent political domination, masquerading as impartial standard and unsolicited helpfulness, carves its flesh from the bodies of those who do not immediately pass the test of privilege. Sometimes, after enough flesh is given and taken, the acknowledgment of merit might be granted, but make no mistake, merit is a hungry beast that, much like whiteness, always demands more. And the cycle of consumption continues. We will never be “enough.” All that is left is an amalgamation of scar tissue.
By the time I finished my PhD program, I had developed full-fledged post-traumatic stress disorder. I secured a permanent lectureship position in the top public university in the world, and yet I still felt not “enough.” Even the thought of writing gave me a panic attack. I attributed this paralysis to exhaustion and personal weakness, but now I understand that my body was succumbing to the seemingly impartial reward system of meritocracy. It was not until I got to know other immigrant scholars that I was able to work up the courage to start putting words on paper, even if the prospect of submitting those words to top journals in the field remained terrifying. I knew what happened when I aspired to be “enough,” and I did not think that I had the ability to withstand any more “helpful” feedback from yet another distinguished scholar. I was particularly inspired by the words of a senior scholar—an immigrant woman of color—who became a very important mentor in my career and who once told me, “We are not them. We need to find our own place and our own way to define success.” I tried to do that even though my own successes are still haunted by the feelings of not being “enough.” These are the ghosts that will never go away and will always be reinforced by the voices who insist that academic excellence is a straightforward path accessible to all.
We need to imagine a way of being in academia that destabilizes merit as a weapon wielded by some over many. Meritocracy is a construction of whiteness—a supposedly objective way in which value can be assigned—in which “enoughness” can be granted. It is violent and abusive, and it destroys intellectual curiosity. It is joyfully cruel and cruelly joyful. We need to embrace transformational politics that challenge what counts as “enough” or worthy of merit. We need to create venues for all types of scholarship. And we need to be mindful of the ways that the politics of meritocracy continue to shape our own thinking about whose scholarship is worthy of accolades. Most importantly, it is not until we can fully confront how whiteness has shaped the very nature of intellectual pursuit in our society—and it is not until we take responsibility for how we ourselves use meritocracy to our advantage—that we can be “enough.”