In this essay, prompted by the disciplinary debate over #CommunicationSoWhite in summer 2019, I reflect on my past publications in Rhetoric & Public Affairs to identify how structures of whiteness influenced the shape and acceptance of my publications. Drawing upon my self-critique, the essay provides advice for white scholars who aim to responsibly address questions of race and racism as both authors and reviewers.
On 12 June 2019, Rhetoric & Public Affairs (RPA) editor Martin Medhurst distributed an editorial he planned to publish in the pages of the journal. In it, he criticized the National Communication Association (NCA) for “prioritizing diversity in place of intellectual merit” and “displacing scholarly merit as the chief criterion” for designating recipients of a prestigious disciplinary award.1 Against this model, he touted the editorial process of RPA as an exemplary way to determine scholarly worth. Problematically tokenizing a trans scholar, he noted that their “scholarship will be judged on its merits, not on the identity category of its author.”2
Medhurst's editorial elided the ways structures like “merit” invisibly rationalize and uphold structures of white privilege. The journal he leads provides a case-in-point. For over two decades, he—a cishet white man—served as the journal's editor; as of 2019, over 90 percent of its editorial board was white, with dismal representation of women and LGBTQ scholars. As Thomas K. Nakayama and Robert L. Krizek observed nearly 25 years ago, “Within a discursive system of naming oppression, but never the oppressive class, white can only be a negative, an invisible identity.”3 Only under assumptions of white invisibility could one feasibly believe, as Medhurst implied, that “identity … has historically not been prioritized” by RPA.4 Medhurst's stance is, of course, symptomatic of a wider problem. Despite decades of scholarship interrogating whiteness—including work published within the pages of RPA—many white scholars still assume that their publications, rewards, and editorial choices are wholly predicated on merit and untouched by white supremacy.
As a cishet white man who published two articles in RPA as a graduate student, reviewed numerous articles for the journal, and briefly served on its editorial board, I was prompted by Medhurst's editorial to pause and reflect on my own complicity. To what extent has my own work sustained the invisible ubiquity of whiteness within RPA and the discipline at large? How did my work benefit from the overwhelming whiteness of the journal's editorial board—in ways that neither I, nor my reviewers, consciously recognized at the time? Going forward, how can I be more conscientious and deliberately anti-racist in my own practices as a writer and reviewer? In this space, I commence this complex reflective process by looking back upon my own words and foibles. In so doing, I hope to demonstrate the sort of self-critique demanded of white scholars and suggest paths toward dismantling racist disciplinary structures.
To chisel away at the pernicious persistence of meritocratic ideology, this essay interrogates how whiteness shaped both the content and acceptance of my work in RPA.5 With the benefit of hindsight, I now recognize that my publications contain glaring omissions regarding race and racism—omissions I should have addressed and that reviewers should have recognized. As Kristiana L. Báez and Ersula Ore argue, there is an interrelationship between disciplinary whiteness and the “exclusive racist logics that contribute to the marginalization of work that centers race.”6 In my case, the insulating whiteness of myself and (likely) my reviewers failed to attend to what Kirt H. Wilson describes as “the multilayered contexts of America's racial history.”7 As such, my publications were missed opportunities to more deeply interrogate the rhetorical structures of public life. Put simply, more diversity in the editorial process could have enriched my work, making it more incisive, complex, and valuable to the field. Building upon this reflection, I offer advice by which white scholars can interrogate their own complicity and aid in dismantling racist disciplinary structures.
TREATING RACISM AS A FOOTNOTE
In 2013, RPA published my first academic publication: “Entelechy and Irony in Political Time: The Preemptive Rhetoric of Nixon and Obama.”8 Drawing upon Stephen Skowronek's concept of “political time,” I argued that Barack Obama and Richard Nixon alike imagined themselves as “preemptive” figures who strategically intervened in overextended ideological frames (of New Deal liberalism and Reagan conservatism, respectively). They did so by developing ironic strategies to amplify political rancor and posit themselves as “reasonable,” civil, middle-ground alternatives. Given the vital role of racism to Nixon's “Silent Majority” and Obama's cultivation of “post-racial” mythology, one would expect any analysis of the candidates' appeals to “reason” not only to include, but also to center, discussions of race and racism. The essay did not do so.
Describing each candidate's efforts to cultivate personae of ironic humility, openness, patience, and transcendence, I covered a range of domestic and foreign policy issues that emerged in Nixon's and Obama's rhetoric. Yet I never focused on race, even when it was obviously invoked by the speakers, as in Nixon's infamous appeal to “the forgotten Americans—the non-shouters, the nondemonstrators [who] are not racists or sick.”9 I did not address how those who might have found Nixon's speech a refreshing appeal to “reason” or “civility” might have done so out of racialized anxiety over the “cities enveloped in smoke and flame” or “sirens in the night” Nixon described—allusions not only to Vietnam War protests, but also to the so-called race riots of the late 1960s. The Obama portion of the essay did not mention race a single time, despite the obvious importance of race to his candidacy and presidency. As a byproduct, the article also elided relevant extant rhetorical scholarship, much of it by scholars of color, interrogating Obama's rhetorics of racial conciliation.10
The one time I directly discussed race, I relegated the topic to a massive footnote.11 There, I examined Nixon's attempt to forge a middle ground with voters “reluctant to pursue civil rights and simultaneously fretful of embracing the overt civil rights opposition of [George] Wallace.”12 The way I made this case was wholly problematic. Where Nixon dismissed allegations that he used “code words for racism,” I noted that he sought “to mitigate criticisms that his rhetorical strategy is merely a subtle nod to traditionalistic Americans that he will not explicitly pursue policies to further the cause of civil rights.”13 Immediately, notice the euphemistic use of “traditionalistic” in place of “white”; I blatantly assumed the normative whiteness of Nixon's electoral majority while rendering whiteness invisible through the veneer of “tradition.”
More fundamentally, my footnote evinced a troubling willingness to take Nixon at his word without weighing his language against racial context or the lessons of hindsight. Indeed, I treated that context as outside my purview as a critic: “The actual policy outcomes of this language are not the focus of this essay; but rather, the perceived persona of reasonableness” Nixon crafted through his language.14 This was an ethically bankrupt approach to criticism, one that absolved me from having to directly engage with the material consequences and ideological obfuscations at work in Nixon's discourse. At the time, I rationalized the footnote by suggesting that there's only so much room in an essay; I can't incorporate every bit of context. But in the scope of 20th-century presidential history, this context mattered more than anything else I included.
The truth is, I was afraid to take on race directly. I'd been acculturated to read the topic as messy and divisive; and having read primarily white scholars (the essay cited Kenneth Burke, Stephen Skowronek, Walter Fisher, and James P. McDaniel), I lacked the critical vocabulary to talk about racism meaningfully. These absences in my earlier scholarship are, ultimately, my own responsibility. But reviewers should have recognized my cowardice, posed the difficult questions, and directed me to relevant literature. With an editorial board that was mostly white, mostly male, and mostly rhetoricians whose own work sidestepped the complexities of race, it's clear how the manuscript survived peer review without addressing this context. The essay was worse for it. Absolved from grappling with the inherent racism of Nixon's appeal to “reason” and “civility”—historical discourses that have been used to marginalize the voices of “uncivilized” people of color—I didn't explore how Nixon's ironic self-definition helped facilitate his racist “Southern Strategy.” More than that, I foreclosed my own critical consideration of how Obama's own ironic strategies proved inadequate in confronting the racism that surged under his presidency.
A similar inattention to race pervaded my second RPA publication, “‘The Guardian Genius of Democracy': The Myth of the Heroic Teacher in Lyndon B. Johnson's Education Policy Rhetoric, 1964–1966.”15 There, I explored how a mythic conception of “heroic teachers” functions in American politics to imbue education with the potential to alleviate a range of social ills. Oddly, my discussion did not address the role of “white savior” ideology as a facet of the heroic teacher myth. The omission is especially problematic in that the essay centered on how as president, LBJ invoked his experiences teaching Mexican American students for two years in Cotulla, TX. Appealing to his sacrifices in borderland classrooms, his rhetoric drew upon a long pedagogical tradition of efforts to “Americanize” nonwhite children in former Mexican territories through missionary education.16 Yet I did not address this obviously racist context.
In retrospect, these oversights are particularly glaring because they were so obvious. It's not like LBJ was particularly subtle about constructing himself as a white savior; as he said in a famous 1965 address on civil rights, “those little brown bodies had so little and needed so much.”17 Likewise, the theoretical literature I drew upon—Ronald Barthes's Mythologies—explicitly discussed the role of myth in depoliticizing concepts of race, colonialism, and imperialism.18 Yet the article brushed past these opportunities without pausing to contemplate how race and racism suffused LBJ's discourse.
While my reviewers offered thoughtful, helpful, and considerate feedback that improved the piece, neither of their reviews said a word about the absence of this racial context. Whiteness abetted whiteness, with immeasurable ripple effects. Going forward, scholars working at the nexus of rhetoric, race, and education policy will have one fewer citation to legitimize their work. Authors will read the essay without encountering vital context or relevant work by historians, rhetoricians, and theorists of coloniality in education policy on the US–Mexico border. The field of communication studies knows less about how rhetoric functioned in the era and discourse I chose to study. And, through countless seemingly innocuous decisions, sins of omission, and hidden structures, disciplinary whiteness becomes further insulated from critique.
CONFRONTING RACISM IN RHETORIC AND PUBLIC ADDRESS
If the reader feels any sympathy for my remarks as an exertion of white guilt, dispense with such nonsense. I just recounted how I materially benefited from my own whiteness while avoiding direct engagement with relevant issues of race in my scholarship. The proper, morally-calibrated emotional response to this reflection should be frustration and outrage. Our field must resist “rehabilitating the white subject” by, for instance, centering white expressions of contrition.19 We do not need a spate of special issues giving white scholars more curriculum vitae lines to unpack the failings of their own prior work. (I recognize the irony that my past failures, enabled by my privilege, have facilitated my publication in this journal.) To be sure, a chief goal of this essay is to model reflective practices for white scholars who underestimate the role of whiteness and privilege in their personal scholarly archives. But reflection alone will not foster necessary changes in academic culture, structures of peer review, or editorial policy. To that end, I offer suggestions for translating reflective insight into meaningful praxis.
For white rhetorical scholars, my missteps foreground a set of responsibilities we must accept and undertake as authors. As critical readers of public address, we must be wary of taking rhetors' words at face value—of reading their texts as somehow operating in ways detached from broader structures of whiteness, racism, and colonization. Nixon could not construct a persona apart from race or the racist implications of his policies; Obama could not transcend structures of race any more than he could physically levitate above the ground. These rhetors' efforts at self-definition were symbiotic with a racialized context, whether they explicitly said so or not. To read the racial dimensions of texts that do not explicitly invoke race is not a case of conceptual overreach, of “reading race into” a text where it wasn't. Structures of race are always present, regardless of whether white scholars can see them. Indeed, racist ideas and structures are invisible to white people by design, naturalized to rationalize unequal allocations of power and privilege.20 This insight should prompt white scholars to engage widely with literature by scholars studying histories of race and other axes of identity, citing their contributions to enrich our rhetorical analyses.
These authorial responsibilities extend to the publication process. Should a journal insufficiently represent marginalized voices, the odds increase that their feedback will elide important racial contexts and considerations. Flattering though a “Revise and Resubmit” from a top-tier journal may be, if reviewers do not challenge an author on the complexities and importance of race, odds are they overlooked something important. (I have found the following heuristic useful: If a rhetorical act occurred after the invention of racial ideology in the 1400s, odds are that race played an important role in its context.)
White scholars must treat peer reviewing as a collaborative anti-racist endeavor, one that constructively improves authors' work while reflecting on our own biases and obliviousness. Guiding authors through revision might require a reviewer to conduct additional research, read fresh theoretical perspectives, and examine unfamiliar racial contexts. That work is difficult, but it is necessary; though scholars from historically marginalized backgrounds have sensitivities white scholars will lack, they should not have to undertake this work alone. For a rhetorician to refuse this charge because they “do not study race” is akin to claiming not to study history, politics, arguments, or words—it is absurd. Not every valuable publication in rhetorical studies will discuss race at length, but no author or reviewer who dismisses race has done their due diligence.
Ultimately, white scholars must redouble our commitments to growth and self-critique. It can wound our frail white egos to admit that, despite advanced degrees and publications attesting to our wisdom, we still need remedial education in the subjects of race, power, and privilege. But we do. Closely reading accessible texts such as Ijeoma Oluo's So You Want to Talk about Race and Ibram X. Kendi's How to Be an Antiracist can help fill in the gaps that too often remain in white scholars' racial understanding.21 Reading special issues on race, such as those recently published in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Rhetoric Review, and Quarterly Journal of Speech, can help scholars get up to speed on pressing issues facing the discipline.22 Yet reading, like reflecting, can only go so far. What matters most are the everyday changes we make in how we engage with our work, our colleagues, and our world.
Believe scholars of color who share their stories; their experiences are real, whether you see them or not. Interpret others' allegations of racist bias or elision as an invitation to stop and reflect, not as a swipe at your dignity. Recognize that writing about racism and power does not immunize you from enacting either—including in the pages of your own published writing. Realize that a commitment to diversity entails a willingness to rescind one's own power, to let other voices occupy the center, and to step aside when asked. Reflect critically on your own career, conduct, and accomplishments to make what's invisible visible. Own your complicity. Then fix it.