This introduction situates the 2019 National Communication Association Organizational Communication Division's Top Paper Panel walkout within a larger subdisciplinary history of erasing scholarship on racism, colonialism, as well as queer and trans* studies. I describe how such scholarship is labeled either groundbreaking or irrelevant—thereby relegating it to outside of the typical or expected domain of organizational communication.
I entered the 2019 National Communication Association (NCA) annual convention in the midst of an identity crisis. I consider myself primarily a rhetoric scholar, or a critical/cultural scholar if one reads “rhetoric” as principally the territory of dead Western white fellows. But I had also tiptoed for years on the treacherous intradisciplinary line that allowed me to claim both rhetoric and organizational communication as areas of expertise. Finding myself on the Organizational Communication Division's Top Paper Panel at a time in my career when I craved recognition as a “real” rhetoric scholar left me feeling disoriented. As with many identity crises, the problem was not truly with my work—my trajectory of intersectional decolonial research on aid to Africa is clear—but with how other people chose to label and understand it. Intradisciplinary boundaries and their attendant anxieties catch many in their normalizing traps.
Part of the reason I claim rhetoric as my primary affiliation is that it is home to a strong and undeniable coalition of scholars centering racialization, coloniality, intersectional feminisms, queer theory, and trans* approaches in their work. Part of the reason I still publish in organizational communication is that it is not. As my coauthor, Peter R. Jensen, will tell you, I guessed we would be on the Top Paper Panel when we submitted our essay. Or, more precisely, I claimed that we would either be on the Top Paper Panel or be rejected outright. I knew that organizational communication had not yet substantively dealt with the decades of anti-racist and decolonial theory used in our essay. I guessed the essay would be seen as either groundbreaking or irrelevant.
Groundbreaking or irrelevant—this false dichotomy is one of the intradisciplinary traps often laid within the fractures between communication studies subdisciplines. At NCA, I spoke with a colleague of color who had begun in organizational communication as an MA student only to move toward critical/cultural studies after recognizing that his work on race was unintelligible to many organizational communication scholars as organizational communication work. Irrelevant. That's not organizational communication; it's something different. And yet, on the Top Paper Panel, my coauthor and I received an award as white scholars taking decades of work by people of color and applying it to an organizational problem. Groundbreaking.
But our work isn't groundbreaking. Not truly. Groundbreaking is another trap; it's another way that scholars of color, scholars from the Global South, as well as queer and trans* scholars, are relegated to the boundaries of communication studies subdisciplines. Irrelevant and groundbreaking are two sides of the same coin. Both claiming that race work is irrelevant to organizational communication and claiming that it is new to organizational communication are ways of denying that scholars within the subdiscipline should have been attending to it all along.
The calls for anti-racist work run deep, as does the recognition that these calls are not being heeded. As Brenda J. Allen explained in 1995, talking about “workplace diversity” in scholarship does not mean diversity is being addressed.1 Instead, it is one of the ways that organizational communication research uses diversity in a “nonperformative” manner, whereby talking about race is meant to be a failure of engaging with race substantively: “It ‘works’ because it fails to bring about what it names.”2 Organizational communication scholars have all seen—or performed ourselves—the citation of “Parker (2001),” “Ashcraft & Allen (2003),” or “Broadfoot & Munshi (2007)” as if these essays were indicative of a broad swath of anti-racist and postcolonial work in the field.3 As if our citation of them in an offhand way was a meaningful engagement with difference.4 As if calls for change are themselves the change for which they call. Groundbreaking.
There are of course scholars of color who have managed to beat back these powerful tides and have notable careers in the discipline. But for every Brenda J. Allen, Shiv Ganesh, and Patricia Parker, there are dozens who the subfield pushed to the margins. Irrelevant.
The 2019 NCA Organizational Communication Division's (OCD) Top Paper Panel response—and the walkout it elicited—emerged from this milieu. On 16 November 2019, four top papers were presented by assistant professors, including Kate Lockwood Harris, Peter, and me. Kate's paper, in particular, called for disciplinary transformation in regard to racism and colonialism. At the conclusion of the presentations, Marya L. Doerfel, the 2019 OCD chair, came up to present her prepared response. Peter gave up his seat, moving to the audience so that she could sit at the front table.
The respondent began her remarks by referencing an earlier “tongue in cheek” commitment she had made, as the OCD chair, to “make org comm great again.” She then described how the four papers added diverse contributions to the OCD, noting that of the more than 200 citations among the four papers, only five references overlapped.5 She minimized the centrality of the five anti-racist and decolonial essays used by Kate, Peter, and me. Irrelevant. She then specifically addressed Kate and her paper, stating that Kate should “tone down” her “fiery language” and framing other aspects of her presentation as aggressive. This was after Kate had carefully and calmly argued in her presentation that tone policing was one method through which whiteness is maintained in the discipline. Specifically, the respondent took issue with Kate's use of the term “white supremacy,” and cautioned Kate that the language in her paper was divisive. She joked about sexual harassment.
The respondent spent little time on the papers before turning to what she referred to as “me-search,” reflecting on the state of organizational communication. She mentioned that she, as a white woman, used to be the “face of diversity” in the field. She decided to focus her disciplinary history on Harvard University and its record of tenuring white women as compared to academia more broadly. At this point, my notes on the response started to read:
this is fascinating.
OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG
white woman feelings white woman feelings
“I'm not doing intersectionality here because we don't have time for that.”
The contributions to this Critical Intervention forum respond to the specific context of the walkout, as well as to the larger disciplinary structures that enabled the racist tenor of the response. The participants in this forum entered the room that day in different roles—Peter R. Jensen, Kate Lockwood Harris, and I as authors; Joëlle M. Cruz, Kathryn Joan Leslie, and Sean Charles Kenney as audience members; Angela N. Gist-Mackey as a representative of the OCD leadership—but we left it bound together by a desire to transform the discipline such that scholarship on racism and colonialism could no longer be ignored or dismissed. No longer groundbreaking or irrelevant: Scholarship on racism and colonialism is fundamentally necessary to the future of organizational communication.
Brenda J. Allen, “‘Diversity’ and Organizational Communication,” Journal of Applied Communication Research 23, no. 2 (1995): 143–55.
Sara Ahmed, “The Nonperformativity of Antiracism,” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism 7, no. 1 (2006): 105.
Patricia S. Parker, “African American Women Executives within Dominant Culture Organizations: (Re)conceptualizing Notions of Instrumentality and Collaboration,” Management Communication Quarterly 15, no. 1 (2001): 42–82; Karen Lee Ashcraft and Brenda J. Allen, “The Racial Foundation of Organizational Communication,” Communication Theory 13, no. 1 (2003): 5–38; Kirsten J. Broadfoot and Debashish Munshi, “Diverse Voices and Alternative Rationalities: Imagining Forms of Postcolonial Organizational Communication,” Management Communication Quarterly 21, no. 2 (2007): 249–67.
Instead, these offhand citations are examples of what María Lugones calls noninteractive engagements with difference, ones that pay lip service without working toward transformative change. See María Lugones, Pilgrimajes/Peregrinajes: Theorizing Coalition Against Multiple Oppressions (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), 68.
The overlapping references were Broadfoot and Munshi, “Diverse Voices and Alternative Rationalities”; Paula Chakravartty, Rachel Kuo, Victoria Grubbs, and Charlton McIlwain, “#CommunicationSoWhite,” Journal of Communication 68, no. 2 (2018): 254–66; Jenna N. Hanchey, “All of Us Phantasmic Saviors,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 15, no. 2 (2018): 144–60; Kate Lockwood Harris, “Re-situating Organizational Knowledge: Violence, Intersectionality and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Human Relations 70, no. 3 (2016): 263–85; Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015).