In this essay, I reflect on the events leading up to and immediately following the 2019 National Communication Association Organizational Communication Division's Top Paper Panel. In my reflection, I examine not only the events that happened, but also the role that my complacency played in my (lacking) preparation for pushback. In particular, I discuss how, in spite of my desire to be an ally for scholars of color, I had treated the problems facing marginalized scholars as an intellectual problem that was stripped of the emotional consequences. I conclude with a call to action to recognize complacency among white scholars as its own kind of violence.
Jenna N. Hanchey and I had been talking about writing a paper on organizational rhetoric for roughly five years, but it wasn't until she raised the problems of whiteness in the subfield that the paper came together. I must admit to some hesitancy when she suggested the new direction. I was fine with the change, in theory, but was concerned about my ability to make the shift. Jenna sent me a packet of articles and chapters to help me get my bearings. So, I struggled through Sylvia Wynter, fell in love with Aimee Carrillo Rowe, was intrigued by Walter D. Mignolo and Achille Mbembe, and then tried to read Wynter again.1 However, even as I dove into a body of literature that sought to decenter my thinking (and even as I enjoyed the idea of that decentering), I failed to realize the importance of the arguments. My complacency shielded me from uncomfortable realities.
Flash forward: Two weeks before the conference Kate Lockwood Harris, Jenna, and I strategized. We knew our papers; Kate's in particular, would prompt pushback during the panel. We planned how to provide support for one another when difficult questions were asked. We shared our concerns about being recognized as white scholars for citing the work of nonwhite, non-Western thinkers.
Flash forward: I wasn't sitting with the other panelists because I had offered my seat when the respondent came up to the already overcrowded table. Thus, when Kate got up and moved toward the door, I was simply confused. With my back to the crowd, the limits of my own sensemaking were such that the idea of walking out did not occur to me until I saw Jenna stand and stride toward the door. Even given my own shock and discomfort at the response, my instinct was to stay (though to what end I did/do not know). Turning my head, I realized that many other people were walking out, and, after a moment of hesitation, I stood and moved with my friends toward the door, laptop, now slippery from nervous sweat, clasped in hand.
Out in the hallway, most of what I remember are the faces, shell-shocked and slack with disbelief, piled upon faces twisted in anger and hurt. My discomfort and shock shifted to grief and anger as I saw the results of the violence experienced by those around me. As the panel ended, I ran inside to gather the abandoned items of a friend who did not want to go back to the front of the room and tried to avoid walking by the respondent, not knowing what I would do if we made eye contact.
As I returned to the hallway, Rebecca Meisenbach switched from her role as chair of the panel to that of friend and mentor; she came and asked me if I was “doing okay.” I found I couldn't look at her, much less answer, lest my wavering hold on my emotions break. When I failed to respond, Rebecca correctly interpreted, “No, you're not okay.”
Someone informed me that the collective planned to go into the business meeting and sit on the floor along the wall. Shortly before we filed inside, Rebecca texted, now in her role as vice chair of the Organizational Communication Divison, asking if we wanted to speak. I believed that a response was needed, though I didn't know what could be said. I responded that we would like a chance to speak, hoping someone better suited to address what had happened would stand. She inquired whether we wanted to be invited or transgress. I replied that I would be more comfortable with us being invited.
The meeting proceeded with absurd normality. After finishing her report, Rebecca stated it was important to discuss what had just happened. She turned toward us and asked if any panelists would like to come forward to speak. My stomach sank. I had imagined a more open invitation for comment. Now, however, there were only six of us who were invited to speak—only three of whom had walked out. Jenna and I looked to one another as we both hesitated. A colleague, seeing my hesitation, encouraged me to stand as Jenna rose first. Jenna shared the perspectives that we had hoped would come up in Q&A: that celebrating three white scholars for this work was troubling as the arguments we were discussing were not new.
After Jenna spoke, I stood, committed to saying something. I took a moment and tried (and failed) to steady my voice, I reflected on the last thing I remembered from the comments: a slide depicting the lyrics from Dolly Parton's “9 to 5,” which had suggested that while things were bad if we stuck together, “someday” our ship would come in. I recall saying that it was insufficient to seek to just “not be racist” and that we needed to directly confront these issues. I argued that change does not happen on its own. Truthfully, I remember little of what I said, other than that it was inadequate to the moment.
Since the 2019 National Communication Association (NCA) conference, I've had time to reflect on my own inadequacy and complacency. I realize I have become complacent in my citational practices. After all, if it weren't for Jenna's prodding, our paper would have replicated the same whiteness that it now challenges. Even when anticipating pushback, I was complacent. During the pre–NCA meeting with Jenna and Kate, I was treating the expected challenges in the panel as an isolated moment as opposed to an ongoing struggle. My whiteness helped me compartmentalize the problems in the discipline. I had treated the problem in a sanitized manner, an intellectual problem to be solved that would lead to a better discipline. As I entered the hallway and saw the pain of those around me, I realized that I had become not only intellectually, but also emotionally, complacent in my capacity to recognize the violence around me.
I return now to the call I made during the business meeting with an amendment. To be anti-racist means to be anti-complacency. As a discipline, we must recognize that to read about and speak about whiteness in communication studies in sanitized tones that divorce the theoretical and epistemic from the material and emotional is its own form of violence, and the first place we must confront this as white scholars is in ourselves.
Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument,” CR: The New Centennial Review 3, no. 3 (2003): 257–337; Aimee Carrillo Rowe, “Be Longing: Toward a Feminist Politics of Relation,” NWSA Journal 17, no. 2 (2005): 15–46; Walter D. Mignolo, “DELINKING: The Rhetoric of Modernity, the Logic of Coloniality and the Grammar of De-coloniality,” Cultural Studies 21, nos. 2–3 (2007): 449–514; Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason, trans. Laurent Dubois (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).