This essay reflects on the walkout during the 2019 National Communication Association Organizational Communication Division's Top Paper Panel. I draw upon queer theory to discuss the impacts of disciplinary norms and whiteness in organizational communication.
I feel strange, uncertain being here. Yes, in these pages, but also in the academic spaces that this forum writes about: conferences, classrooms, departments. As a master's student, I am acutely aware of the academic hierarchy, of when my voice is appreciated (and not), of the currency of deference. The paranoia that attends to being both relatively unseen and yet consistently scrutinized for academic fitness means that graduate school has artfully preyed upon my insecurities and primed me for discipline. So, yes, I feel strange being here.
“Being here” in academia has often meant decoding what it means to be part of a “home” field such as organizational communication. It took me a long time to find a place where I could be curious about the things I cared about, but I did not initially consider how that “home” would discipline me: my queer body, my queer ways of relating, thinking, writing, and researching. I have discovered I do not have to do much to participate in my own disciplining; merely being here in academia communicates in so many ways how to act, what kinds of knowledge are valued, and what questions are worth asking. The more I show up, the more I realize that the guiding hand of disciplinary norms will happily shape me in its own white, cisheterosexual, able-bodied image.
The image both does and does not fit, and I cannot deny the certain comforts afforded to me by my white cismale identity in these spaces. But the things that academic whiteness asks of me, of all people—perfectionism, individualism, defensiveness, among others—are the exact things that have nearly killed me in the past and continue to threaten my life. The seat at the table has straps, pins, and razors.
Sitting in the 2019 National Communication Association Organizational Communication Division's Top Paper Panel session, I felt something lift in me. Many of the papers named and addressed forces that shaped organizing, such as whiteness, colonialism, and sexism, making visible the many ways I could feel the field disciplining myself and others. Kate Lockwood Harris's paper in particular spoke so plainly about the field's complicity in perpetuating coloniality and white supremacy, and the consequences of constituting itself within these harmful logics, that I finally allowed myself to feel as though the field itself might wrestle with the questions that so many of us seemed to be struggling with, either individually or in beleaguered pockets. Envisioning what this reckoning might entail, the community that could be built from that starting point was a door opening into a queer otherwise that might finally undo our collective disciplining.
Sadly, this critique, and the potentialities it elicited, was dismissed by the panel respondent and chair of the Organizational Communication Division. Hearing Harris's argument discounted and minimized, not on its own terms, but in ways that reenacted precisely the practices of whiteness that Harris sought to critique, felt like that door closing, heavy and definite. Slipping away from view was the queer otherwise that I had felt, “the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality.”1
I like to think that the walkout left that door ajar, as a kind of open, unresolved wound. As Harris argued in her paper that day, protest and activism are theory, and the walkout continued a long, persistent tradition of speaking to the normative disciplinary logics that shape organizational communication. And yet, in the weeks that followed, the striking feeling that lingered in my body was not that the walkout happened, but that it could have just as easily never happened. Were it not for the people sitting next to me, my disposition that afternoon, the conference sessions I had visited earlier that day, I am certain my disciplinary training would have kept me in my seat even as so much of my body protested. Disciplinary whiteness taught me to instinctively value decorum when faced with a violent dismissal of people's humanity, decorum over what the body speaks. This recognition forces me to acknowledge the countless other times that I would not allow myself to stand—when I found myself strapped to the chair in order to stay at the table.
I am interested in an undisciplined queer otherwise, one that attends to the horizon, but also the immediacy of “the dirt and concrete where people live, work, and play.”2 An otherwise that creates new ways of being in community that are not underpinned by disciplinary whiteness. Such a queer approach values inquiry into the disciplinary norms that shape the field, rather than inclusion into the field as it stands today. It attends to the crisis that is this open wound, acknowledging and sitting with the wound instead of hurriedly covering it up or moving past it.
In gesturing toward this undisciplining queer otherwise, I hope the walkout prompts organizational communication scholars to question: What are the limits of thought for organizational communication, “where thought stops, what it cannot bear to know, what it must shut out to think as it does”?3 What would change if organizational communication saw the seat at its table as a kind of torture device, not as a way forward? Would it continue to focus its efforts on inviting people on “the outside” to have a seat, or would it direct its inquiry inward, to what causes so many of us with and without privilege pain? How can we walk with each other as we encounter this crisis, this understanding that whiteness defines our relationships with ourselves and others inside and outside of academia?
These are not questions to engage at an intellectual distance. Ultimately, queerness “implies what is possible for making lives livable.”4 For me, the messiness of undisciplining organizational communication, and building life-giving communities of thought, heart, and spirit, has just begun.
José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 1.
Karma R. Chávez, Queer Migration Politics: Activist Rhetoric and Coalitional Possibilities (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 7.
Deborah P. Britzman, “Is There a Queer Pedagogy? Or, Stop Reading Straight,” Educational Theory 45, no. 2 (1995): 156.
Chávez, Queer Migration Politics, 6.