Organizational communication should tone up, that is, refuse white fragility's demands to slow the pace of change.
I heard the comments directed at me. The call to tone down. An objection to my “fiery language.” The suggestion that it was inappropriate to use the term “white supremacy.”
I remember grinning, not in pleasure, but in wry recognition of discourse that shuts down transformation and organizes whiteness. I felt calm and clear in that moment. This part of the response was directed at me, but it was not about me or my paper or the 2019 National Communication Association (NCA) Organizational Communication Division's Top Paper Panel. It was about what happens when people violate the hushing expectations of whiteness.
As the response escalated, I turned my attention to the audience. I heard dissenting murmurs, and I saw objections on some people's faces. A co-panelist passed me a note: “wtf?!” I heard an eruptive chortle. Its timing was an act of resistance, different from the audience laughter that accompanied the respondent's “joke” about sexually harassing the panelists. Then, I saw three people I care about walk out.
Still calm and clear, I thought, “What are my points of influence in this moment? What actions can I take?” Our panel consisted entirely of untenured assistant professors. I was most senior among us, and I also knew I would receive the Organizational Communication Division's Top Paper Award. My leaving would be impactful for both those reasons.
Time stretched during those brief, deliberative seconds. In that clam slowness, I decided to follow the three people out. I made eye contact with a few friends in the audience to ask if they would join me. And then I walked off the panel as some nonsense about Dolly Parton rang out in the background. Other panelists walked out. Many audience members did too. Some allies stayed in the room, witnessing the session's remainder.
I wish that sense of calm had stayed with me in the days that followed. It didn't. I couldn't sleep or keep down food. I couldn't find the stillness I'd accessed in the moment. The events activated my nervous system such that pasts, presents, and futures blurred.1 It was hard to stay grounded, and I wanted to flee my body and the discipline and the profession altogether. Encounters with systemic violence can do this.
But as a scholar and a white person, engaging that system is part of my work. Composing this essay now, a few months removed from the NCA annual convention, my heart rate still speeds up and my hands shake. I haven't found a way to write that elicits the messiness of this labor. I'm still figuring out how to participate in the disorganization of systemic violence—how to care for the traumas written in my body while witnessing2 and struggling3 against the violent, white supremacist systems communication studies has constituted.
In the weeks following the Top Paper Panel, I spent almost all my time responding to it. I spoke with colleagues across the country and replied to hundreds of text messages. My professional social media was abuzz, my inbox flooding. In the midst of these intensities, each of us Critical Intervention forum authors along with trusted mentors, students, and colleagues were laboring hard to organize something different. That work continues.
During this time, I noticed many calls for me, this group of Critical Intervention forum authors, or Communication Scholars for Transformation (CSFT) to “slow down,” “calm down,” and “tone down.” The calls came initially from the respondent, but other colleagues echoed them, and some came from scholars I respect and admire.
Sometimes “Slow down!” can mean “I need to rest” or “I cannot remain in this grueling, trauma-filled space while maintaining myself and/or the relations that support my survival.” Rest can be radical.4 It is crucial for transformation, and stillness matters for continued action.5 Slowing can challenge the acceleration of violence.6 Even the supposed “center” of organizational communication—though reticent about race—understands “systematic soldiering,” a form of resistance wherein workers refuse to speed up their labor. Organized slowness can be anti-racist, feminist, trauma-informed action.
But slowness can also be a technique of violence, oppression's enabling buddy. Calls to slow down can reinforce what so many coalitions want to dismantle. “Slow down” and “calm down” and “tone down” are gaslighting phrases.7 They invoke the “stability” part of the stability–change dialectic that organizational communication scholars so often discuss. But stability for whom? To some people, what looks like “stability” is the force that produces insecurity, precarity, and violence. What can feel “too fast,” what can seem like too much change is, for many people, actually an emerging stability and security.
Although both of these iterations of “slow”—activist and abusive—were operating during and after the Top Paper Panel, I want to pause on the second one. When people said to me, or this group, or CSFT, “You should slow down,” “You should calm down,” and “You should tone down,” the people speaking these phrases likely meant “I am at the point where I am no longer able to sit with my anxiety and despair and rage and all the other emotions white supremacy produces.” In these “suggestions,” I heard fear because I have felt it before and will likely feel it again. I also bristle because, when these statements emerge from the mouth of whiteness, they are appeals to accommodate white fragility.
For scholars of color, accommodating white fragility can be a survival strategy, a way to stay in the room. The risks of refusing this labor and the work of responding—the relentless decisions about what to say, when and how, or whether to go—fall unevenly on different bodies. White people expect black and brown people “to live in a state of being turned down, unobtrusive, inconspicuous, ornamental. [Black and nonwhite people] are to both turn down and tone down.”8 Organizational communication has normalized this turning down and toning down, this “politeness” that maintains whiteness.
I have learned to accommodate quite well, and I have also learned how to require others to accommodate me. These are the lessons of whiteness, ones that require organized unlearning. Each of us has a breaking point where we can no longer find internal stillness. But white people have not had to move through that point, to dwell in it and past it every day.
For me and my white body, accommodation is an exercise in complicity. It supports those who want to avoid the fire of transformation, and it stops growing a collective capacity to dismantle white supremacy.
So, tone down my “fiery language”? Stop saying that organizational communication and the academy are foundationally white supremacist?
I, along with a collective, will not tone down. This group will not perform emotional labor for the comfort of white supremacy. This group will not protect people from witnessing the horrors that whiteness has organized. Instead, this group will “tone up” in a way that honors the various speeds that each person engages as they move through trauma and vulnerabilities. To tone up is to notice the white fragility that lives in so many of us but not to befriend it. Acting in this capacity might mean staying or leaving. But it does not mean calming down, slowing down, or toning down in response to calls that reinforce already well-supported systems of oppression. Time to turn up.9 Time to tone up.
Embodied experiences of trauma both queer time and disrupt organization(s). See Clementine Morrigan, “Trauma Time: The Queer Temporalities of the Traumatized Mind,” Somatechnics 7, no. 1 (2017): 50–58.
Witnessing is one way to disorganize white supremacy. D. Soyini Madison describes witnessing in connection to wounding, a capacity to encounter injustice in a way that inspires action and avoids “(1) empathetic over-identification, (2) apathy, and (3) overt refusal of responsibility/answerability by secondary witnesses of individual, structural, or historical trauma.” This capacity to respond requires not merely distanced noticing, but also cultivating relational modes whereby organizing happens differently. See D. Soyini Madison, Critical Ethnography: Method, Ethics, and Performance (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2012), 226.
Struggling is another way to disorganize white supremacy. As Karen Lee Ashcraft asserts, changing power requires feeling power. She notes, “The struggles to change and to feel power are entwined and ongoing…. By vigilantly tuning in to this production—our own enactments of power in the act of critiquing power … we become better equipped to recognize how flashes of other futures can arise.” If organizational communication developed an embodied knowledge that white criticality and complicity are intertwined—and a capacity to feel that enmeshment—then naming white supremacy as such would not enflame such spectacular displays of white fragility. Instead, to name white supremacy as such would be simply to acknowledge routine reality, one that can be constituted otherwise. See Karen Lee Ashcraft, “Critical Complicity: The Feel of Difference at Work in Home and Field,” Management Learning 49, no. 5 (2018): 617.
Resmaa Menakem, My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies (Las Vegas, NV: Central Recovery Press, 2017).
Charlie Yi Zhang, “Teaching Feminism as Slow Activism,” Feminist Formations 30, no. 3 (2018): 198–208.
Angelique M. Davis and Rose Ernst, “Racial Gaslighting,” Politics, Groups, and Identities 7, no. 4 (2019): 761–74; Kate Lockwood Harris, “Mapping Gender and Violence: Describing Reality, Resisting Abuse,” Women's Studies in Communication 14, no. 2 (2018): 113–16.
Crunktastic, “An Ontology of CRUNK: Theorizing (the) Turn Up,” Crunk Feminist Collective, 29 April 2014, para. 30, http://www.crunkfeministcollective.com/2014/04/29/an-ontology-of-crunk-theorizing-the-turn-up/.
Crunktastic, “An Ontology of CRUNK.”