Theorizing Communication as a discipline: Erasures and White privilege

Mohan Dutta and Devika Chawla

Another morning, another letter. Yet another letter that invokes the pain and sadness triggered by Medhurst's letter and the subsequent revelations in the various letters circulated by the Distinguished Scholars (DS) of our discipline. This new letter is from Professor Robert Craig, the former editor of Communication Theory, and a key scholar in the theorizing of communication. In what we will share below, the Craig letter (pasted in full below) re-enacts the erasures constituted in Whiteness, once again foreclosing the possibilities of dialogue. That this foreclosure is written into a narrative of hope and moving forward points precisely to the necessity for holding on to the rage, to making visible the violence and erasure constituted in the architecture of the discipline.

Professor Craig begins his letter by reminding the reader that what the DS letter was actually doing was protesting the NCA Executive Committee's decision to change the DS selection process. Constructing the DS letter as protest against what is projected as NCA EC decision-making produces process as a neutral site. Yet processes themselves are embedded in logics of Whiteness, constituted in normative ideals of process that remain uninterrogated. That the existing process of DS selection, including both the elements of nomination and selection, are embedded in overarching logics of Whiteness is erased in the DS concern for process. That both the processes of DS nomination and DS selection did not result in the selection of DS of colour remains un-interrogated. The sole focus on process in the context of the NCA EC decision to change the DS selection framework on one hand, makes as normative, the existing DS selection process, and on the other hand, marks as deviant the NCA EC decision to change the process. This then serves as the implicit justification for the DS letter, as one upholding the process and therefore appropriately enraged at the seeming lack of consultation and participation.

Professor Craig goes on to note "However, one of our (DS) objections against the new policy is that it focuses entirely on the selection process and fails to address the problem of attracting diverse nominations." This dichotomy between nomination and selection, evident in the DS letter and reiterated by Craig obfuscates a few key facts. Until the changes in 2015, the DS were responsible for making both the nomination and the selection. After 2015, when the nominations were opened up, the DS could still make nominations. If the DS analyzed and attributed the problem to one of nomination, then why didn't the DS as a collective not nominate adequate POC in all these years until 2015 and beyond? The focus on nomination does not absolve the DS of their inability to nominate and select PoC in the three decades of the program. The suggestion that the distribution of awards by gender and race have closely matched the gender and racial composition of the nomination pool is offered to discount the articulation of systemic discrimination. What such an articulation fails to consider is the small number of nominations of scholars of colour to begin with. Both the DS and Professor Craig's response would have us conclude that the processes are not biased because the nominations of scholars of colour are small to begin with. In doing so, they fail to note that for the large majority of the award, the nominations themselves were made by DS. Therefore, simply pointing to the nomination is not a sufficient argument against the observation made by many scholars of colour that suggest that the process itself is biased.

Moreover, if indeed a selection process is attentive to the absence of inclusion as the DS claim, the claim of proportion is not adequate. It would be an expectation that an award attending specifically to inclusion after sustained criticism would have potential success rates that are higher for scholars of colour as compared to White scholars. Focusing on nomination then, he observes, "We can only hope that the nomination pool will include a sufficiently diverse group of accomplished scholars. Given the small number of DS awards allowed each year, it will remain the case that many deserving people, regardless of identity, will not receive this recognition." Once again, the hope for including a sufficiently diverse pool does not address the uphill struggle of building a nomination pool that speaks to the wide diversity of excellence of many scholars of colour. The notion that many deserving scholars, regardless of identity, will not receive recognition, frames identity as irrelevant. The suggestion then is that identity is simply a sidebar, obfuscating the fundamental ways in which identity (White, male) works to privilege (in this case, larger proportion of White nomination).

Finally, the criticism of the DS letter is constructed as a bad misreading and unfair condemnation by critics. The very premise of the ongoing protests across the discipline against the Whiteness that constitutes its elite networks is by implication suspect, based on what Professor Craig reminds us is an erroneous reading. As one of the signatories on the letter, he explains his decision to "not withdraw" his signature in the context of this bad misreading and unfair condemnation. Note the power of White privilege that is inherent in determining what is the accurate reading of the DS letter and in therefore casting the ongoing protests against the DS letter as unfair condemnation. The sentence above is a reminder of the tremendous interpretive privilege that is embodied in White privilege. It is from the structures of Whiteness that a specific reading can be evaluated as a "bad misreading," one that is unfairly condemning. In offering this evaluation, Professor Craig forecloses the possibility of dialogue. The dialectic that constitutes this moment of critique, that White privilege systematically and strategically erases the other, is deliberately erased. Through the evaluation of the protest reading of the DS letter as a bad misreading, Craig signals the impossibility of dialogue, ironically in a statement that urges us as a discipline to move on.

The erasure of a dialectical anchor (that the DS letter reflected elitist and racist logics) renders as hegemonic the claims of Whiteness, while simultaneously erasing its location in the particular. This too (reading of a different interpretation of the White privilege in the DS letter as misleading) is a meta-dialectic of erasure, one that sustains and reproduces itself through its failure to acknowledge the humanity, affective capacity, and the cognitive capacity of the other. To mark something as a bad misreading keeps intact White privilege, while making enough references to systematic discrimination, diversity, and inclusion. The letter infantilizes PoC that have responded in strength and made visible the Whiteness of Communication. The position of privilege occupied by anointed White scholars reproduces the master-slave trope of colonial ideology that sees the colonized as incapable of cognition. The White master naturally does the evaluating about the correct reading. He tells his colonial subjects, "You think little thoughts, here's a candy, we think the big thoughts (aka theory)."

Contrary to the infantilizing articulation of the letter, what we have witnessed in the last two weeks is the power of deep theoretically-driven change, reflecting the vibrant excellence embodied by scholars of colour and our allies in the discipline. This is an activist moment, one that is at its heart theoretical.
Scholars of colour and White allies are enacting what is the very best of communication theory as a field. The theoretical articulations developed at this moment of change offer the basis for a new imaginary for the field, drawing on the cognitive, affective, and material labour of scholars of colour over the past decades.

To undo the White privilege that makes up the structures of our discipline is to begin by dismantling the very evaluative formations that are immersed in White privilege. We see the letter by Professor Craig as an opportunity for painting the palette of Communication theory with our many colours of change. Perhaps the statement by Professor Craig is also an invitation to dismantle the very textures of Communication theory and the definition of what constitutes the field. We see this moment and these conversations as the beginnings for undoing and re-doing what makes up the terrains of our field, revolutionizing the very spaces and evaluative categories that have worked for long to erase the voices of colour. It is through radical dismantlings that authentic spaces of dialogue can be opened up.

Professor Craig, the 1366+ signatories of the letter come from various constituencies of the field with various identities (including those who identify as white). It is sheer hubris to assume that you have the final word on the interpretation of this letter. We don’t want to call your interpretation of a letter you yourself signed as incorrect or wrong or dare we say, misleading. Your interpretation just simply remains your own and at this moment it stands among just a handful of voices in opposition to a unison of voices that are asking for structural change.