Why talk about mediocrity and Whiteness?

One of my blog posts, "Whiteness, NCA, and Distinguished Scholars" speaks to a recent conversation that has been generated in my field. The conversation responds to changes in how the field selects its Distinguished Scholars (with the capital D and capital S), the response of a current subset of DS to the changes in the form of a letter (a number of whom have rightly so, withdrawn their support for the letter), and an editorial by Professor Martin J. Medhurst, a DS, initially proposed for his journal Rhetoric and Public Affairs.

The impetus of the conversation focused on the false dichotomy between diversity and merit that is set up to seemingly protect the "purity politics" of the discipline, embodying the racist infrastructures of the discipline. That diversity somehow threatens merit is often deployed across departments, graduate programs, and associations to prop up a White structure, while hiding strategically the very rules of this structure that constitute merit. The very idea of merit needed to be interrogated critically to examine the underlying basis of the claim.

In my blog post, to debunk the false dichotomy between merit and diversity, I intentionally turned the question of merit on its head to ask, how much merit does the existing system recognize. I wanted to attend there to the Whiteness of merit, to the seeming assumption that one is meritorious to be a DS. This discursive move was necessary to articulate that the current system of merit is not neutral and value free, as was portrayed by Mr. Medhurst. In drawing out my analysis then, I noted: "Given the Whiteness of the roster of Distinguished Scholars, it may be argued that the very standards of what constitutes merit are embedded in the ideology of Whiteness. It may further be argued that this ideology itself protects mediocrity under the guise of standards."

The point of this argument was to suggest then that both the claim made by Professor Medhurst and my claim, that the current ideology protects mediocrity, ought to be open to scrutiny. This is precisely what I then went on to state "This is not to claim that the Distinguished Scholars of our discipline are mediocre. However, that assessment can only be made when the standards, criteria, and success rates are made transparent."

I then compared the scholarly impact of Professor Medhurst with the scholarly impact of Professor Tom Nakayama, a scholar of colour, who is not a DS.

The point of my analysis of merit, reference to mediocrity, and comparison was not to be uncivil. The point was to perform the sort of exercise that is called for to respond to the claim made by Professor Medhurst that under the new system "no scholarly credentials are apparently required...the selection  committee will be guided by "diversity," not "intellectual merit." In analysing this claim, the taken-for-granted logic of merit as the basis of the current system has to be critically interrogated. Questions such as: What is the role of networks in the processes of selection? What is the role of social capital in the existing processes of selection? What is the role of word-of-mouth in the current processes of selection? What is the role of interpersonal relationships in the current processes of selection? must be asked. Asking these questions are critical to evaluating any process in its capacity and effectiveness in evaluating merit. What is the likelihood that Professor Nakayama, writing about Whiteness, would upset a number of senior scholars ensconced in White privilege? How would that then impact his likelihood of being recognized? These critical questions beg attention.

When conversations of intellectual merit are brought about in the context of diversity, such kinds of analysis  of the very notion of merit and how it is evaluated become necessary. Just as noted by the DS in their letter, such analyses and the corresponding inferences are not any different from how evaluations are carried out in promotion and tenure systems. Any claim about merit thus calls for critical analysis.

The analysis then made at a structural level sought to depict the workings of discourse at the structural level, in constituting and reproducing specific structures. The goal here was not, and I reiterate, was not to hurt the "feelings" of individual DS. In fact, as I have said elsewhere, there are many DS who have shaped the texture of the conversations we are having today. We stand as a discipline on the foundations they have built through their hard work, imagination, and creativity.  

To therefore label any comparison as a response to a racist claim in order to debunk it is disingenuous, and directed at keeping the structure intact. Is the labeling of this exercise as incivility then another tactic to silence critical analyses? The literature on White privilege suggests that it keeps itself intact by elevating the White status quo as outside of the realm of scrutiny. And yet, this analysis has to be the starting point when arguments regarding merit are being thrown around.

When diversity is set in opposition to merit, the basis of evaluating merit in the existing structure is where we must begin our analysis with. It is with transparent articulations and debates about merit can we move forward.