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Farewell Remarks, RSA President Kirt H. Wilson

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

This email is the last I will send to the membership as the President of RSA. Tomorrow, I join the ranks of many wonderful scholars as a past-President of our Society. I am grateful to RSA’s members, incoming President Michelle Ballif, the Board of Directors, Executive Director Gerard Hauser, and RSA’s officers for the support and service they have given me. Thank you all.

Although I step down from the presidency at a moment of uncertainty and challenge, I am encouraged by the fact that RSA stands on good financial ground. Despite the cancelation of the 2020 Conference, we have a balanced budget for the remainder of 2020 and 2021. In May, the Board of Directors approved several spending cuts; consequently, the Society will meet its expenses for 2020 with its reserve funds intact for future emergencies. Our membership numbers have declined due to the cancelation of the Portland conference, and we face the uncertainty of the pandemic’s impact on 2021 programming. RSA will encounter financial challenges over the next 18 months, but the Society is solvent and, with the continued support of members, moving forward.

I also am encouraged by the rise of a remarkable and diverse group of leaders who are committed to the Society and its creative evolution in the coming years. President Ballif and President-elect Vanessa Beasley are joined by a talented Board of Directors. Before summer’s end, RSA will hire a new Executive Director. That person will play a crucial role in advancing our mission and strategic goals. RSA will continue to support the teaching and study of rhetoric, but it will do so in new ways that transform the Society and the services members enjoy. It is to thoughts about our collective future that I now turn my attention.

May and June events in Minneapolis, MN and across the United States remind us, yet again, that rhetoric is raced. Rhetoric is not only raced, of course. RSA members have demonstrated how rhetoric constitutes gender, shapes desire, defines ability and disability, and sustains the materiality of class, institutions, and even what it means to be human. We live our lives at the intersections of gender, sexuality, varied ability, class, geographic affiliation, and legal status. Nevertheless, to sharpen my challenge here and in the spirit of the demand “Black Lives Matter,” I want to focus on issues related to how rhetoric is raced in the culture at large and in our Society.

Race shapes the human performance of rhetoric just as rhetoric shapes the human experience of race. Rhetoric sutures human bodies to socially constrained identities of Blackness, whiteness, ethnicity, etc. The history of racializing rhetoric in the United States and around the globe is intertwined with inequitable systems of power that constitute racism. This inequity and the rhetoric that sustains it are violent physically, symbolically, emotionally, mentally, and institutionally. There have been amazing moments when people combined rhetoric and race for anti-racist purposes; nevertheless, the history of Western societies is remarkable not because it reveals steady progress toward equity and affirmation, but because it illustrates racism’s resilience. Racism is so entrenched in US culture that most attempts to identify or dismantle it are met with skepticism, resistance, or further violence.

Rhetorical scholarship is not immune to this history or its effects. The study of rhetoric is intertwined with race at a performative level—rhetorical criticism, analysis, teaching, and mentoring are all racialized performances with racial consequences, intertwined with racialized systems of power, institutional practice, and knowledge creation.

RSA as a formal academic organization participates in this discursive and epistemic system. Specifically, the Rhetoric Society of America is raced with a whiteness marked by privilege and the invisibility of that privilege and how it is sustained. This critique does not mean that scholars of color are absent from our ranks. It does not mean that those who benefit from whiteness intend harm. It does not mean that RSA's fifty-two-year history is void. It does mean that RSA’s dramatic and mundane practices regularly marginalize and de-value non-white, non-cisgendered modes of doing rhetoric.

When thinking about how rhetoric is racialized, especially in academic institutions, I have benefited greatly from the expertise of others. Five scholars of color who serve on RSA's Board of Directors--Lisa Flores, Ersula Ore, Gwendolyn Pough, Karrieann Soto Vega, and Anjali Vats—have written and spoken extensively in this area. They serve the Society with distinction. Their labor deserves recognition and their research demands your attention. In addition, members of RSA have contributed to multiple publications that explore the claims of this email in greater detail. Just to start, I recommend the edited collection Rhetorics of Whiteness: Postracial Hauntings in Popular Culture, Social Media, and Education (2017), the forum on Race and Rhetoric in Communication & Critical/Cultural Studies, no. 4 (2018) and the #RhetoricSoWhite forum that appears in the Quarterly Journal of Speech, no. 4 (2019). The research and advocacy contained in our journals do more to unpack the claims above than anything I can write here. For now, allow me to identify two examples of what I believe to be RSA’s whiteness and then discuss the opportunity that this moment affords for a different future.

I am the first person of color to lead the Rhetoric Society of America as President. This dramatic fact is not an honor or a distinction. It is a shame. It should be a matter of grave disappointment for all our members. There are multiple rhetoric scholars of color with extraordinary leadership skills who might have led this Society over the past fifty-two years. Some will argue that there haven’t been many Black faculty or scholars of color who study rhetoric; on the Board of Directors; in the Society; interested in the position; of necessary stature; with the required expertise. These statements are problematic because they excuse decades of inequity. The accomplishments of past presidents are not diminished if we also confront the reality that RSA’s elected leadership has been almost exclusively the domain of white scholars.  Rather than explain away or justify that fact, we might have been strategically and consistently shaping RSA into a space where it can be led by scholars of color. This is the standard that we ought to pursue, not only with Black, Indigenous, faculty and graduate students of color but also in collaboration with RSA’s LGBTQ members, women, scholars with disabilities, scholars from the Southern hemisphere, and any identity or mode of rhetorical inquiry that experiences marginalization.

A more mundane example of how the Society is racially white can be found in the recent member bulletin introducing RSA Remote. In many respects, the email announcement of June 19 was unremarkable. It forecast an exciting plan to provide members with more digital programming. Online events will be essential in the coming months as RSA grapples with the possibility of future travel restrictions and quarantines, and volunteers within the Society are working hard to make digital programming happen. Yet, it is important to recognize that in the announcement of June 19 not a single scholar of color was named even though one of the first events scheduled for RSA Remote is a workshop on Black Lives Matter led by Amanda Nell Edgar and Andre E. Johnson. The email identified several subjects as part of the new programming, but issues of inclusion, equity, diversity, and access were not mentioned nor was the newly formed and structurally significant IDEA Committee. Most likely, these omissions went unnoticed by many members. However, scholars of color, especially those who volunteer their time for the Society, experience such absences as erasures.

These absences and gaps in the mundane communication of academic organizations are one way by which differences of various kinds become segregated and contained. Depending on when and where organizations call attention to the labor of scholars who work from the margins, their academic and administrative contributions become a distinct subarea, a special interest, or a unique programming opportunity. Those contributions are separated from more central discussions like publication, career mentorship, and awards that affect everyone. But what if race and rhetoric are so intertwined that race actually influences what is published, how mentorship is practiced, and what scholarship receives awards? Shouldn’t race and the experts who study it be a part of every structural concern that race touches?

When critics say that rhetoric is white, they are talking not only about bodies but also about the mundane practices that hide the labor and interests of people of color, especially Black scholars, even when their recognition would be easy. RSA must make room for more diverse people and scholarship across a wide array of identities and intersections, but that alone will not dismantle the disparate systems of power that exist in the academy or our organization. As those who study racism and anti-racism have argued, inclusion is not enough and diversity cannot overcome structural whiteness.

The two examples explored in this email help to illustrate Ibram Kendi’s point in How to be an Antiracist that combating racial injustice requires consistent and persistent anti-racist action. RSA’s leaders and members must consider the Society’s institutional practices and then take active steps to address marginalization across multiple identities and intersections. This work is daunting and sometimes uncomfortable, but it is doable. Last October, RSA’s Board of Directors created the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access Committee to help RSA think through these questions. President Michelle Ballif and Anjali Vats, the IDEA committee chair, will share information in the coming weeks about how members can collaborate in learning, dialogue, and action that enacts the commitments outlined in the Statement Condemning Anti-Black Violence and transforms the society for all marginalized groups. Racial equity and social justice are not just for scholars of color. RSA needs to listen and embrace the advice of members who have been doing equity and justice work for decades, but everyone has an important role to play.

In the Board of Directors’ Statement Condemning Anti-Black Violence, we wrote that rhetoric has the capacity to “improve our conditions: to expand our abilities to empathize, to mobilize demands for justice, and to disclose more ethical worlds made by words.” I believe in this power of rhetoric. But, at the same time, the ethical worlds that I imagine are not worlds in which RSA, the modern academy, or the United States have moved beyond race. Post-racial worlds are an illusion, but that fact is not a reason for despair. Being realistic and direct about how rhetoric is raced can be liberatory. It clears room for the work that must be done to build multiracial coalitions, to resist fascism in whatever form it takes, to build mutual aid networks, and to cultivate communities of care. This work is my challenge to the Rhetoric Society of America. What we have done so far is not enough, but it can be a beginning. May we take up this work together.

In service and with gratitude,

Kirt H. Wilson
President, Rhetoric Society of America

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