white authors

We are all white. ‘That’s it, that’s the tweet’; that’s the confession. Yet, confessing our whiteness does very little apart from performing a weak version of allyship, and even this action is ultimately corrupt because it re-centers ourselves. In ‘So White. So What.’, Alison Whittaker (2020) lays out her frustrations with white people’s insistence on claiming innocence. “White-men-can’t-dance jokes probably used to sting – as did white-men-in-power jokes – now they tell them themselves. The power of whiteness is consolidated, and what do we have to show for it?” (Whittaker, 2020). In other words, we can confess our whiteness and acknowledge our complicity as much as we want but where is the material change? Where is the justice? Where is the “transfer of control, power and capital” that Whittaker tells us is “necessary to be transformative”?

Is it consistent with our dirty methods approach to identify ourselves as white? To use an entire vignette to do so? Well, it does the work of inserting an important aspect of our bodies into this process and it pushes a messy wedge into this work. Messy because we cannot avoid the trap of merely signaling ourselves as ‘good white people.’ Still, we refuse to accept these artificial ‘good’ and ‘bad’ categories and the complicity they enable. We strive toward disorder. Through Mary Douglas’s investigation of the cultural reproduction of constructions of dirt, hygiene, pollution, and contagion within symbolic systems, we learn that “[d]irt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements” (1966, p. 36). Douglas uncovers how different human cultures have strong desires to avoid anything anomalous and in so doing, we can all pretend that the categories we have constructed are clearly demarcated. Discarding what does not fit helps secure our sense of order. A dirty methods approach embraces the dirty by-product itself, the threat to order that emerges when we linger on the difference our positionality makes, unearth our complicity, and focus on how we can disrupt white supremacy.

This also means dealing with the invisibility of whiteness and how power and privilege are secured as a result. The work being done to begin to release the hold that whiteness has over Communication Studies, for example, exposes the effort required to make white supremacy more visible. In the Canadian context, Faiza Hirji, Yasmin Jiwani, and Kirsten Emiko McAllister (2020) have recently contributed to scholarship on the theme of #CommunicationSoWhite. To tackle this issue, they are forced to reiterate that “it should be no surprise that whiteness and colonialism are, in turn, deeply rooted in the academy, including Canadian Communication Studies” (p. 169). It should be no surprise, and yet it bears saying because the structures of whiteness and colonialism have to be exposed over and over again.

In the field of Communication Studies, one attempt to disrupt these structures involves hiring practices that aim to dismantle mostly white departments across the country. Yet this push has only recently begun. Postings for new faculty positions are now beginning to name specific identity categories, such as an expressed desire for Indigenous faculty members or Black faculty members. However, including more explicit language in job ads to attract new colleagues is only one step. In a compelling analysis of faculty hiring processes, Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo (2017) unpack the many layered ways in which whiteness continues to be protected, leading to academic job searches that repeatedly fail to hire faculty of colour. They call on white academics to carefully consider their own practices, “includ[ing] the so-called objective scrutiny of applicant CVs, the discourse of ‘fit,’ the token committee member, the additive nature of diversity-related interview questions, and the acceptability of candidate ignorance on issues of race/gender” (Sensoy & DiAngelo 2017, p. 559). Decades of advocacy work, likely done under precarious conditions and mostly by faculty of colour, and long-standing efforts of anti-racist and anti-colonial movements in society has finally made the conditions in many university settings more amenable to material change. These changes happen painfully slowly, barely piercing the white space, culture, and problematic institutional systems of academia (Henry et al., 2017; Todd, 2018).

While writing, renewed calls for action and widespread protests against police brutality occurred once again, along with high-profile murders of Black people including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade in the United States in 2020. In Canada and the United Kingdom, similar protests and conversations have been taking place in solidarity with the American Black Lives Matter protests but with specific attention to the same forms of anti-Black racism that takes place in these locations. Police brutality in Canada has already been implicated in several murders of Black and Indigenous people in 2020 alone. In the spirit of #SayTheirNames, this includes Chantel Moore, D’Andre Campbell, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, and Caleb Tubila Njoko. Similarly in the United Kingdom, Black deaths involving police in recent years include Simeon Francis, Trevor Smith, Dalien Atkinson, and Sarah Reed. Once again, white people are asking outspoken Black activists to educate them. This drains the time and energy of Black folks and is not the answer. Similar requests are made of Indigenous activists and public figures when anti-Indigenous racism surfaces in the news, and particularly with the continued ‘discovery’ of thousands of children buried at former residential school sites across Canada (Voce, Cecco, Michael, 2021). It is up to white people to do the work themselves, which also means educating their fellow white colleagues and being prepared to do the heavy lifting to effect change during meetings with fellow graduate students or departmental meetings with faculty members and within administrative roles. Resources abound, including Billy-Ray Belcourt’s NDN Coping Mechanisms (2019), Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance (2017), Robyn Maynard’s Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present (2017), Angela Y. Davis’s If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance (2016), E. Patrick Johnson’s No Tea, No Shade: New Writings in Black Queer Studies (2016), the Combahee River Collective Statement (1986), Kimberlé Crenshaw’s seminal pieces on intersectionality (1989, 1991), and Jennifer C. Nash’s Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality (2019).

Educating ourselves is an ongoing process that helps us move toward allyship. Listening, reading and citing these voices is another one. But claiming allyship might just be another way to take away power from those who should be designating who their allies are. Allyship has been promoted as an identity, especially in English-North-American literature and in U.S.-based educational training programs (Le Gallo & Millette, 2019). As such, ally status can be acquired through achieving certain training and actions in order to support social justice and safety for LGBTQIA+ persons and Black, Lantinx, Asian students. On the other hand, French-written activist literature calls for a reframing of allyship in order to recognize the power and agency of those concerned by a situation (Lallab, 2017). “Ally” is not a title one can claim, but a recognition that has to originate from the concerned people as they witness our actions.

« [c]e n’est pas non plus un titre que l’on peut se donner à soi-même. Ce n’est qu’au regard de vos actes et de votre attitude que le groupe, et surtout les personnes

concernées, pourront déterminer si vous pouvez rester dans un espace safe ou si au

contraire vous le polluez par vos interventions, par votre manque de remise en

question » (Lallab, 2017). 

“[Ally] is not a title one can give to themself. It is only through the examination of your actions and attitudes that the group, and especially the people concerned, will be able to determine whether you can stay in a safe space or if, on the contrary, you pollute it by your interventions, by your lack of ability to question yourself.” (Lallab, 2017, our translation)

As Robin DiAngelo (2018) says, white people are often less skilled in talking about race. In part this is because white people are more likely to segregate themselves by race, and, especially in North America and Europe, they can more easily find ways to do so. This practice of white segregation does not get named, even though similar practices by people of colour are regularly named and shamed. For instance, Chinese students are frequently harassed in North America and Europe for allegedly isolating themselves socially. In just one example of many similar accounts, a director of a Graduate Studies program at Duke University recently emailed a group of 50 biostatistics students to warn them to speak English when on campus. The white woman who sent the email did so directly after complying with a request from two faculty members to look at images of students in the program as a way of identifying those who they overheard speaking Chinese in the student lounge. Allegedly, the faculty members wanted to write down the names of the students in order to ensure that they would refuse those students’ future requests for internships or supervision (Kaur, 2019; Associated Press, 2019). This is appalling, rightly causing public outrage, but the actions by the director render her complicit in the future racial discrimination that those students will encounter and her email confirmed the underlying belief that it is white people alone who have access and rights to space and privacy. By speaking Chinese, the students could not be understood by English-speaking faculty members as they held conversations within a space especially designated for students. The resulting negative affects experienced by faculty members who overheard Chinese being spoken demonstrates the underlying racism embedded in their belief structures and the different sets of internalized rules regarding what is appropriate for non-white students versus white students. 

This is reminiscent of examples of white women, now known more commonly as ‘Karens,’ calling the police to make false reports against Black men, women, and children. White supremacy has encouraged these women to internalize public space as accessible to white people first and foremost (Harris, 1993; Kelley, 2020). By first threatening to call the police and tell them (falsely) that an “African American man is threatening me,” as a white woman did in New York’s Central Park in 2020 before going on to make the phone call, these white women are wielding their knowledge of the systemic racism that infests the police and justice system. They are betting on systemic racism and their white privilege, knowing it will reinforce their power. Exposing this practice of white dominance and the broader system of white supremacy is one strategy that has seen some effectiveness, even if it only means a (potentially temporary) reduction of the white perpetrator’s power.

For all of these reasons, it was important that we refuse to clean up our whiteness in our writing. That is, we refuse to pretend that whiteness played no role in how this project came together, that it had no impact on what we chose to discuss, and that it will not influence how receptive audiences are to it. An important realization for us was that we did not begin our collaboration with questions about how whiteness or our settler status informs our shared perspectives. We did not ask ourselves how our whiteness may have brought us together in the first place, kept us going, and even kept us insular to some extent. Eventually, during a meeting scheduled to talk about this idea, still in its early days but already supported by a successful grant application, whiteness was explicitly brought up as an important dynamic to discuss. It was not comfortable to have that conversation, but we stuck with it and any disorder it created.

In general, white people have been socialized to avoid complex discussions about race, which further solidifies their racism (DiAngelo, 2018). Our initial conversation was not terribly complex that day either, but we continued talking as we moved forward with the project. We chose not to try to suddenly reimagine our group by inviting Black and Indigenous colleagues into a project that had already conceptually gotten off the ground (which, as discussed earlier, felt tokenistic). Instead, we decided to regularly think and talk about whiteness as a group while also engaging in citational practices that amplify BIPOC voices. As white academics, it is important that we actively find ways to disrupt white supremacy within our teaching, research, and administrative work while also seeking material change in our own departments, universities, and academic communities. This work is challenging and will continue throughout our careers. Our individual ways of seeking disorder and disruption may differ, but a commitment to dirty methods refuses to attend merely to individual ‘good’ behaviours; instead, we are committed to finding ways to deflate the white power that continues to undergird our research practices and our academic settings writ large.


Associated Press. (2019, January 29). Outcry after Duke administrator warns Chinese students to speak English. Retrieved July 5 2020 from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jan/28/duke-university-chinese-students-speak-english-email-backlash

Belcourt, Billy-Ray. (2019). NDN Coping Mechanisms. Toronto, ON: House of Anansi Press.

Combahee River Collective. (1986). The Combahee River Collective Statement: Black Feminist Organizing in the Seventies and Eighties. Latham, NY: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum 1(8), 139-167.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review 43(6), 1241-1299.

Davis, Angela Y. (Eds.). (2016). If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance. Brooklyn, NY: Verso.

DiAngelo, Robin. (2018). White Fragility: Why it’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. Boston, MA: Beacon Press Books.

Douglas, Mary. (1966). Purity and Danger: An analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo. London: Routledge.

Harris, Cheryl I. (1993). Whiteness as Property. Harvard Law Review, 106(8), 1707-1791.

Henry, Frances, Dua, Enakshi, James, Carl E., Kobayashi, Audrey, Li, Peter, Ramos, Howard & Smith, Malinda S. (2017). The Equity Myth: Racialization and Indigeneity at Canadian Universities. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Hirji, Faiza, Jiwani, Yasmin, & McAllister, Kirsten Emiko. (2020). On the margins of the margins: #CommunicationSoWhite—Canadian style. Communication, Culture and Critique [online first]. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1093/ccc/tcaa019 

Johnson, Patrick, E. (2016). No Tea, No Shade: New Writings in Black Queer Studies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Kaur, Harmeet. (2019, January 29). A Duke professor warned Chinese students to speak English. Retrieved from: https://www.cnn.com/2019/01/28/health/duke-professor-warns-chinese-students-speak-english-trnd/index.html

Kelley, Blair L. M. (2020). The Central Park incident is stuck in my mind, exhausting to contemplate. If you are violating the rules of a nationally known nature preserve, a good person says “Oh I’m sorry” and corrects the mistake. Amy Cooper was mad that [Tweet]. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/profblmkelley/status/1265257839246872576

Lallab. (2017) 11 conseils pour être un.e bon.ne allié.e. Retrieved from: https://www.lallab.org/11-conseils-pour-etre-un-e-bon-ne-allie-e/ 

Le Gallo Sklaerenn., Millette Mélanie. (2019). ‘Se positionner comme chercheuses au prisme des luttes intersectionnelles : décentrer la notion d’allié.e pour prendre en compte les personnes concernées’, Genre, sexualité & société. (22): https://doi-org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/10.4000/gss.6006

Maynard, Robyn. (2017). Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present. Black Point, NS: Fernwood Publishing.

Nash, Jennifer C. (2019). Black feminism reimagined: After intersectionality. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Sensoy, Özlem and DiAngelo, Robin. (2017). ‘We Are All for Diversity, but …’: How Faculty Hiring Committees Reproduce Whiteness and Practical Suggestions for How They Can Change. Harvard Educational Review 87(4), 557-580.

Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. (2017). As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Todd, Zoe S. (2018). Indigenizing Canadian academia and the insidious problem of white possessiveness. Urbane Adventurer: Amiskwacî. Retrieved from: https://zoestodd.com/2018/05/04/indigenizing-academia-and-the-insidious-problem-of-white-possessiveness/

Voce, Antonio, Cecco, Leyland, & Michael, Chris. (2021). ‘Cultural genocide’: the shameful history of Canada’s residential schools – mapped  Recent discoveries of unmarked graves have shed new light on the country’s troubled colonial legacy. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2021/sep/06/canada-residential-schools-indigenous-children-cultural-genocide-map

Whittaker, Alison. (2020). So White. So What. Meanjin Quarterly, Autumn. Retrieved from: https://meanjin.com.au/essays/so-white-so-what/

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