The RHM Special Issue 6.2, “In Living Color: Amplifying Racial Justice Work in RHM” is forthcoming, just in time for summer! Assistant Editor Amy Reed interviewed the three co-editors of this issue– Drs. Veronica Joyner, Kimberly C. Harper, and Maria Novotny–to learn more about the articles in this issue, their collaborative process, and their visions for future RHM research that works toward racial justice.
AR: In your introduction to the special issue, you argue that “scholarship for racial justice in the pursuit of health equity must support amplification of marginalized perspectives, actions that reflect an acceptance of diverse perspectives, and accountability for those actions.” Can you talk a little bit about how the articles in this issue work toward these goals?
KCH: For me just having a special issue that openly addresses the need for BIPOC folks to be seen, valued, and heard w/in RHM is a proud moment for me. Not that the work wasn’t already being done, but it’s nice to have a hand in helping amplify the work of BIPOC folxs. The issue moves the needle a little bit, but I think a bigger conversation that can grow from the issue is how we choose to show up in community spaces. The articles in this issue talked a lot about community and activism, and for me that’s an important conversation to have. For most BIPOC folx the research we are doing is rooted in the desire to effect change in our communities—so RHM scholars must really listen to and understand how we build community with organizations that are already getting busy with this kind of work.
VJ: As the title of the special issue suggests, we put out a call for work that amplifies the racial justice work going on. We wanted to hear from the people doing the work. We wanted to know more about what work needed to be done, what that work looked like, and what it aimed to accomplish. These articles give us that. Some of the authors in this issue highlight the actions of individuals and organizations that are rooted in Black and Indigenous communities. Others amplify the perspectives of patients who experience marginalization in various contexts. It’s important that we don’t see these articles as the end-all-and-be-all of community engaged amplification, but instead value them as pieces of a larger movement toward racial justice that takes so many shapes.
MN: For me justice work necessitates community work. If you are working for justice, you are working with and in communities. Amplification, action, and accountability are guiding principles that aid ethical community-justice work and this is ever so important when linking “racial justice” to “health equity”. When we were reviewing article submissions and when we were working with the authors in this special issue, this question was, I think, an underlining perspective we adopted as editors: how is this work advancing and uplifting the very communities that these articles discuss/represent? So for instance with Laura McCann’s article, we see how online, digital health communities can be harmful in their lack of racial representation around infertility but also how these communities can resist such problematic representation (i.e., #infertilitysowhite) by developing their own rhetorical tactics to push back against the more dominant digital representation. The McCann article, while not a piece you’d list as community-driven scholarship, illustrates how RHM scholarship can amplify the nuanced ways that race impacts communities of practice and how digital platforms like Instagram can serve as tools to counter narratives and take action and demand more inclusive and accurate representation in health and medicine.
AR: You also note that RHM has been critiqued for centering whiteness and ignoring the contributions of scholars of color, particularly from the field of Critical Health Communication. I appreciated that, in that section, you pointed to the work of several scholars positioned outside of RHM with whom our field should be more engaged. I wondered whether you have a favorite author or piece to recommend particularly in light of your definition of racial justice scholarship above? Likewise, as accomplished scholars yourselves, do you have a favorite published or forthcoming piece of your own to recommend?
KCH: I don’t have a favorite piece per say–but I do have two suggestions for RHM scholars. One–It’s important to encourage people to look outside of their immediate circle of research. As researchers and writers, I believe most of us have our go to folks that we vibe with and appreciate, but there’s so much to learn from BIPOC scholarship. So engaging with the work of BIPOC scholars even if it makes you uncomfortable (for whatever reason) is a must for our field and for any community engaged activism we hope to conduct as scholar-activists. My second recommendation is to make sure you cite BIPOC scholars properly. For example, people love to talk about intersectionality–as they should–it is an effective and useful theory for understanding how people show up in the world, but I’ve seen too many times when Kimberle’ Crenshaw is not properly cited for her work.
VJ: One piece of scholarship that I would immediately recommend is “African American Women’s Maternal Healthcare Experiences: A Critical Race Theory Perspective” by Dr. Comfort Tosin Adebayo et al (2022) in Health Communication who studied health communication directed toward African-American and African immigrant patients in Milwaukee. Their article examines and amplifies the birthing experiences of African American women as a way to highlight the communication-based challenges that contribute to maternal health disparities in the US and offer alternative communication strategies. Adebayo has a few collaborative articles that address the challenges Black women face in the pursuit of equitable healthcare. I have also conducted a study with African American women and their negative experiences with OBGYNs and other women’s health care providers and am working on a larger study that examines the rhetorical strategies and lessons Black women use and pass on from generation to generation and within friendship networks. I see immense value in zooming in on solutions and actively pushing back against the idea that because a problem is structural in nature that small individual actions have little effect on changing it. The contrary is true. Small changes, if they’re the right changes, make big differences for individuals, and systems can be reconfigured or even toppled by such things.
MN: When we think about amplification in this issue, I also wanted to extend the conversation of how racial justice is being amplified as an issue across race and ethnicities. I say this because I think a limitation of this special issue is how racial justice is being discussed largely in the context of Black health inequity. To be clear, this should be amplified and discussed in detail. But we as editors are keenly aware that racial justice spans beyond Black health experiences and should include (like I think Roni mentioned in a response to your first question) Indigenous / Native American, Latinx, and Asian American experiences of racial inequity and injustice in health and medicine. And the idea of racial justice can be further complicated as you add intersectionality to that examination. For instance, I think about poor, white rural health inequities that are pronounced because of lack of resources, trust, and access that can impair the health of a community. I share all of this because an edited collection that I’d recommend is The Arts of Indigenous Health and Well-Being edited by Nancy Van Styvendale. It centers Indigenous knowledge and practices around health and medicine that I think really push against many of the more traditional research practices and representations of research that get published in a journal like RHM or another related health communication journal. I’d encourage readers to consider how certain journal standards and expectations of “rigor” can dissuade the inclusion of certain perspectives and experiences, like those working with Indigenous and Native communities where reciprocity and relationality is central to guiding research practices. So by having rigorous journals with no open access availability this can really hinder where and how certain authors place their work because they may feel it imperative for the work to be available to the very communities the work represents and is for.
For those interested in more health communication research, I’d suggest reading the work of Dr. Leandra H. Hernandez at Utah Valley University who works largely with the Latino/a/x community. Her research is an excellent example of how health communication research can center marginalized community health experiences and advance arguments for why / how communication scholars are vital to addressing racial health inequities. I’d recommend familiarizing yourself with all of her scholarship.
AR: You briefly mention some of the challenges that you faced in putting together this special issue including burnout, lack of funding/ resources, and racial battle fatigue. Could you talk a little bit more about the experience of collaborating on a special issue? What sustained you in the face of these challenges? What advice might you give to graduate students with respect to racial justice and/or collaborative work?
KCH: What really sustained me and always has is the good fortune of working with great collaborators. Roni and Maria kept this train moving. We also gave each other a lot of grace, so when one person couldn’t do the heavy lifting, another person stepped in to help. That kind of support moves a project to the end. My advice to graduate students working on collaborative projects is rooted in my belief that there is truly enough to go around. So, you don’t have to undermine other people, because what is for you will not pass you by. I try to use that as a guiding principle in my life, and it’s one of the reasons why I can work collaboratively with others. There is room for everyone to shine and bring their great ideas to the table–and in so many instances the ideas and support of my colleagues strengthen my work. I know this might sound like all “pie in the sky,” but when you are participating in racial justice work–you have to be willing to step back and listen and learn, acknowledge your positionality and privilege, and be willing to pass the mic. There are too many instances when the wrong person is holding space because they refuse to decenter themselves.
VJ: Ok, I have a lot to say about this. I was a graduate student when we started this project and my advice to graduate students interested in racial justice or coalitional work is to consider the things that make you angry and go after those exigencies. Think about those instances where personal experience and your scholarship speak to one another and follow those paths, wherever they may lead. I came from a writing center and composition background and thought that I would be doing that work for the foreseeable future. But I found myself quoting rhetoricians and technical communication scholars when I talked angrily about maternal health disparities and how doctors had an “ethos” problem. Looking for ways to alleviate problems that I have personal experience with has made the work more satisfying for me, even when the external validation of that work seems tentative. I’m not sure that only applies to graduate students, but it’s good to consider those factors early on.
Oh, and join a writing group or working group – I cannot testify to the glory of writing groups enough. They come in all different configurations depending on your working style. My working groups have been invaluable to my writing and research productivity. I would not have finished my dissertation on time without the encouragement of my work group friends and our willingness to work online together for hours. If you can’t find one, find a listserv or social media group related to your research interests and ask about writing groups. Either one already exists or you can start one. Working groups for the win!
My saving grace throughout different personal and professional challenges has been collaborating with Kimberly and Maria on this project, as well as other relationships that I’ve formed with colleagues and new friends. I feel like Kimberly and Maria took me under their wings and helped usher me into this field with great advice and understanding. Plus, it’s always fascinating to see how folks settle into their collaborative habits. And how great is it when one person says, “I can’t do this right now” and the rest of the team understands and can take up the extra labor? That’s priceless. And when you’re all working on a problem or set of problems that you all recognize, it’s even more empowering, at least for me.
I’m living in one of those states whose governments are taking legislative action against points of view that make them uncomfortable. When that reality causes me anxiety, I am reinvigorated by listening to senior and rising scholars who are both honest and encouraging about the future of social justice oriented scholarship. And I will say it again – working groups for the win! Doing intellectual work can be so isolating and just communing with other people helps remind us that we do not need to do all this completely alone or unsupported.
MN: While this was my fourth special issue that I’ve co-edited, this project felt different for a couple of reasons. One reason that I think is important to highlight is related to the topic we were trying to advance in this special issue. Racial justice is intuitively an embodied topic – it relates directly to and with and is about bodies. And so this also meant thinking about our own bodies. I was and still am acutely aware of my own cis white body and being listed as a co-editor of this special issue. It was something that I would reflect on and talk about with Roni and Kimberly. How and why and should my body even be editing these conversations in this issue was something that I/we needed to grapple with. And so we intentionally talk about this in the introduction to the special issue. We all felt and still do feel that racial justice work is collaborative work and also that the labor of this work should not fall upon BIPOC scholars to carry. White scholars need to be engaged in the conversation and at the table as well. We need to be in dialogue with each other by listening, reflecting, discussing, and moving forward collectively. If we are to really address racial injustice, white scholars need to get uncomfortable and position themselves more directly within these spaces and with BIPOC scholars who live everyday with these perspectives because of their race/ethnicity. Committing myself to these conversations and becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable at times was an act that I felt necessary to holding myself accountable to claiming to be a scholar committed to racial justice in health and medicine. And to be clear it was a pleasure to be uncomfortable and to feel like I could talk with Roni and Kimberly about my uncomfortability with them. I think this acute sense of accounting for how we are individually led us to greater understanding about the challenges of doing racial justice work and revealed some insight along the way about the real fatigue and labor to what it means to commit to racial justice not just as scholars but as people.
AR: After putting together this special issue, what new directions do you hope to see racial justice work in RHM go toward in future years? Are there particular challenges that you would like to see RHM scholars take up? Or particular instances of inequity that have not been attended to? Or particular research practices that should become routine?
KCH: I’ve alluded to it in all my answers thus far, but I want to see more discussion about community engaged research and what that means–how do we define it, what it looks like in action, and what it feels like for RHM scholars/community partners. So much of what we do can be beneficial to grass-roots organizations, but where and how we enter is a much needed conversation.
VJ: You mentioned racial battle fatigue in the previous question, and one of the things that sticks out to me about my own feelings of fatigue is always having to explain, prove, or break down the problem of things; it is exhausting in so many ways. In Viral Justice, Ruja Benjamin talks about the datafication of racism and how it seems like the presence and influence of racism always needs to be proven – that the United States of America is innocent of racism until proven guilty. I am encouraged by the work I’ve seen that no longer engages in the idea of structural racism as something that needs to be proven or over analyzed. Instead, these scholars are honing in on the practices that black and indigenous folx use to persevere and overcome. They’re setting ground rules for how to engage ethically and responsively with communities. Technical Communication and RHM are already headed toward more community engaged work. We can move even more assertively toward community led work. Not just us studying the community and asking for their input but also putting ourselves in service to the communities to whom we belong. I think taking that position toward research should be routine.
MN: I echo a lot of what Kimberly and Roni mentioned. Racial justice in health and medicine demands community-engaged research methodologies that are accountable to the communities our work represents. That said, I think we can’t just hang our hat on “community-engaged” research as the answer. By that I mean, we as a field of scholars committed to advancing the health of marginalized communities who are trained often in the humanities need to do a better job of demanding a seat at tables that are frequently occupied by more clinical scholars. We need to discuss more openly as a field how to better sell ourselves to providers who are communicating directly with patients and their families, but also those who are overseeing public health initiatives and even the development of new medical devices and software technologies. Our training extends beyond the ability to teach medical and pre-med students how to better communicate with patients or explain a medical device in a manual or assisting in the writing of pre-market applications for FDA approval of a new drug or vaccine. Those are ways we are already contributing in the field, but we also need to be representatives on health advisory boards. We should be seen as valuable experts who can advocate for patients as people, who live in raced bodies, and are impacted everyday by that fact.