5 Questions With Karsonya (Kaye) Wise Whitehead, Ph.D.

February 2, 2023

Karsonya (Kaye) Wise Whitehead, Ph.D., an associate professor for Communication and African and African American Studies at Loyola University of Maryland and the host of “Today with Dr. Kaye,” is known for having an informed opinion about issues that are happening within Baltimore City and across the country. Passionate, edgy, and unapologetic, Whitehead’s scholarship examines the ways race, class, and gender coalesce in American classrooms as well as in political and social environments. The award-winning educator, filmmaker, and author is also the founder and executive director of the Karson Institute for Race, Peace, and Social Justice at Loyola. 


1. You’ve described your classroom, over the years, as a place where students can openly discuss and deconstruct issues of race, class, and gender, using the civil rights movement and Black feminist theory as lenses and tools to have those conversations. With the emergence of dual pandemics in 2020—COVID-19 and systemic racism—did you determine that new and different lenses and approaches were needed to engage your students?  

Thank you for that question. No, it is the same lens with a kind of a different focus and setting. The lenses that I use to look at communication and theory, include a long lens  on American history. I want to be very clear that Black history is American history,  Asian-American history is American history, women's history is an essential part of  American History, etc. They are a part of the historical trajectory and understanding of  who we are in this country.  

Prior to the pandemic, we were in the midst of the Black Lives Matter Movement. It really has been one pandemic after the other. We were talking about social injustice, racial terror, and racial violence. We were talking about the ways in which we could try  to humanize our very existence in this country. For my work in the classroom, this  meant helping my students to understand that the classroom is a vibrant place but it  doesn’t just exist within the four walls of the building in which we sit. We can push the  four walls of the classroom and we can be out in the public square where we are still  learning and still teaching. We're in the process of doing both.  

A lot this deep engagement began when I launched a course on Black Lives Matter, and  really began to think about how the classroom can be the center of activism.  


2. How would you describe Communication’s role today in social justice and civic engagement? Is it to shape the ways in which society will remember this pivotal time in U.S. history or even help it to reimagine a way forward? 

Communication is such an exciting field, especially when you couple it with history. I’m  a trained historian who specializes in the diary entries, speeches, and essays written by  19th-century Black women. I research their work, then I seek to reimagine history  through the lens that we’re using now. A diary entry of a free Black woman in 1863 is  akin to a tweet today. Communication is the way in which we write our story. It's the  way in which we remember who we are, but it's also a way to imagine who we want to  be. Communication has always been what's undergirded us.  

So, what do these things mean for us today? Communication is a fast-growing field, but  the way we do communication has changed. And the tools have changed, but the  central idea behind how we write ourselves into the future, how we set ourselves up to  be investigated, to be documented, to be evaluated by those who come after us  depends on what we're doing now.           

The Communication field, I would argue, is more important now than ever. It is also a  crowded field, and the world is very noisy at this moment. Everybody has something to  say, and fortunately or unfortunately, everyone has a platform in which to say it. How to  cut through the noise to get our message out to people and have them respond is  where the field of Communication is now. It is what I am teaching my  students to do, and it is what I am doing through my work with the Karson Institute , it ties into the work I do at the radio station, and the work I do through my columns  in the Baltimore Afro-American.  


3. As a Communication scholar and historian, when and why did you decide to have a foot in both worlds—the classroom and in protests, sometimes on the frontline of movements?  

I was working and writing in both Communication and history at Loyola. But when Black  Lives Matter hit, I looked at my two sons, who were, I think 10 and 11 at the  time. And I said, there's no way that I can stay in the archives. I have to use everything  I'm doing to get my sons home safely. And I made a shift in my career and an  intentional decision to do what W.E.B. DuBois talked about, becoming a public  intellectual, taking my time, my talent, and my treasurers to the public square. I see my  work on the radio as just the largest classroom in the world. I make sure I'm more  prepared, I have my notes, because I believe we have to deeply engage with these  issues. Why not use that public intellectual space to deeply engage with issues that  may shift who we are, how we see ourselves? 


4. In a constantly changing field, what are among the most impactful Communication tools students and educators need to tell stories, have global conversations, and create change in the world

We have some of the most powerful communication tools in the history of Communication as a field, from the cell phone, that's also a camera, that's also a recorder, a tool to make a full-length movie, or to run a meeting.  

Even with all of this at our disposal, the question remains, how do we get people to engage in conversations and show up? There is so much competition for a person's time and attention, and since the pandemic, it has intensified. You are competing with the online version of everything. People ask themselves why should I come out and engage when they can just show up on their computer? 

How do we get people to use social media and other tools to document the stories that need to be told, create new spaces for conversations that are more democratized, and allow more voices to get through? I wrestle with these things. 


5. As you prepare the next generation of Communication scholars and practitioners, what do you want most for them to know and be able to do when they’ve completed courses with you and graduate? 

I would say three things. I would like them to be able to find, tell, and document a story that needs to be told. Second, I would like them to go back and be able to look at stories that have been told and retell them using a different lens; a lens that is more inclusive and looks for the voices and perspectives that are missing and effectively add them. Third, I would like my students to be able to tell their own story using the example of [Frederick] Douglass or [Harriett] Tubman. I tell them to not let someone else be in charge of writing your narrative. You have the ability to document your own story, to document the stories of your community, to document the stories of your elders, to catalog all of these stories in such a way that they become a part of the narrative.