Communication and Race Interview

April 2, 2024




In 2022, spectra ran an interview with Armond R. Towns, the founding editor of the newly formed journal Communication and Race. At that time, he stated the mission of the journal was to: “[Create] a foundational space to say what we mean theoretically when we talk about the topic of Communication and race.” As we get closer to the launch date of Spring 2024, it’s clear that the journal – from what it has already published to what it anticipates publishing, aims to achieve that. 

This article is set up in two parts, both stemming from a conversation I had with Towns in February 2024. The first part is a short update on the state of the journal as we approach the publication of its founding issue: Spring 2024. The second part is a clarifying discussion on the introductory piece Towns posted in February, titled “’Communication Hesitant’: An Introduction”

Communication and Race in 2024


K: You last spoke with spectra in 2022. What’s changed in the last year since speaking with spectra? What’s new? 


A: I think, you know, maybe the newest thing is the solidification of the editorial board for Communication and Race, and the release of a few articles, “Communication Hesitant” being one of them. But basically, we're in the process of releasing the entire first issue, which should be out in April.  

Maybe another thing that is new is the vision I have for the first few issues, which I view as agenda setting. To set the agenda of what this journal is about and what people who want to submit to it should consider as they're organizing their submissions. I really want to lay the groundwork for where I see the study of communication and race today and where I think it can go. 


K: Do you have a specific roadmap in mind for the next few issues or is it too early to share that kind of thing? 


A: Well, generally, a format I’d like to include more of are interviews. In this first issue there's “Communication Hesitant,” and then that will be followed by an interview with Dr. Paula Chakravartty and then some responses to that interview.  

We've already seen some of this roadmapping change a little bit due to ongoing issues inside and outside the field. There was the silencing of Dr. Ahlam Muhtaseb at NCA in November 2023, due to her scheduled speech on Palestine, which we decided to run in this first issue as well. When I conducted the [initial spectra] interview and when I interviewed Dr. Paula Chakravartty, it was 2022, so October 7, 2023 hadn't happened yet. As a journal, we're trying to acknowledge the political context that we exist in and shift things to speak to the contemporary moment, and this first issue is one way to do that.

The second issue will have – for lack of a better word – a questionnaire, where I’ve sent a group of questions to scholars both in and out of the field that I respect and they're going to kind of write a kind of generalized essay on their thoughts on communication and race. 

So for both issues there'll be a kind of response format that I hope can generate some conversation inside of the field. 


K: I really like that format, because it feels like – and correct me if I'm wrong, because I haven't read every communication journal – but it seems like most communication journals don't have this interplay kind of format. Am I right to say that is this kind of a novel approach where you have an interview, and then you have lots of responses as like a defining format to the journal? 


A: I know there have been interviews in the past at other journals. I don't know if these interviews have been a defining feature of a new NCA journal's release itself. I don't have enough information to say one way or another. But, I thought it would be a good place to start given that we have so much literature on communication and race. There are some scholars that I can tap into, most of them I know personally, so I can say: “Hey, let's set this agenda together.” I hope to do more of that in the future.


K: I'm just curious as a grad student: do you envision getting grad students involved in that/those conversation(s)? 


A: One of the things that I've been really doing is using a lot of my own graduate students here, they've been really central to helping launch the journal in multiple ways. So I view graduate students thought as a central component of how this journal works.  

The tricky thing of course, with graduate students is always trying to give them experience without giving them all the labor, right, in the sense that there's power dynamics already involved inside of academia in general.  

My goal really is to expose my graduate students and other graduate students to the process without basically turning them into workers who do all the labor of running the journal. If they want to submit, I really encourage that as well.  

I think once the journal is a little more solidified, and there's clearer boundaries in terms of how it will function, and there's a lot more content, I think it'll be even easier to fold in a lot of graduate students and give them some experience in the work of journal editing.


K: That kind of opens another line of questioning for me, which is just like how much work goes into a journal? I think there are a lot of scholars who don't know. They might know a lot about the submission process, and they can intuit that it’s a lot of labor, but the specifics probably elude them. What have you learned over the last year in terms of how you start a journal? 


A: It's a ton of work. That's the short answer. I think, in general, depending on the type of journal you are involved in, there'll be different degrees and different levels of work.  

For example, if you're starting a journal, then you have to get basically all new content to fill that first issue. Whereas if you come into a journal that's already long established, you generally have a backlog of stuff that will be published, which can makes things easier in some ways, but more difficult in others. But for me, in terms of having that material versus trying to generate, I think that has been the really difficult thing – trying to curate enough material for these first two issues, so that by the time we get to the third issue, hopefully enough work has been reviewed and accepted that we can have a full issue ready to go.  

Then you also have to factor in responding to authors that are curious about where their journal article is in the submission process. You also have to contact Taylor and Francis and find out some of the nuances behind the scenes. So you're really kind of a, like a go to person for a lot of different parties. 

It's been really challenging to figure all that out in a relatively short time,


K: This is all probably straightforward for a seasoned editor or a longtime academic, but fascinating for a junior scholar like me. It's like a void of information that I think some – especially grad students – appreciate the insight. I'm curious about the nuances of working with Taylor & Francis. What does that even really entail? 


A: Yeah, I think part of the problem of graduate school is the smoke and mirrors of it all – you get a little bit of information, but you never get the whole thing. 

I think, you know, the the easiest way to answer what it means to work with Taylor & Francis is this: in terms of academics or intellectuals, we're interested in ideas, were interested in having scholarly conversations; in terms of Taylor & Francis, they are interested in publication and sales and marketing, right? So, you have already two differing positions. 

I think another component of being an editor is trying to navigate how do you move between the intellectual and the publisher aspects, which entails understanding that you are also a part of an institution that is not concerned, or at least not as concerned with the intellectual aspect.

I think for me, the easiest way to do that is to focus on my intellectual part, right? Focus on getting good content. And I'll figure out the other stuff along the way.


K: Almost like there should be like a journal editor who's focused on intellectual ideas and then somebody who's more concerned with the Taylor & Francis side like working side-by- side. 


A: There are the middle people inside of Taylor & Francis who help with that kind of transition, for sure. And I heavily lean on those people to make this as smooth as possible. 


“Communication Hesitant” 


K: This seems like a good time to turn to “Communication Hesitant.” I haven't gone back and looked at the first editions of QJS, or Review of Communication, but I don't recall a 10-page introduction being written before. What informed this almost article length introduction to the journal? I'm just curious.  


A: I think the difference with this journal is that we now have a good 40, 50 years of scholarship that has been in one way or another, explicitly touching on questions of race, whereas QJS is NCA's foundational statement itself. In other words, with QJS in the early twentieth century, there was arguably less work that we can call communication, or that they called speech, disciplinarily.

My interest is introducing the journal with "Communication Hesitant" was organized around what I see as the discpline's historical inattention to race, even as race has been arguably central to it.

By the mid to late 20th century, you start to see an explicit discussion of race really emerging inside of the discipline. So my interest in the start of this journal is laying out both positions, and saying, "Okay, this is what we've been doing. And there's some important work inside of that. And if that's the case, then what should we be doing and thinking about for the 21st century, for a journal that's about to be published in 2024? Should we continue on the same trajectory or should we be thinking about new ways to move forward?"

So, my interest in introducing the journal was to really lay that out and to spark conversation ... to spark topics of discussion.  

I've never really been a person who is concerned with whether or not you agree with me. I'm more interested in having interesting conversations. So, I want this to be an interesting conversation starter. Whether or not that will happen is yet to be seen.


K: Part of what you want the journal to accomplish is to think with and beyond hesitation. For Du Bois, that’s a response, as you say, to positivism in the sociology field. Is that the only way of thinking? How do we define this term, “hesitation?” I guess that's my ultimate question. Is it related to the idea of just hesitancy in general? Or is it more of a play on words of sorts? I'm curious if we could start by just defining the term. 


A: I think going back to Du Bois, it seems that there's a very clear way that he's thinking about hesitancy. He’s thinking about how sociology – as an academic discipline – understands that humans are complex and understands that humans are not neat and that they don't fit into very specific boxes. And even still, the sociological method itself continues to box people in. And because it boxes people in ... because it constantly inserts people into these neat categories ... when those people don't neatly fit into the boxes, there's a hesitation, which I believe exists more in the sociologist than the published results, which only appear confident. The sociologist generally accepts the boxes for simplicity's sake, but they know full well that the boxes don't fit onto the lived experience of a large amount of people.

So, rather than accept the boxes, Du Bois examines the hesitancy. I read Du Bois as saying, we should examine the fact that humans are complex and that they are the ones that create this thing called society. It doesn't just exist there in the world universally. We do that work, right? We are the ones who make that thing into a reality.  

I think this is really central to Du Bois and his understanding of the Negro, too, as that figure that never neatly fits into those sociological boxes, into those categories. And for that, then we have to understand the Negro as a different type of human. I saw this very purposefully in the context of the popularity of theories of blackness and the nonhuman, a literature I am very familiar with. Du Bois, however, was talking about humans called Negro people, who do not fully make sense under the Western category of the Negro. One is white, and the other is black; we do not have to accept the white one as a legitimate description of who we are.


K: So, then research that maybe this journal might want to look to publish ... is it research that has an agency that people encounter? Is it research that complicates the act of putting people into boxes? A little bit of both? Something else? 


A: I think it's all that, you know. We really have to wrestle with the fact that we come to view ourselves through European categories. And those categories have real material implications on the world. But there also needs to be an understanding that those categories are not universal. They haven't always been the way that we've thought about ourselves or described ourselves. But now that those categories are here, what do we do? We should definitely be critical of them. We should definitely understand their history and where they come from. And we should definitely look into various different histories of various different intellectual projects that have tried to think about a new world that have tried to think about a different way of living and being human in the world. I think that's really what inspired me about Du Bois' work. 


K: That line of thinking reminds me of R. A. Judy's work that foregrounds “thinking in disorder.” I was lucky enough to have a seminar with him after he published Sentient Flesh and he had us read a few chapters that come to mind right now. 


A: Judy is the most brilliant person who people in communication studies are not reading, to me. That's unfortunate, because his work is really, really crucial. Especially for those who are interested in things like rhetoric, right? Thinking about the kind of history of the English department that he's been laying out. Since “DisForming the American Canon”. It's really crucial to me and my thought, and I think that it's really important for communication studies scholars to pay more attention to scholars like that. 


K: How do scholars of communication and race embrace human indeterminacy in their research? What are some correctives or some things they can examine in their own research to embrace this indeterminacy? 


A: I think we have to take seriously the material world that European categories have created for us. And what I mean by that is to continually remember them as European categories, which isn't to say that they have no connection to how we view ourselves, but it is to say that somebody fabricated these things at one point. There was no need to call yourself indigenous until somebody tried to take your land. There's material foundations to that understanding of yourself. And that in and of itself, requires study ... that moment ... and how that moment carries over into the present requires study. The construct of the Negro that Du Bois has been working with, is itself also a structure that emerged out of European/Euro American categorization.  

How do we then accept and understand that that categorization has a real material life in the world, while also understanding that categorization is somebody else's reading of who you are and can be remade by you into something new? If that's the case, then can we think about how to be something else? How to create new forms of solidarity and new forms of connection with one another, against that system of categorization? For me, that's really what Communication and Race is ... what I hope it to be about ... is to be a place to really have serious conversations about questions like this. And to me, that is ultimately a concern with how do we make a better world, what R. A. Judy calls a “just world.” So I'm really interested in trying to think about that in a serious way inside of Communication Studies.