In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Whiteness Theory in Intercultural Communication

  • Introduction
  • History and Overviews
  • Journals
  • Whiteness in US History
  • White Identity and Intercultural Communication
  • White Cultural Practices
  • Intersections of Whiteness and Gender/Sexuality
  • Whiteness in Popular Culture
  • Whiteness and Globalization

Communication Whiteness Theory in Intercultural Communication
Judith N. Martin, Tom K. Nakayama
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0270


While the study of whiteness was not an explicit part of the project of intercultural communication studies, it has emerged as an important part of the field from its origins in implicit and explicit ways. The foundations of intercultural communication in the US Foreign Service Institute in the 1940s implicitly constructed the field to advance the needs of white men. The reputation of the State Department as “pale, male, and Yale” influenced the development of intercultural communication as a theoretical and applied field in service of elite, white men. Thus, issues of race and white privilege in particular have largely been ignored or silenced. The emergence of interest in whiteness and the role of racial domination in communication studies began to influence the study of intercultural communication by 2000. Intercultural communication scholars have been interested in how whiteness shapes intercultural experiences and interaction, and how it reproduces its power.

History and Overviews

In the mid-1990s, intercultural communication expanded beyond its reliance primarily on psychology and anthropology as scholars began reading interdisciplinary work in whiteness studies, ethnic studies, critical theory, and critical race theory. These new influences drove new interest in understanding the role of power as an implicit force in driving the field. Moon 1996 traces the intellectual development of the field and describes how certain definitions became hegemonic, thereby reading others out. Specifically, culture was defined as nationality, and thus its intersection with other positions such as gender, race, and social class was not considered; this definition also created homogeneous notions of national cultures. Later, Alley-Young 2008 extends the discussion to include the contributions of postcolonialism and critical race theory to the study of whiteness and communication. By 2000, the communicative aspects of race, including whiteness theory, was incorporated into research and pedagogy of intercultural communication, emphasizing how power, privilege, and systems of oppression in macro-contexts determine communication processes, e.g., Collier, et al. 2002 and Halualani, et al. 2009. Whiteness was identified as a key element in the construction of “others,” and this process of identification was directed toward understanding and making visible the frequent invisibility and normativity of white supremacy/privilege, and its influence on intercultural encounters. Shome 2000 challenges the stable notion of whiteness as invisible and normative by pointing to moments in history when it was visible. Shome notes its “slipperiness” as it is a dynamic rhetoric. Nakayama and Martin 2007 points to the “white problem” in intercultural communication research and pedagogy, calling for the development of a “postcolonial intercultural communication” that does not center any specific group as the focal point for communication inquiry, offering commensurate pedagogical strategies. Similarly, Cooks 2003 offers strategies for incorporating whiteness into interracial communication courses. While a number of edited volumes exist on topics related to intercultural communication and race, relatively few focus exclusively on the role of whiteness. One of the first was Nakayama and Martin 1999, which foregrounds the communicative nature of social identities and challenges the ways that whiteness functions in the many facets of everyday life. The authors note that whiteness must be understood before it can be undone. Two special topic journal issues, Moon and Holling 2015 and Holling and Moon 2015, elucidate the presence of post-racialism and colorblindness in discourses that ultimately shape, preclude, or inhibit intercultural possibilities. The edited volume McIntosh, et al. 2019 also focuses on whiteness and intercultural communication and includes essays that demonstrate how whiteness functions through intersectional capacities, including religion, social class, white masculinity and femininity, ability, sexuality, and nationality.

  • Alley-Young, Gordon. 2008. Articulating identity: Refining postcolonial and whiteness perspectives on race within communication studies. Review of Communication 8.3 (July): 307–321.

    DOI: 10.1080/15358590701845311

    Juxtaposes postcolonial and whiteness scholarship to identify gaps and clarify influences on critical race scholarship within communication studies. Provides future directions for interrogating race, including a focus on how white privilege is extended to and assumed by individuals who are not white.

  • Collier, Mary Jane, Rhada S. Hegde, WenShu Lee, Thomas K. Nakayama, and Gustavo A. Yep. 2002. Dialogue on the edges: Ferment in communication and culture. In Transforming communication about culture. Edited by Mary Jane Collier, 219–280. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    Renowned scholars engage in dialogue interrogating the fundamental conceptualizations and assumptions of then-current intercultural communication research and practice. Proposes a critical turn that acknowledges and interrogates the role of power and oppression as well as the influence of political, economic, and social class on intercultural encounters.

  • Cooks, Leda. 2003. Pedagogy, performance, and positionality: Teaching about Whiteness in interracial communication. Communication Education 52.3–4: 245–257.

    DOI: 10.1080/0363452032000156226

    Using the concepts of positionality and performativity, as well as analyses of student narratives and focus group conversations, presents strategies for meeting students’ resistance and engaging them in rethinking white identity and social responsibility in interracial encounters.

  • Halualani, Rona T., S. Lily Mendoza, and Jolanta A. Drzewiecka. 2009. “Critical” junctures in intercultural communication studies: A review. Review of Communication 9.1 (January): 17–35.

    DOI: 10.1080/15358590802169504

    Foregrounds the critiques, moves, and junctures that have specifically retheorized culture and communication from a critical intercultural communication perspective. Describes the historically significant moments when scholars confronted and wrestled with definitions and theoretical formations of culture and intercultural communication; identifies future research questions.

  • Holling, Michelle A., and Dreama G. Moon, eds. Special issue: Race(ing) intercultural communication. Journal of International and Intercultural Communication 8.2 (April 2015).

    The second of two special issues on race; essays “continue to expose the presence of post-racialism and colorblindness in discourses that ultimately shape, preclude or inhibit intercultural possibilities” (p. 81).

  • McIntosh, Dawn M., G. Moon Dreama, and Thomas K. Nakayama, eds. 2019. Interrogating the communicative power of whiteness. New York: Routledge.

    Landmark collection demonstrates how whiteness functions through intersectional capacities and is culturally maintained. Authors interrogate the communicative aspects of multifaceted identities that intersect with whiteness, including gender, religion, social class, sexuality, physical ability, and so on.

  • Moon, Dreama G. 1996. Concepts of “culture”: Implications for intercultural communication research. Communication Quarterly 44.1 (January): 70–84.

    DOI: 10.1080/01463379609370001

    A classic examination of the historical development of intercultural communication studies, noting that scholarship ignores influences of historical, political, and economic macro-contexts on intercultural encounters. Calls for incorporation of critical/feminist perspectives into intercultural communication scholarship.

  • Moon, Dreama G., and Michelle A. Holling, eds. Special issue: Race(ing) intercultural communication. Journal of International & Intercultural Communication 8.1 (2015).

    First of two special issues. Contributed essays describe the subtle (and perhaps not-so-subtle) ways that race and racism inflect various discourses that permeate all contexts including physical and mediated spaces.

  • Nakayama, Thomas K., and Judith N. Martin, eds. 1999. Whiteness: The communication of social identity. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    Early edited volume on the topic of whiteness and intercultural communication. Argues that whiteness, like other social and cultural identities, is productively understood as a communication phenomenon. Authors confront the normative practices by exposing the way that whiteness functions in everyday communicative life.

  • Nakayama, Thomas K., and Judith N. Martin. 2007. The “white problem” in intercultural communication research and pedagogy. In Whiteness, pedagogy and performance: Dis/placing race. Edited by Leda M. Cooks and Jennifer S. Simpson, 111–137. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

    History of the field of intercultural communication read against the backdrop of the hegemonic position of white researchers and practitioners. Calls for the development of a “postcolonial intercultural communication” and proposes pedagogical strategies commensurate with a postcolonial intercultural communication framework.

  • Shome, Raka. 2000. Outing whiteness. Critical Studies in Media Communication 17.3 (September): 366–372.

    DOI: 10.1080/15295030009388402

    Describes how whiteness is a process, constantly made and remade through other unequal social relations; does not always secure itself through a rhetoric of normativity—there are moments in history when it becomes visible, usually when its supremacy is contested, revealing anxieties and its “slipperiness.”

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