About Robin Boylorn, Ph.D.: Robin Boylorn is Full Professor of Interpersonal and Intercultural Communication at The University of Alabama where, in 2022, she was named the inaugural Holle Endowed Chair of Communication Arts and the founding director of the forthcoming Holle Center for Communication Arts. Dr. Boylorn’s scholarship critically engages identity at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and class. Her first book, Sweetwater: Black Women and Narratives of Resilience, examines the lived experiences of Black women in a small North Carolina community, and won the Book of the Year Award from the Ethnography Division of the National Communication Association (NCA) and the Goodall and Trujillo Award in Narrative Ethnography. Dr. Boylorn’s research has appeared in top journals, including Communication Theory, Qualitative Inquiry, and the International Review of Qualitative Research.
Dr. Boylorn is also an acclaimed academic editor. Currently Editor of Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, a leading NCA journal, she has worked on several collected volumes, including Critical Autoethnography: Intersecting Cultural Identities in Everyday Life, with Mark Orbe, and The Crunk Feminist Collection, with Brittney Cooper and Susana Morris. She has also served as a guest editor for special journal issues, including Visual Voices and Aural (Auto)Ethnographies: The Personal, Political, and Polysemic Value of Storytelling and/in Communication, published in Review of Communication, which won a Best Special Issue award in 2021. In addition to her academic work, Dr. Boylorn is a publicly engaged scholar and cultural critic. She is a member of the Crunk Feminist Collective, a commentator for Alabama Public Radio, and has published in popular venues including Slate, Salon, and The Guardian.
Dr. Boylorn received her Ph.D. in Communication Studies from the University of South Florida, and her M.A. in Speech Communication from the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Greensboro. She also holds bachelor’s degrees from UNC Greensboro in Communication Studies and English.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you first become interested in narrative research, ethnography, and critical autoethnography, and in applying these perspectives to understanding cultural identity at the intersections of race, gender, and class?
[Dr. Robin Boylorn] I was mentored by Bud Goodall [Harold Lloyd Goodall Jr.], and he introduced me to autoethnography and personal narrative as method. Bud encouraged me to pursue a Ph.D., and with his support and guidance I was accepted to the University of South Florida, where I was trained by Carolyn Ellis and Art[hur] Bochner. They were, all three, pioneers and visionaries for autoethnography, which gave me permission and space to interrogate and understand culture and communication through the lens of lived experience.
Autoethnography introduced me to new ways of understanding storytelling and narrative. As a creative writer and English major, I did not read or write much nonfiction. As a storyteller with red mud rural roots, I understood “telling stories” as telling lies, so I used my imagination to make up stories. Bud taught me how to research stories and how to write personal narratives as a way of conducting research.
He was an ethnographer, so he introduced me to ethnography (how to tell the story of “unknown others”) first, and then autoethnography (how to tell the story of the “self”), which at the time he was calling “new ethnography.” As a result, I began to think about how I could use new ethnography to study the interior lives of Black women and girls — and myself. I wanted to explore how Blackness and womanhood was often steeped, not just in regionality or rurality, but also in class, gender performance, and sexuality.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your first book is Sweetwater: Black Women and Narratives of Resilience, which received numerous accolades upon its publication. Would you provide some background on this project, and how it reflects your larger scholarly approach? What were your main objectives with this text, and how did synthesizing narratives derived from fieldwork, autoethnography, and poetry help you represent the lived experiences of Black women in “Sweetwater,” North Carolina, in ways other forms of research may not have allowed?
[Dr. Robin Boylorn] As a college student I wasn’t reading experiments focused on people like me or being introduced to research or data that reflected or represented the experiences of people who lived in places like where I grew up. I was interested in those stories, but they were largely absent, and when they were presented, they were almost always pathologized. I wanted to contribute to scholarship that looked past pathology. My book project process mimicked my training — ethnography first, telling the story of the unknown other, in this case Black women in rural communities, and then autoethnography — telling the story of my lived experience in a rural community. I wanted to know what the lived realities of matrifocal Black families and communities could teach us about the New Black South.
I was inspired by my mentor, Carolyn Ellis, who had written about her family and the racial politics of her hometown. I did archival research on my community and uncovered its storied history to tell alongside the stories of its Black women citizens. As a result, the project unfolded as a collection of interconnected and intertwined lives in a community that served as both a character and a catalyst.
I soon realized that studying a small town meant an inevitable familial overlap between participants. Surprisingly, through the process of my research, I discovered that I was biologically related to almost all the women I interviewed and encountered. It helped me realize that telling their story was telling mine and that, by telling my story through autoethnography, I am telling theirs.
Sweetwater is “an autoethnographic ethnography,” which is terminology I borrow from Chris Poulos to frame my work as equally representative of both methods. I interviewed and interacted with intergenerational Black women, translated their experiences to stories, and translated those stories to generalizable themes. It was important to me that they recognize themselves in my storied research, and that my storied research existed beyond the academy and had a positive impact on the community I was researching.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Another focus of your research has been on media and popular cultural representation of Black women, which you engage critically, sometimes playfully, and view as a resource for radical thought. Could you reflect on your engagements with media and culture, ranging from hip-hop to reality television, and how your approach to writing about these issues extends or complements your autoethnographic research on racialized constructions of sex and gender?
[Dr. Robin Boylorn] I’ve always been interested in the way racialized media representation is uniquely significant for people of color. Because there is such a dearth of representation of non-white characters or experiences, we [Black folk] are often drawn to and implicated by the representations we see, and those we know others can see. As a result, there is a simultaneous acceptance of and resistance to the idea that all Black people are unwitting representatives of all Black people. This makes characterizations of people of color significant and salient, because they are automatically attributed to other people of color.
One example of this is the criminalization of Black men that results from an over-representation of Black men as dangerous and menacing in media. It results in Black men having to consciously battle being seen or treated like delinquents in real life. It also translates to representations of Black women as loud, unprofessional, strong, and independent — forcing Black women to respond in real time to racist tropes of Black womanhood — by either reinforcing or rejecting the labels.
I am interested in interrogating how our complicated relationship to representation plays out in contradictory ways in public. For example, as a hip-hop generation feminist with a coming-of-age soundtrack that includes music that is misogynistic and problematic, I openly wrestle with how to reconcile my feminism with my fandom of hip hop, a genre of music that helped shape the culture of misogynoir I actively critique.
I feel similarly about reality television shows that are edited to reinforce racist stereotypes — but I still tune in, right? In this way, a lot of my work seeks to understand and unpack the complicated and contradictory impulses of engaging and disengaging media. Instead of throwing them away or accepting them outright, my work seeks to trouble, critique, and most importantly understand raced and gendered representations and how we sometimes absorb parts of them into who we are.
This connects to my autoethnographic writing, because I am always writing in the singular and plural of Black womanhood. My I is both me/mine and we/ours. I write about my personal experience as Robin, but I also write about my collective experience as a Black woman, so representations resonate. I believe we must engage with both positive and problematic representations to legitimately offer cultural critiques of them, which complements my approach to ethnography.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In the course of your research on the lived experience and cultural representation of Black women, you have innovated a number of terms-of-art to help depict the interplay between racism, sex, and gender in these contexts, including “blackgirl,” “blackgirlism” and “ratchet respectability.” Could you introduce our readers to these terms, and discuss what they help you capture about cultural identity and the politics of difference in your research that we would not be able to see without them?
[Dr. Robin Boylorn] “Blackgirl” and “blackgirlism” and the intentional connection of those terms represents the indivisibility of those identities. For me, that is not necessarily a groundbreaking revelation. It is informed by intersectionality and legacies of Black feminism. Black feminists have historically taught us that Black women can’t separate their race from their gender. Because you cannot separate the epistemological embodiedness of Black womanness, combining those terms offers a visual representation of the experience that is based on the cultural and communicative relevance of what it means to be “Black” and what it means to be “girl.”
I coined the term “ratchet respectability” to discuss representations of Black women on reality television, particularly from the Real Housewives of Atlanta franchise. Ratchet behavior is often connected to Black working-class status and understood as a performance of ghettoization, while respectability is connected to white middle to upper class status and a performance of dignity and self-control.
The “Real Housewives” franchise is connected to wealth, opulence and, by default, whiteness. Enter The Real Housewives of Atlanta, where you have a predominantly Black cast. Ratchet respectability accounts for the contradictions with word play. Ratchet respectability helps us theorize how Black women on reality shows perform Blackness, womanness, and wealth, whether it’s real or imagined. I use the term to discuss the performance of paradoxical ratchet respectable identity and how Black women’s successful navigation of those identities leads to longevity in the public sphere.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For over ten years, you have been involved in the “Crunk Feminist Collective” (CFC), a collaborative endeavor that led to the publication of The Crunk Feminist Collection. Could you introduce us to this collective and discuss its goals, perhaps touching on how your work with the Crunk Feminist Collective reflects your broader investment and approach to public-facing scholarship?
[Dr. Robin Boylorn] The CFC includes co-founders Brittney Cooper and Susana Morris, and then there’s me, Eesha Pandit, Sheri Davis, Rachel Raimist, and Chanel Craft Tanner. We are a collective of Black feminist scholar-activists, who identify as hip-hop generation feminists. A lot of my work with the CFC informs my thinking around contradictory identities, my commitments to Black feminism and social justice, and my investment in reaching audiences within and without the academy.
As a collective we have always been invested in making Black feminism more mainstream and accessible using a Black feminist lens to critique and understand the world around us. In 2010, we launched a blog which housed our short essays, now known as “think pieces,” which applied critical feminist perspectives, theories, and critiques to popular culture. The Crunk Feminist Collection combines some of our most popular blog posts from the first five years.
Since then, the CFC has moved a lot of our work offline. Brittney has published a New York Times Bestselling Book, Eloquent Rage. Susana is currently working on a biography of Octavia Butler for Amistad Books, and last year, Brittney, Chanel, and Susana published a YA [young adult] book called Feminist AF: A Guide to Crushing Girlhood. Rachel Raimist is a Directors Guild of America television director, Eesha Pandit is co-founder and managing partner at The Center for Advancing Innovative Policy (CAIP) and the author of the forthcoming book Fierce Enigmas (Beacon Press), Sheri Davis is Associate Director of the Center for Innovation in Worker Organization at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, and Chanel is the Director of the Center for Women at Emory University. We are working on our individual passion projects, while we continue to do our collaborative work, which in its most recent iteration is a Substack newsletter called “The Remix,” where we continue to chronicle feminist musings tethered to our lived experiences.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You are also an accomplished academic and, in 2021, you became the first Black woman to edit the National Communication Association journal Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies. As you note in your piece, “How to be a (Black Woman) Journal Editor During a Pandemic,” upon your election, contributors and reviewers regularly questioned and policed your decisions–an expression of racism and sexism that, at the same time, you discuss as informing your vision for the journal and clarifying “how you want to be known and remembered as an editor.” Would you reflect on your commitments as an editor, and how your recent experiences have informed or sharpened those commitments? Are the cultural politics of working as a journal editor different, in some ways, than those involved in editing scholarly collections, or have you encountered similar challenges in that context?
[Dr. Robin Boylorn] I want to start by saying that there is both a frustration and responsibility with being the first Black anything in the 22nd year of the 21st century. As our country and as our discipline reckons with racial issues and tries to correct them, people often assume that the appointment of a person of color is an overcorrection: that the POC is not actually qualified, that they don’t know what they’re doing, that they can’t possibly have any authority or experience.
My record, of course, demonstrates that I am more than qualified to be a journal editor. However, it seemed there was still an obligation for me to prove it to myself and to my skeptics. The exasperation of being the first Black woman to edit a prestigious journal is knowing if I were a white man, I wouldn’t have to prove my legitimacy or earn anyone’s respect.
Nevertheless, the experience has been character-building, and it reinforces how I want to be known and remembered as an editor, which is as a trailblazer who kept the door open, and as someone who is consistent, collaborative, and fair. I want my editorship to reflect my commitment to good writing and rigorous revision, and the amplification of lesser-known narratives through publication.
Admittedly editing a journal was not on my career bucket list, but when I was invited to apply, I thought, “What might me saying yes make possible for someone else in the future?” With that in mind, I see my role as one of advocacy, guidance and education.
Academic publishing shouldn’t be mystical. The review and publication processes aren’t necessarily behind a locked door, but if you can’t find the door then you can’t get to what’s behind it. I want to make the door easy to find, and I want to make the process easy for people to understand. People should know what happens, why it happens, how long it takes, why things sometimes take a long time, and why even excellent work gets rejected.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice you would give to students interested in autoethnography, research on cultural identity, critical perspectives on race and culture, or other topics we’ve discussed, who might be considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication?
[Dr. Robin Boylorn] We are in a political climate that makes studying identity and diversity, using critical race theory, and having progressive perspectives feel dangerous. And it is. Being unconventional and experimental with how you engage scholarship and research when you are trying to get a job, get tenure or get promoted feels vulnerable, uncomfortable and risky. And it is. This work is not for the faint of heart.
My advice: be brave and be intentional. Be truth-seeking, honest, ethical and committed to your work. Find aspirational models and get yourself a crew who will see you, support you, and cheer for you! Necessary work is hard, and sometimes we have to position ourselves as something like a martyr. This is a moment that is calling for that. Consider for what and for whom you are willing to stand up, and think about how you will use your life, your work, and your life’s work to make a positive difference in the world.
Thank you, Dr. Robin Boylorn, for your discussion of ethnographic and autoethnographic research and how storytelling can advance social justice and encourage more critical engagements with issues of race, gender, and class.
Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.