Articulating and Interrogating Black Embodied Resistance: Using Performative Symbolic Resistance as a Tactical, Analytical Tool

Aug 18, 2023

Published in Articles | Issue 6

by Alicia K. Hatcher, Syracuse University



On November 30, 2020, the Professional and Technical Writing Program in the Virginia Tech Department of English held a virtual event titled Black Technical and Professional Communication, which was “a response to national calls for action against anti-Blackness and white supremacy across domains, especially those that arose in response to the unjust and brutal murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Tony McDade” (Black Technical and Professional Communication). During this conversation, Cecilia Shelton responded to Elizabeth Britt’s argument that “technical communication is how institutions and organizations define themselves and do their cultural work” by stating

Tech comm provides the infrastructure for these [institutional/organizational] systems to operate and reproduce themselves. So if that’s true, then shouldn’t we pay attention to the infrastructures for systems and strategies of resistance so that we can understand who is building them and how they’re building them? And shouldn’t we pay attention to how these infrastructures [for systems and strategies of resistance] get replicated and taken up in other justice movements?

I was a graduate student at a PWI trying to navigate the final year of my PhD program when the Black TPC event was held, and this conversation played a vital role in helping me consider my own role within these systems. But on a deeper level, as a Black person being reminded about the almost daily killing of Black people in the United States and the intrinsic connection between the inscriptive practices[1] and the systems in which we teach and learn, I not only heard the speakers’ words—I felt their sentiments. As a Black scholar whose work focuses on Black rhetorical practices, I’m continuously grappling with how our ethnic and cultural understandings—i.e. our tacit knowledges gained out of Black experiences—both necessitate that we engage in and provide opportunities for us to cultivate crucial conversations about problematic practices. And in my current role as a Black junior faculty member at a PWI, I still hear the speakers’ words and feel their sentiments each day as I navigate white-dominant spaces in this corporeal body. The work that follows is tethered to each of these experiences and roles, and it attempts to do what Shelton calls us to do in her response to Britt—which is to “pay attention” to the specific social and societal systems that have been built and continue to maintain existing infrastructures detrimental to marginalized populations, and to “pay attention” to how specific systems and tactics[2] of resistance work to contest—and hopefully dismantle—those specific infrastructures. For scholars in rhetoric and technical & professional communication (TPC), paying attention must include a willingness to continuously critique our systems—the fields and disciplines in which we ground our work, our scholarship, and our selves—and the ideologies that undergird them. So what happens when those systems fail us? For example, what happens when there is a gap in our field’s language that impedes scholars’ abilities to contribute to or intervene in scholarly conversations—to demonstrate that we are, indeed, paying attention? What happens then—at least in part—is that we find ourselves devoting a significant amount of our time to creating the language we need. That was my experience when, as a graduate student, I sought to perform a critical analysis of Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling while also situating his individual act as part of a larger social movement. I could not find a term or phrase that wholly captured what he was doing (kneeling) and the collective contexts—social, spatial, rhetorical—in which he was doing it. 

A similar need is expressed by Judith Butler in Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly when they discuss the relationship between the human body, infrastructures, and the political struggle. They write, “I’m using one word after another, searching for a set of related terms as a way of approaching a problem that resists a technical nomenclature; no single word can adequately describe the character and the aim of this human striving, this striving in concert or this striving together that seems to form one meaning of political movement or mobilization” (133). I agree with Butler; there is no single word that can do this work—the work of fully encapsulating the breadth and depth of the human body’s relationships to infrastructures and that speaks to their co-dependency in meaning making while simultaneously speaking to a personal and collective yearning strong enough to propel thinking into activism. And perhaps one word will always be too small to express these ideas comprehensively and simultaneously. And perhaps it would be asking too much of a single word to do this all-inclusive work, the work of encapsulating and providing us with the breadth and scope—or the totality, if you will—of what occurs when bodies, infrastructures, and political struggles meet. Eventually, I determined that Kaepernick was 1) engaging in a type of performance, 2) using his body and the football sideline symbolically, and 3) engaging in an act of resistance against police brutality—hence, the term Performative Symbolic Resistance.

Recently other scholars have also paid attention, demonstrated by the robust offering of new language and terms that speak to the diverse ways scholars see, know, comprehend, and express. Temptatous McCoy’s work on amplification rhetorics, Cecilia Shelton’s research introducing a techné of marginality, and Carleigh Davis’ research introducing memetic rhetorical theory are prime examples of doctoral students encountering rhetorical limitations when attempting to contribute to the body of scholarly work in rhetoric and TPC. In addition, Jim Ridolfo and Dànielle DeVoss’ work on rhetorical velocity, Erin Frost’s work introducing apparent feminism, Natasha Jones, Kristen Moore, and Rebecca Walton’s work introducing the antenarrative, and Erin Frost and Michelle Eble’s work on technical rhetorics further demonstrate the need for a continuous expansion of scholarly language in rhetoric and TPC. Part of my purpose for this article is to do just that—to offer new language—that can be used to describe activists and their protest efforts. Performative Symbolic Resistance (which will be referred to as PSR moving forward) is that new language, and it is 1) a denotative term used to name the strategy(ies) social activists use as they seek acknowledgement of and redress for social ills, and 2) an illustrative term used to describe a tactic social activists use as they seek acknowledgement of and redress for social ills. It is based on the idea that an individual can use their physical body to perform resistance while simultaneously using specific spaces and acts to 1) symbolize an idea or ideology and to 2) create or perpetuate a resistant rhetoric.[3]

The Connection to Performance Theory: Using Embodied Performance, Spaces, and Places to Represent Crises, Schism, and Conflict 

Part of my contention is that when people engage in PSR, they are engaging in a type of performance. It is important to note that my use of the term performance within the context of this article is informed by scholars of performativity and performance studies. Even though they are two divergent fields, they are inextricably linked by the understanding that bodies can be and often are used to demonstrate and represent core ideologies. Scholars like Judith Butler and Vershawn Young situate performance as a way of knowing and expressing knowledge, a way that deviates from our country’s (the United States) traditionally prescribed notions of what counts as knowledge (i.e. knowledge produced by or demonstrated through the literal acts of reading and writing). Butler discusses the phenomenological theory of ‘acts,’ which “seeks to explain the mundane way in which social agents constitute social reality through language, gesture, and all manner of symbolic social sign” (521). Even though much of their work emphasizes how bodies are used to engage in gendered performances, they also state that “the acts by which gender is constituted bear similarities to performative acts within theatrical contexts” (521). Their additional works examine the communicative nature of the body and its usage in combating social ills, exploring how our physical bodies “acting in concert can be an embodied form of calling into question the inchoate and powerful dimensions of reigning notions of the political” (Butler 9). Likewise, Young describes the desire and complexities of performing gender. However, Young discusses the intersection of gendered performances and performances of race. This type of performance—what Young refers to as “the burden of racial performance”[4]—is rooted in an embodied, experiential, ontological understanding bound by both a gendered and racial, ethnic, and cultural epistemology. It exists as a corporeal demonstration of Blackness, which he describes as “the demand to prove what type of black person you are” (207). For Black people engaging in acts of PSR, their performances serve as proof of their Blackness—what type of person they are—by establishing their connection to group cultural collective understanding—what I refer to as a group meta-conceptualization (27-28)[5]regarding what it means to be Black and experience Blackness in the United States, specifically as it relates to race.

Performance theorists Victor Turner and Richard Schechner examine the ways in which bodies are used as tools of performance in cultures around the world, and they focus on the importance of performance in shaping our comprehension of our world. Schechner emphasizes the idea that performance (in the theatrical sense) allows the actor to use “bodily actions” to “express crisis, schism, and conflict” (xi). If we think about bodily actions in this way, then it’s easy to understand that performance can also be used as a moral act (Conquergood). Dwight Conquergood states

The state of emergency under which many people live demands that we pay attention to messages that are coded and encrypted; to indirect, nonverbal, and extralinguistic modes of communication where subversive meanings and utopian yearnings can be sheltered and shielded from surveillance. (148)

Even though performers of PSR do not attempt to shield themselves from surveillance but, instead, lean into their bodies’ hypervisibility (discussed in the next section), their protest acts are a direct response to a state of emergency in this country that directly impacts people of color. When Black people engage in acts of PSR, they are actively using their bodies to demonstrate two specific notions: 1) their awareness of and opposition to the ongoing literal “crisis, schism, and conflict” being experienced by Black people in this country, and 2) their awareness of the possibility that power can be wielded from public protest acts. One of the most notable examples of an inscriptive practice that sparked protests around the world was the killing of George Floyd on May 25th, 2020. 8 minutes and 46 seconds—the amount of time Derek Chauvin is thought to have knelt on Floyd’s neck—came to symbolize police brutality. But sadly, George Floyd’s murder is only one of many, and Black people have continued to protest in the wake of his death and the deaths of many, many others. 

The Role of Space

It is important to note that even though performativity is often perceived as phenomenological and performance is often perceived as dramaturgical, they are both relevant to and necessary for the contextualization of PSR. They both pertain to the way bodies are intentionally used to perform acts, specifically in public spaces and places, to counter systemic oppressions and engage in and as resistant rhetorics. As I previously stated, with regards to PSR, my description of a resistant rhetoric is based on the idea that an individual can use their physical body to perform resistance while simultaneously using specific symbolic acts to 1) represent an idea or ideology and to 2) create or perpetuate a resistant rhetoric. Even so, a body can only become a resistant rhetoric or engage in a resistant rhetoric in dominant spaces and, therefore, can only engage in acts of PSR in dominant spaces. And because my concept of PSR is inherently linked to the Black experience in the United States, it’s vital to note that within the context of this framework, a Black person can only use their body to engage in PSR in a white-dominant space.[6] This begs the question: what makes a space white-dominant? Before I respond to that question, I first want to stipulate that rhetorical expressions of this concept—such as white space or white-dominated space—pre-date my work. For example, Liptsizt, a primary figure in the field of Black Studies, discusses the white spatial imaginary and the black spatial imaginary in his work. However, in order to examine space in relation to PSR, I wanted and needed: 1) a concrete definition to work from and 2) a clear articulation of what makes a white-dominant space ideal for resistant performances. As such, I define white-dominant space as an environment that has historically been controlled by and served white Americans, and it is characterized by the existence of an audience in the form of a public as described by Michael Warner. Specifically, for Black professional athletes like Kaepernick engaging in PSR, I rely on Warner’s following two contentions about publics as they relate to the places and spaces in which protests are performed:

  1. a public is a relation among strangers, and
  2. a public is constituted through mere attention.

According to Warner, a public (theoretically) unites strangers through participation, resulting in a social “stranger relationality” (56-57), and its existence is predicated by some degree of attention from its members (61). Spaces such as professional athletic venues certainly meet the criteria since they—and the sports that take place in them—were not intended for Black people. I contend that as a result of racialization, athletes like Kaepernick perpetually exist as strangers within the physical space of their respective athletic venue. But it is not only their racialization that sets them apart—it is also their consciousness and connection to a group consciousness that differs from that established as appropriate for the space. One way to view those with this shared group consciousness is to think about them as members of what Nancy Fraser refers to as a “subaltern counterpublic.” According to Fraser, “…members of subordinated social groups–women, workers, peoples of color, and gays and lesbians–have repeatedly found it advantageous to constitute alternative publics” (67). She elaborates:

I propose to call these subaltern counterpublics in order to signal that they are parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses, which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs. (67)

For Black people in this country whose experiential knowledge has been informed by racial and social contracts (Mills, Charles), the creation of a subaltern counterpublic is a necessary survival tactic, informed by group cultural collective understanding—aka group meta-conceptualization. Black professional athletes like Kaepernick are in a unique position within this subaltern counterpublic. Even though they have gained access to the white-dominant space, their Blackness sets them apart—regardless of their athletic prowess. Their existence within the metaphorical space of the subaltern counterpublic—this existence as a stranger—allows for protest-related hypervisibility [7] (Williams, Patricia). By engaging in PSR within these spaces, an athlete can use their body—a body that has historically been viewed through what Williams refers to as a voyeuristic “zoom lens”—to force the public to engage with the counterpublic. For Black professional athletes engaging in protest, having a public who experiences their protest—either positively or negatively—is mandatory. After all, the reality is that despite his celebrity status, had Kaepernick decided to engage in his individual acts where no audience or public was present, then his protest would not be a demonstration of PSR since a resistant rhetoric is inherently social, cultural, and communal, and public-facing.

For Black professional athletes engaging in PSR, then, access to white-dominant spaces is vital because of the relationship between access to dominant spaces and power. Henri Lefebvre’s framework for studying spatial processes helps us consider the connection between culture and political economy. He states, “One of the consistent ways to limit the economic and political rights of groups has been to constrain social reproduction by limiting access to space” (22). For Black professional athletes who now have access to these white-dominant spaces, access to publics provides opportunities for their implicit-made-explicit knowledge to be made visible and reproduced by those who share their sentiments. For those who embrace the same shared fantasies and group consciousness as the protestor, the gesture is not problematic. But for those who do not embrace the same shared fantasy and group consciousness, the presence of a resistant rhetoric is problematic. By deviating from the prescribed norms of each space, athletes like Kaepernick intentionally increase their hypervisibility, forcing the audience to take notice of their message—willingly or not.

Aligning PSR With Decolonial Frameworks

In my introduction, I state that PSR is language that specifically serves as 1) a denotative term used to name the strategy(ies) social activists use as they seek acknowledgement of and redress for social ills, and 2) an illustrative term used to describe a strategy social activists use as they seek acknowledgement of and redress for social ills. Scholars of technical communication, such as Haas and Agboka, have addressed the need for new language in our fields and disciplines, language that can provide scholars with varying points of entry into our on-going social justice conversations. Haas states, “For decolonial ideologies to emerge, new rhetorics must be spoken, written, or otherwise delivered into existence” (287). In addition, she describes decolonial methodologies and pedagogies not by what they are but by what they do:

decolonial methodologies and pedagogies serve to (a) redress colonial influences on perceptions of people, literacy, language, culture, and community and the relationships therein and (b) support the coexistence of cultures, languages, literacies, memories, histories, places, and spaces—and encourage respectful and reciprocal dialogue between and across them. (297)

Whereas I’m not situating PSR as a decolonial framework, it is—in addition to a denotative and illustrative term—a methodological, analytical framework that scholars of rhetoric and TPC can use in their continued efforts to examine how performance, performativity, and symbolism are and can be used to engage in acts of resistance. It is a rhetorical tool that can be used to analyze, discuss, and describe people engaging in protest acts and their efforts, which aligns with Haas’ description of decolonial methodologies and pedagogies and her explicit connection between 1) the emergence of decolonial ideologies and 2) the creation of new rhetorics. 

What follows, then, is an overview of how PSR can be deployed as an analytical tool. This overview includes an illustration and description of The PSR Puzzle, which establishes the criteria for determining if a protest can be considered PSR, followed by a demonstration of how it can be used as a data collection tool. Throughout this overview, I put PSR into action by conducting a brief analysis of Kaepernick’s kneeling through the PSR lens. 

The Performative Symbolic Resistance Puzzle: Who, What, How, When, Where, Why, plus Intentionality + Why  

Is it Performative Symbolic Resistance?

In order to determine whether or not a resistant act can be labeled as PSR or can be analyzed through the PSR lens, it will need to be examined based on the following criteria found on The Performative Symbolic Resistance Puzzle. As the puzzle illustrates, PSR is characterized by who can perform the protest, the manner in which it is performed, and the intent behind it. People protest in a variety of ways (marches, sit-ins, demonstrations, strikes, petitions, etc.); however, PSR is a specific type of protest with its own unique criteria for determination. The elements of The PSR Puzzle allow us to determine whether a specific resistant act meets the criteria for PSR. However, it is important to note that even though the puzzle concretizes these elements and provides us with both a visual representation of PSR and a space for data collection, PSR—like Black bodies—is not meant to be seen as static. The puzzle is simply a graphic—a visual—meant to begin the journey of analysis by helping us recognize the individual elements of a protest act as entangled—simultaneously singular and interlocking. But like the acts performed by PSR performers—corporeal acts performed to represent the plight of the personage—the connections are constantly ebbing, flowing, and overlapping. Thinking about Black bodies in this way offers up an invitation to scholars interested in the connection between bodies and spaces and how the individual elements are inextricably linked.

With this understanding of bodies and spaces in mind, I’ve determined that PSR acts must have the following characteristics: 

  1. The act must be performed by a member of/members of a marginalized community.
  2. The act can be a verbal or non-verbal act.
  3. The/A marginalized body must be used to both symbolize an embodied resistance and engage in the performance of a symbolic act.
  4. The act must be performed in a white-dominant space or place for the purposes of transforming the meaning of the space, allowing it to become a symbol of resistance.
  5. The act must be intentional, performed with a specific goal or purpose in mind.

Table 1: The PSR Puzzle as a Data Collection Tool

Who—is performing the resistant act? At its most basic level, who we are—or how we identify— can be answered by a name. However, another layer of how we identify is evidenced through and by our connections to other people. Our lineage, our cultures, our ethnicity, our professions—any and all of these have the power to establish and shape those connections. And for many of us, having one or more of those identities means that we are part of a group that has not historically held power in the traditional sense. It means voice(s) has been historically muted, leading to an inability to attain economic, social, and/or political power. Because of who a person is and their place in society, the ability to have grievances heard, legitimized, and ultimately addressed have been thwarted. We typically refer to these groups as marginalized populations because they exist on the metaphorical (and often literal) margins of our societies. This means that they are not simply excluded from the power itself but that they have historically and continuously been excluded from access to the methods that could potentially afford them with opportunities to attain power— methods that have and continue to be practiced through the use of physical and psychological violence (i.e. inscriptive practices). This serves as the impetus for professional athletes like Kaepernick to engage in PSR. I contend that Kaepernick’s decision to engage in PSR is bound up in how he identifies, and that this identification is intrinsically linked to how his body is read as he navigates our society—that being as a Black man. It is this identification that allows him to recognize not just his own marginalization but also his connection to a marginalized group and the experiences of those within the group. Even though his specific protest is an individual act, it is imperative that we recognize it also as a demonstration of his connection to the collective fear, frustration, angst, and anger—i.e. their connection to an existing group consciousness surrounding the issues of racial violence and police brutality. It is an act that reflects the group consciousness of those impacted by the continued practices of physical and psychological violence(s) against Black bodies and, therefore, Black persons.

What and How

What—are they doing during this performance? This aspect of PSR pertains to the physical act (as opposed to the metaphorical act), specifically the performer’s use of their physical body to engage in a symbolic act. Previous scholarship on the body emphasizes the power of the body and its ability to be used as a rhetorical tool. Patterson and Corning state that, “If we read rhetoric as a persuasive discursive network of power and knowledge, we first must read the body as the site of cultural inscription, self-regulation, and resistance” (7). Two years later, DeLuca explores the ways members of Earth First!, ACT UP, and Queer Nation use their bodies to engage as a “…resource for…public argumentation” (10). Pough’s ongoing scholarship focusing on Black women in hip-hop, Licona’s work demonstrating the connection between art and activism, and Alexander and Jarrett’s words in Unruly Rhetorics remind us that “It is the body that suffers precarity, and it is through the assembly of visible and audible bodies—often in unexpected and unsanctioned places—that the “people” (Ranciere, Politics of Aesthetics 84) claim a share in the communal” (16). Likewise, my concept of ​PSR ​relies on the notion that a body—more specifically, a body (or bodies) from marginalized communities—can be used to “provide the essence of a message” not only for proponents of the idea or ideology but also for its opponents (Stewart, Smith, and Denton 64). By choosing to sit and kneel during the national anthem, Kaepernick used his bodily actions in these ways, allowing them to both demonstrate a moral act while expressing the crisis, schism, and conflict experienced by Black people in the United States as a result of ongoing inscriptive practices.

How—is this resistant act being conducted? Within the context of PSR, the how can be in the form of either a verbal or non-verbal act during which the performer has made an intentional choice to use performance as a rhetorical, tactical tool. When Kaepernick sat or knelt during the national anthem, he engaged in a non-verbal act of PSR. He used silence as a rhetorical tool to symbolize his individual protest against police brutality—specifically as it pertains to Black people being killed during encounters with law enforcement. These were hopeful acts performed as both an ideological stance and an invitation—and at times, even a plea—for members of a public to 1) recognize the voice(s) embedded within the silence and 2) engage in the act of rhetorical listening (Ratcliffe; Glenn and Ratcliffe) about police brutality and the plight of Black people in the United States. They were used as persuasive, contextualized, communicative acts performed in public for a public, becoming what Glenn refers to as “purposeful silence(s)” (263). As such, naming such acts and actions as PSR does multiple things. First, it contributes to the existing ideologies and frameworks used by rhetoricians and technical communicators to analyze, describe, and discuss how the corporeal bodies of marginalized peoples can be used as rhetorical, technical tools that embody resistance. And second, it helps us understand how PSR can be used as an analytical tool that scholars of rhetoric and technical communication can use in their continued efforts to illustrate the connection between performance, performativity, and the tactical use of symbols.

When and Where

(Taking Advantage of) Kairotic Moments: The Right Time, The Right Place

In order for a protest act to be considered PSR, it must be performed in a white-dominant space for the purpose of transforming the meaning of the space, allowing it to become a symbol of resistance. Before engaging in PSR, Kaepernick had to consider when and where he would engage in his protest. When considering acts of PSR, such as Kaepernick’s kneeling, it is imperative to keep in mind that time and location (i.e. when and where) cannot be wholly extricated from each other. Therefore, a simultaneous consideration of 1) chronological and kairotic time and 2) the dominant space in which the act will be performed is necessary. As a professional athlete, Kaepernick gained 1) access to white-dominant, mediated spaces and places that lay people don’t have access to, and 2) opportunities to engage in public protest in these spaces and places. The (professional NFL) football field/arena was available to him because of the celebrity status afforded him due to his athletic prowess. Access to this space and opportunities to play in this space also provided him with opportunities to engage in demonstrations that symbolized feelings about occurring and recurring social injustices. But how does this work? More specifically, what does gaining access to these spaces (where) at these times (when) allow Black professional athletes to do

To answer these questions, I consider Kaepernick’s PSR acts in relation to the Ancient Greek rhetorical concept of kairos, which Kinneavy defines as “the right or opportune time to do something, or right measure in doing something” (80). In his work Kaironomia: On the Will to Invent, White describes kairos based on two different origin stories: 1) one emphasizing its connection to archery, as “an opening or ‘opportunity’ or, more precisely, a long tunnel like aperture through which the archer’s arrow has to pass,” and 2) one emphasizing its connection to weaving, as “a ‘critical time’ when the weaver must draw the yarn through a gap that momentarily opens in the warp of the cloth being woven” (13). Smith describes the term by differentiating kairotic time from chronological time. He refers to chronos as “the fundamental conception of time as measure, as quantity of duration, the length of periodicity,” and kairos as “the special position an event or action occupies in a series, to a season when something appropriately happens that cannot happen just at ‘any time’, but only that time, to a time that marks an opportunity what may not recur” (47). And Miller associates one specific understanding of the term with Gorgias, describing it as “the uniquely timely, the spontaneous, the radically particular” (xiii).

Each of these understandings of kairotic time—as opportune and critical; as not just ‘any time’ but only that time; and as uniquely timely, the spontaneous, the radically particular—is relevant to this analysis of Kaepernick’s PSR acts because the opportune moments were before his games began. These were opportune moments in this context because the focus had not yet turned to the team as a collective, which would occur once the games began. By engaging in the act during the pregame ritual, Kaepernick was able to use that time and place/space as an opportunity to draw attention to himself—attention linked specifically to his protest efforts. In addition, he had to be in the right place during that time. His access to a white-dominant space—a professional sports arena—coupled with his access to time-based opportunities (pre-game) provided him with ideal kairotic opportunities to engage in PSR.  

Why—is this resistant act being performed? More specifically, what is/are the precipitating act(s)? This aspect of PSR pertains to the events—both specific and collective—that shape the performer’s consciousness in such a way that they are compelled to engage in an act to demonstrate their stance on the issue at hand. Kaepernick began engaging in PSR on August 14th, 2016, to protest police brutality against Black people in general. However, his protests were immediately preceded by the back-to-back killings of Alton Sterling on July 5th and Philando Castille on July 6th, both of whom were killed by police officers.    

 Intentionality[8] + Why

In the previous section, I discuss the individual elements of The PSR Puzzle. However, one additional element necessary to consider when analyzing a protest act through the PSR framework is intentionality. What are the performer’s intentions? What is their purpose for engaging in the resistant act? Whereas the why in The PSR Puzzle focuses specifically on what events precipitated or preceded the resistant act, the notion of intentionality+why shifts the focus from why in terms of specific and collective precipitating events (i.e. What happened?) to why in terms of the activist’s intended purposes for engaging in PSR (i.e. Why am I engaging in this act? What am I hoping to achieve?). The purpose/intent of a PSR act is three-fold: 1) it is an individual protest designed to demonstrate what the performer perceives to be a specific social injustice or the perpetuation of a social injustice; 2) it is an attempt to demonstrate a connection to a specific meta-conceptualization, thereby connecting with others who share the same grievances; 3) it is a hopeful act, one conducted in an effort to be heard by those in power in hopes that they will, ultimately, enact social reforms. 

I define intentionality for PSR as follows:

It is a consciousness/mental state—simultaneously self-referential and group-oriented—that arises when a person from a marginalized population (subject) pays attention to systems contributing to their marginalization (objects). It is a purpose-driven, action-oriented concept concerned with how marginalized populations try to make sense of their environment while simultaneously forming and engaging in approaches designed to critique and change the world in which they live for the betterment of those with whom they share a common group consciousness.[9] 

I contend that acts of PSR are intentionality and consciousness and group consciousness made manifest, existing as demonstrations of implicit/tacit knowledge made explicit (Nonaka) and intentionality of the mind made explicit (Searle). People who use their access to dominant spaces as kairotic moments to engage in acts of PSR often provide us with insight into their intent after the performance in the form of verbal communications, written communications, or both. In his comments to reporters following his initial kneeling act, Kaepernick indicated that his goal for protesting was to draw people’s attention to the racial injustice and police brutality and the lack of accountability (“Colin Kaepernick transcript”). However, Kaepernick’s initial individual act of PSR was only the beginning of his activist efforts. In his October 6th, 2020 article “The Demand for Abolition,” he expounds on those initial comments:

It’s been four years since I first protested during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” At the time, my protest was tethered to my understanding that something was not right. I saw the bodies of Black people left dead in the streets. I saw them left dead in their cars. I saw them left dead in their backyards. I saw Black death all around me at the hands of the police. I saw little to no accountability for police officers who had murdered them. It is not a matter of bad apples spoiling the bunch but interlocking systems that are rotten to their core.

He continues, describing his hope for the future:

Despite the steady cascade of anti-Black violence across this country, I am hopeful we can build a future that imagines justice differently. A future without the terror of policing and prisons. A future that prioritizes harm reduction, redemption, and public well-being in order to create a more just and humane world. 

The hypervisibility that occurred during his act of PSR allowed him to use his body and his athletic venue as tools in their resistant performances. However, the subsequent conversations—in the form of his verbal or written communications—afforded him opportunities to clarify his intent. By using the multiple tools at his disposal, Kaepernick is able to engage in a variety of tactics to both establish and reify his stance on racial violence and police brutality against Black people in the United States while also demonstrating the ways in which intentionality, consciousness, and group consciousness are intertwined.

Why the Fields of Rhetoric and Technical and Professional Communication Need Performative Symbolic Resistance

For our scholar and teacher selves, PSR exemplifies the linguistic need demonstrated by emerging scholars, scholars who have found themselves searching for, not finding, and then having to create language that will allow us to enter into on-going scholarly conversations—in our own voices, on our own terms. But for us as human beings who engage in creating scholarship and teaching, having such a framework at our disposal and working with it can do multiple things. First, using it can give an opportunity for cognitive reflexivity by providing us with a way to think through and wrestle with our own perspectives about resistance, resistant acts, the bodies that perform them, and the types of resistant acts and bodies to which we attribute (or don’t attribute) value. This element of cognitive reflexivity can only benefit us, and the knowledge we gain through the process should be reflected in our teaching and our scholarship. Second—and perhaps more importantly—it provides a languaging tool that can aid in countering previous, current, and future rhetorical political dogma—dogma that has and continues to be used by those in power to frame activism and activists negatively. 

We scholars of rhetoric and TPC must continue our efforts at creating new rhetorics, rhetorics that will 1) help fill the existing rhetorical gap encountered by emerging scholars and 2) provide language to help us counter the negative language often used by those in power to describe activists and their activism. What I envision for PSR generally, then, is that it will 1) provide a single phrase that discursively connects performance/performativity, spaces and places, and resistant acts, helping us view them as a singular idea, and 2) will serve as an interstice-tic framework and a rhetorical space that can be used to examine, analyze, discuss, and describe what occurs when people use their bodies and spaces and places to engage in resistant acts. In doing so, PSR helps fill the rhetorical and analytical void addressed by Butler; however, it also contributes to the growing body of scholarship highlighting ways rhetoricians and technical communicators can take an interdisciplinary, intersectional approach to thinking about, understanding, and analyzing resistant acts. With this in mind, I offer it as a cross-disciplinary tool that can be used by scholars to acknowledge and privilege rhetorical acts by groups of people who are often discounted and even rhetorically demonized and to contribute to the rhetoric often used to describe and analyze the acts of protestors and activists attempting to combat systemic and socially perpetuated oppressions. In this way, PSR can be used as a tactical tool to engage in the essential rhetorical work of getting on peoples’ nerves (Ahmed, 164; Banks, xi) and to analyze the protest acts that do the same.


[1] In Performative Symbolic Resistance: Examining Symbolic Resistance Efforts of Black Professional Athletes Through A New Methodological Analytical Framework, I describe inscriptive practices as those strategic efforts—both discursive and physical practices—that have historically been used to establish, enforce, and reinforce zone placement—or where you are in the social hierarchy. They are the practices against the Black corporeal body that often result in Black people being killed during interactions with police—being shot in the back, shot in their beds, shot while pulled over for a broken tail-light, suffocated, etc. The zone to which I’m referring is referenced by Butler as a “zone of uninhabitability” (3).

[2] My definition of tactic is from de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life in which he defines a tactic as “a calculus which cannot count on a ‘proper’ emphasizing the notion that ‘The place of a tactic belongs to the other’” (xix). By a “proper,” de Certeau refers to physical spaces and locales where marginalized peoples do not typically wield power.

[3] I define resistant rhetoric as a rhetoric that is not just inherently social, cultural, and communal; it is one that does the work of pushing back against traditionally prescribed/ascribed hegemonic notions of how the world is or should be in the quest for power and empowerment, both personal and collective. This definition situates rhetoric in two ways: 1) as a state of being and 2) as a state of doing. Understanding rhetoric in this way provides us with dual—yet linked—approaches to interrogating what resistant acts are performed and how they are performed, which offers multiple ways of thinking about resistant acts such as PSR. More specifically, it provides us with a way to interrogate how the Black body is used as a tactical tool for engaging in resistant acts (Hatcher 58).

[4] Young uses the terminology “burden of racial performance” to describe the problem Black people face when their performances are sometimes read as protests when examined through a literacy framework. Even though I see this way of examining racial performance as foundational to my work, my current project examines these performances through a Black bodies/rhetorical framework and not a literacy framework.

[5] In my previous work, Performative Symbolic Resistance: Examining Symbolic Resistance Efforts of Black Professional Athletes through a New Methodological Analytical Framework, I describe meta-conceptualization as a group’s collective understanding. I contend that every group has tacit knowledge derived through experiences (individual and/or collective), which becomes part of a collective experience for the members of the group who then embrace and experience a type of shared consciousness (See Nonaka discussion about tacit knowledge, 1994). In my current project, my primary focus is on the meta-conceptualization/shared consciousness of Black people in the United States; however, I contend that the generational concepts of “tradition” and “heritage” described by Coates (2015)—concepts that situate the Black body as something to be destroyed—also represent a meta-conceptualization/shared consciousness, one of racialized patriarchy and hegemony.

[6] I intentionally use the phrase “white-dominant” for three reasons: 1) to describe dominant spaces because whiteness so often derives power from going unmarked, 2) to describe these specific dominant spaces since there are other ways of being dominant (e.g male-dominant), and 3) as a rhetorical demarcation to distinguish them from non-dominant spaces as described by Sarah J. Jackson (e.g. the Black church, historically Black media, gay bars, the feminist press, clubs for people with disabilities, etc.). In an email correspondence dated 5/18/2021, Jackson clarified her definition of dominant spaces/institutions for me: “…those that have historically been controlled by and served white Americans (of course, that also means white/men/straight/able-bodied/etc. Americans). That is certainly what it means in this case–as opposed to non-dominant spaces like, for example, the Black church, historically Black media, gay bars, the feminist press, clubs for people with disabilities, etc. I got the definitions and usage of dominant and non-dominant in talking about the public sphere from Catherine Squires’ early work on the Black Public Sphere.”

[7] See Williams discussion about hypervisibility in The Reith Lectures: The Pantomime of Race.   

[8] Even though some rhetorical theorists may take issue with my including intentionality here, I contend that I am identifying these acts not (just) as rhetorical acts but, more specifically, as acts of resistance. Rhetorical performance and intent are—within the context of PSR—inextricably linked. It is the intentionality behind the acts being performed that allows the body and spaces to be used for argumentation and meaning making.

[9] My definition of intentionality for PSR is informed by the work of Nonaka (1994), Husserl (1968), and Searle (1983). Drawing from German philosopher Edmund Husserl’s 1968 work, Nonaka described intention as an “action-oriented concept…concerned with how individuals form their approach to the world and try to make sense of their environment” (p.17). It is this “attitude” resulting from a “consciousness of something” that Husserl referred to as intentionality, and it is “consciousness that arises when a subject pays attention to an object” (Nonaka, 1994, as cited in Husserl, 1968). Searle (1983) offered a thorough discussion on Intentionality in his book Intentionality. Even though his primary focus was on speech acts, he presented a “preliminary formulation” of Intentionality—which he also referred to as “aboutness” or “directedness” and that also speaks to and informs the connection I’m establishing between PSR and intentionality. Note: Because Searles capitalizes Intentionality throughout his work, I’ve maintained that format when specifically presenting his ideas.


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Thank you to Michelle Eble, Erin Clark, and Wendy Sharer for conversation and feedback on earlier work foundational to this piece, and to the editors and anonymous reviewers at constellations for their generative reviews of my initial submission. Thank you to my CNV family for seeing value in my work and to my CNV mentor, Laura Gonzales, for your on-going support. Thank you to NCTE’s Black Caucus for holding daily writing space, and my deepest gratitude to my writing partners Jamal-Jared Alexander, LaKela Atkinson, and Cana Itchuaqiyaq. My sincere appreciation to my colleague Kevin A. Browne for helping me think through some critical components of this work. Finally, much gratitude to Kim Weiser for her guidance and support as I revised this piece.


About the Author 

Alicia K. Hatcher is Assistant Professor of African American Rhetorics and Literacies at Syracuse University. She served as co-editor for the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics’ Special Issue on Comics/Visual Rhetorics, Decoloniality, and Liberatory Futures published January 2023 and is a recent recipient of NCTE’s Cultivating New Voices Among Scholars of Color fellowship. Her research focuses on Black Rhetorical Practices and their usage as tactical tools for engaging in social protest and as acts of resistance. 


About the Mentor

Dr. Kimberly Wieser-Weryackwe is Associate Chair and Professor of English at the University of Oklahoma as well as affiliated Native Studies and Environmental Studies faculty. Her book Back to the Blanket: Recovered Rhetorics and Literacies in American Indian Studies was published by OU Press in 2017 and is part of the Recovering Languages and Literacies of the Americas Initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Dr. Wieser-Weryackwe is one of the co-authors of Reasoning Together: The Native Critics Collective, named one of the most important books in the field in the first decade of the 21st century by the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Dr. Wieser-Weryackwe has co-edited four publications on anti-racism in rhetoric and writing studies in the academy with Drs. Ersula Ore and Christina Cedillo–special issues of Composition Studies and Present Tense along with symposia in College Composition and Communication and in Rhetoric Review.Wieser-Weryackwe and Cedillo recently edited another special issue with Dr. Rachel Jackson of College Composition and Communication and have another special issue planned, this one of constellations, with Dr. Ana Milena Ribero. Dr. Wieser-Weryackwe serves as one of the co-chairs for American Indian Caucus for NCTE/CCCC and as a Managing Editor at Constellations: A Cultural Rhetorics Publishing Space. She will serve as the Watson Distinguished Visiting Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Louisville in Spring 2024. 


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