A scholar of critical race studies broaches the topics most people shy away from

Tom Nakayama, professor of communication studies at Northeastern, was named the 2019 recipient of the Distinguished Scholar Award from the National Communication Association. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

In France, there’s a debate at the moment over whether single women and lesbian couples should be allowed access to in-vitro fertilization, as President Emmanuel Macron’s administration considers expanding a law that has restricted the treatment to heterosexual couples who are married or have been living together for more than two years.

As the debate continues to swell, Tom Nakayama, a professor of communication studies in the College of Arts, Media and Design at Northeastern, is closely watching how France’s bioethics law is creating conditions that cause people to cross into Spain or Belgium in search of clinics that will administer in-vitro fertilization. 

Nakayama’s scrutiny of France’s medically assisted reproduction debate is part of his career-long examination of race and intercultural communication. Over the course of 32 years—11 of them at Northeastern—he has broached issues that others have tended to shy away from, such as sexuality, whiteness, Asian-American studies, masculinity, and power.

“I’m less interested in one-on-one interpersonal interactions between people of two different cultures, which is where a lot of people do their work in intercultural communication,” he says. “I’m much more interested in the larger rules and laws and things that create the conditions in which people interact.”

As a leading scholar in the field of critical race studies, Nakayama has authored or co-authored a dozen books, including three textbooks on intercultural communication, more than 50 book chapters, and several essays. He has offered critiques of white identity, and analysis of commonly held stereotypes driven by the news media and pop culture. 

For his contributions to the discipline, the National Communication Association has honored Nakayama with its Distinguished Scholar Award, which recognizes the teaching, scholarship, and service of communication scholars.

“Dr. Nakayama’s contributions to the communication discipline are noteworthy, and NCA is proud to recognize them with this award,” the organization’s executive director Trevor Parry-Giles wrote in a statement.

Most recently, Nakayama examined the advantages and disadvantages of a failed bid to add a category to the 2020 U.S. Census recognizing people with roots in the Middle East or North Africa, also known as MENA.

“I’m looking at these larger questions because I think they add a lot to understanding how cultures come into contact, and the role of communication in that,” he says.

He also has contributed to the field of sexuality studies, beginning with “Sextext,” a research paper that he and co-author Frederick Corey wrote in the first person, an action that garnered backlash when it was published in 1997 for breaking with convention.

“It’s really experiential, because a lot of sexuality is about experience, and that wasn’t typical at the time,” he says. “Traditionally, it was very formulaic how you write your research articles, and I really thought that that was too limiting in terms of how we report and how people know about sexuality, so I tried to push the boundaries on that.”

Presently, Nakayama is editing the latest edition of a journal he co-founded titled QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, which brings together scholars, activists, intellectuals, artists, and policymakers to discuss issues and initiatives concerning the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer communities.

Nakayama has been a member of the National Communication Association for decades, and has served on several of the organization’s boards. As one of four recipients of this year’s Distinguished Scholar Award, he will be recognized at the association’s annual convention next month in Baltimore, Maryland.

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