WSU McNair PhD 


R. Xach Williams, PhD

Assistant Professor, Washington State University
Ph.D., Ethnic Studies, University of California, San Diego
M.A., Ethnic Studies, University of California, San Diego
B.A., Comparative Ethnic Studies, Washington State University

Dr. Xach’s story in his own words: My name is R. Xach Williams (he/him/his) and I am currently an Assistant Professor of Comparative Ethnic Studies in the School of Languages, Cultures and Race at Washington State University.  I am a WSU alum – I got my BA in Comparative Ethnic Studies (CES) in 2011 – and a proud WSU McNair scholar.  I grew up in the Central District, Seattle and played basketball for the Rotary Style Boys & Girls Club travel team as a youth.  It was a long journey that brought me to where I am today but looking back, I would say that discovering the discipline of CES during my first year at WSU was a really important step and a beginning of sorts.

I graduated from Franklin High School in 2006 having won a 4-A State Championship in basketball and started at WSU in the fall as a structural engineering major. I quickly found the classes required of the major to be difficult socially and emotionally, as well as academically.  Chemistry was a particularly difficult class that illustrates my experiences well; I was the only Black student that I can remember in a lecture of approximately 300 students, and one of only two or three students of color in the entire class.  Additionally, I found it difficult to form friendships in lecture or during lab that would allow me to share notes and do all the things that help many students be successful.   After receiving a few D’s I dropped the class and was deficient in credits.  It was in these contexts that I found CES.  Professor David Leonard – who still teaches in the CES department – did an independent study with me and helped me regain the credits I had lost.  More importantly, he introduced me to a field of study that I hadn’t previously known existed.  I had a passion for it, and I was good at it! By the end of my first year, I was a CES major, just like that.

CES lead me to McNair and my McNair project on Blackness, gender, and pimping in US popular culture.  While my research has changed tremendously over the last decade, the frames and approaches that I developed with my faculty mentor Professor Lisa Guerrero continue to impact the questions that I ask, the ways I investigate, and lines of analysis that I pursue.  My McNair project and training in CES both helped me get accepted to the Ethnic Studies program at the University of California, San Diego where I completed my PhD in 2019.  I trained under Professor Dayo F. Gore and Professor Sara Clarke Kaplan, among others, who helped me grow as a scholar and a person.  I was exposed to new methods, including historical archival research and ethnography, that helped me expand my research into what ultimately became my dissertation project; Didn’t It Rain?: Religiosity, Swingin’ Jazz, and Black Community Formations in the Pacific Northwest (1844 – 1967).

Through my training and experiences, I have come to be scholar of chattel slavery in the US, and specifically histories of Blackness and Black communities in the Pacific Northwest.  My current research focuses on the ways in which material conditions of anti-black racism, segregation, and exclusion affect the development of the Pacific Northwest from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries highlighting the contributions of Black communities to the development of the PNW overtime.  I have a forthcoming article on reparations for Chattel Slavery that will be published in the Ethnic Studies Review sometime next year.

If I could pass on one piece of advice to current and future McNair scholars, it would be this: focus on the process and try not to worry about outcomes.  Try not to worry about how many schools you will be accepted to, or if you will be competitive enough to get the big funding package.  Work on becoming the most well-developed scholar you can; read and read a lot, put effort into your project; let your light shine!  These efforts will pay off in the long run and help you to become a successful scholar.  Things like acceptance letters, and conferences, and publications will take of themselves as fruits of your diligent efforts on your project and scholarship.  I will leave you with one last example: as a McNair Scholar I applied to 17 graduate schools; I was waitlisted at one and accepted at another – UCSD where I ultimately attended.  That’s it. Through the many rejection letters that I received I repeated my mantra, “I can’t attend them all, I only need one.” I trusted the process, and I am proud of the outcomes.