Goodness. I am awed...and not in a good way.
Last week, The Atlantic featured a story about how a cadre of "unconventional" black college debaters were redefining that staid and lily white world.
Does Traditional College Debate Reinforce White Privilege? explores how:
These days, an increasingly diverse group of participants has transformed debate competitions, mounting challenges to traditional form and content by incorporating personal experience, performance, and radical politics. These “alternative-style” debaters have achieved success, too, taking top honors at national collegiate tournaments over the past few years.
But this transformation has also sparked a difficult, often painful controversy for a community that prides itself on handling volatile topics.
On March 24, 2014 at the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) Championships at Indiana University, two Towson University students, Ameena Ruffin and Korey Johnson, became the first African-American women to win a national college debate tournament, for which the resolution asked whether the U.S. president’s war powers should be restricted. Rather than address the resolution straight on, Ruffin and Johnson, along with other teams of African-Americans, attacked its premise.
The more pressing issue, they argued, is how the U.S. government is at war with poor black communities. In the final round, Ruffin and Johnson squared off against Rashid Campbell and George Lee from the University of Oklahoma, two highly accomplished African-American debaters with distinctive dreadlocks and dashikis.
Over four hours, the two teams engaged in a heated discussion of concepts like “nigga authenticity” and performed hip-hop and spoken-word poetry in the traditional timed format. At one point during Lee’s rebuttal, the clock ran out but he refused to yield the floor. “Fuck the time!” he yelled...
In the 2013 championship, two men from Emporia State University, Ryan Walsh and Elijah Smith, employed a similar style and became the first African-Americans to win two national debate tournaments. Many of their arguments, based on personal memoir and rap music, completely ignored the stated resolution, and instead asserted that the framework of collegiate debate has historically privileged straight, white, middle-class students.
Tournament participants from all backgrounds say they have found some of these debate strategies offensive. Even so, the new style has received mainstream acceptance, sympathy, and awards.Apparently, an unwillingness to follow established rules and decorum is linked to black racial "authenticity" and "culturally resistant" behavior.
It would seem that Does Traditional College Debate Reinforce White Privilege? is a profile in white liberal guilt intermixed with a quest for negro novelty.
Of course, the comments section on Does Traditional College Debate Reinforce White Privilege? is overrun with white supremacists who see its narrative as one more example of how white civilization is being destroyed by under-performing and savage black people--apparently black brigands with "bad culture" love to participate in college debates as it is the next step in 'hood street crediblity.
A fear of being perceived as agreeing with, even tangentially, the mouth-utterances of white supremacists, should not deter our truth-telling about how the soft bigotry of low expectations, even by well-meaning white liberals, actually hurts people of color.
Indeed, to prevail using the new approach, students don’t necessarily have to develop high-level research skills or marshal evidence from published scholarship. They also might not need to have the intellectual acuity required for arguing both sides of a resolution. These skills—together with a non-confrontational presentation style—are considered crucial for success in fields like law and business.Innovation is often the result of challenging standing norms, rules, procedures, and standing priors. However, there is an ugly assumption in the praise and rewards given to the black debaters as profiled in Does Traditional College Debate Reinforce White Privilege?.
Does college debate reflect certain norms and expectations about class? Yes. Do those expectations have something to do with race? Of course. Race and class are intimates in the United States; American Apartheid was a system designed to transfer wealth and resources from people of color to non-whites.
Does traditional college debate privilege a respect for the rules, appeals to established expertise, authority, knowledge, rules, and formality. Absolutely.
A belief that African-American college students are unable to succeed and comport themselves in that space is the worst sort of racial bigotry. Missing in Kraft's article is an appreciation for how African-Americans historically understood that public debate and discourse was a battlefield upon which black people could show how they were the intellectual equals of white people.
As depicted in the movie The Great Debaters, students and faculty from historically black colleges and universities integrated the whites only world of college debate during Jim and Jane Crow at great personal risk.
There, black genius was on display, as young black people took on the best and brightest students from institutions such as Harvard and the University of Southern California. Black intellectual success was a radical act of resistance against White tyranny. Those great black debaters won by mastering the rules and out-performing their white competition against seemingly insurmountable odds.
Does Traditional College Debate Reinforce White Privilege? is a reminder of how the phrase "white privilege" has become so common that it is often misapplied.
The inability (or unwillingness) of some African-American college debaters to follow the established rules and procedures governing their craft has little if anything to with defying white racism or fighting against the unearned advantages and privileges that come with being "white" in American society.
When the bar for what constitutes "racism" or "white privilege" is made so low, and then enabled by white liberal guilt, it is black and brown people who are made to suffer in the long-term. There is nothing "white" about following the established rules and norms of college debate. There is nothing "black" about defying them.