Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations: 'White Privilege' and How Black Students are 'Rewriting' the Rules of College Debate

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.

Kraft continues:
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.


KissedByTheSun said...

CDV I know it is at the risk of either getting Ben Carsoned by white supremacist ("Even a leftie like Chauncey DeVega is saying it"), or not being seen as a "real nigga" that you post this. I am insulted that this homie the clown routine is presented as representative of authentic blackness, whatever that is.

chauncey devega said...

Does he get that they are mocking and laughing at him?

lioness said...

I fear it's part of the general decline in intellectual rigor at the college level. I'm told that first-year college Algebra no longer teaches the quadratic equation either.

jemand2 said...

I ran into someone on a forum once who posted with no heed given to the rules of grammar or punctuation. She refused to structure comments in any ordered form, 'arguing' with a dreamlike stream-of-consciousness structure that was usually unnecessarily long as well.

When asked to please try at least shortening arguments to core points, and taking care that the phrases had a coherent internal structure at least approximating sentences and which could be comprehended by a reader, she claimed that such standards of language was a tool of the patriarchy and oppression and thus she would continue to write impenetrable walls of text.

Somehow this was supposed to be noble and advancing justice. I deeply believe that missing voices *should* be searched out and listened to, and that sometimes these will have the appearance of being "rough" due to life circumstances which did not include education in, for instance, the dialects of power, but this is not a cover for poor reasoning and bad ideas. This discussion was the only time I've included excerpts from timecube as a legitimate part of constructing an argument online.

Debate is a specific format, with specific rules, not the sum total of all discourse. It is important those rules are followed, it is also important other forms of discourse are also valued and forums given to their expression. "Spoken word poetry" is powerful and versatile. It deserves a platform and respect. It doesn't, however, belong in a debate forum.

chauncey devega said...

My thought is if you want to be "resistant" to "white privilege" and "racism" in college debate show up and destroy the opposition in their own house using their own rules. I guess I am old school.

Learning IS Eternal said...

White supremacy/privilegium is a helluva drug.


Myshkin the Idiot said...

The best comment I saw makes a good point:

"This article is a total mischaracterization of the most popular methodologies within the debate style they are talking about. They make it sound like you just rap and win. The argument is that traditional knowledge production hides certain things. Like one's relationship to the argument through position. Talking about personal experience is one way to remedy this. The argument is also that traditional debate hides certain intellectuals who may have interesting things to say but don't have PHDs. Reading poetry or playing hip hop is one way of admitting organic intellectuals to the debate space.

"Their argument is not: play hip hop and win. The argument is traditional knowledge production hides certain things and the methodology of this "new debate(which is hardly new)" tries to unconceal them.
"And in debate it is not about whether the argument is fact or not, it is about which team deploys their defense of their own arguments and attacks the opponents arguments in THAT round.

"It is not the atlantic's fault, the debate community is esoteric and insular."

That's a good point, it isn't just spoken word and hip hop lyrics without the intellectual backdrop. Politics is personal and white supremacism is a pandemic phenomenon.

If you could use song lyrics and poetry in debate as well as personal experiences, why not any other form of expression including emotional.

chauncey devega said...

I have to disagree on this one. They should have their own category then. What I saw in this video is a joke and the participants should be embarrassed. They are not fighting "white supremacy". In many ways their performance is reinforcing it.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

I'll chime in here as a former collegiate debater, although I never did CEDA style. The debate world is incredibly closed, and often what goes on in rounds is so governed by the arcane unwritten rules of the event that what passes for "debate" would often be incomprehensible to a lay audience. (When I was a debater CEDA style was notorious for this in my day.) I left policy style debate for Lincoln-Douglas in high school (and parliamentary style in college) because policy rounds devolved into "speed and spread" rapid-fire evidence reading, arcane "topicality" debates that disputed the affirmative team's case on nit-picky legalistic hair splitting, and ridiculous attempts to link an opponent's arguments to nuclear war. The team that won this year seems to be following in that debate format's tradition of gaming the system. Refusing to debate the resolution and talk about something else is gamesmanship, pure and simple. If the other team has to scramble to react to something that they weren't able to prepare for, it puts them at a huge disadvantage. A lot of judges tend to reward this kind of gamesmanship.

Beyond that, the kind of soft bigotry you highlight is rampant. I was at an otherwise solid anti-racist event recently where it was implied that logical, reasoned thinking is somehow inherently White, which is just insulting. What you say here reminded me of that.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

Check out this piece by Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle about it.


LBS is from Towson University and the 2014 winners of the CEDA award are members of LBS

The Sanity Inspector said...

Those kids could view the 1965 Baldwin/Buckley debate with some profit. When Baldwin went over time and the moderators started gesturing at him, he just said "and this is my last point" and wound it up.

IMHO, the belligerence of these students has more to do with them being young and full of ill-discipline purpose, rather than with being black. Back in the 19th Century this French intellectual observed the same phenomenon:

What young man, going out into the world full of ardour and passion, does not say to himself: "The impulses of my heart are the voice of Nature, which is never mistaken. The institutions that stand in my way are man-made and are only arbitrary conventions to which I have never given my consent. In trampling these institutions underfoot, I shall have the double pleasure of satisfying my inclinations and of believing myself a hero"
--Frederic Bastiat, 1848

The harm comes when the people in charge of the students' education--at tens of thousands of dollars per year--shirk the duty to hold them to account, to challenge them and to guide them in the right way. If "rage" trumps everything in the eyes of the university, then the obvious lesson for the students is that tantrums are the way to get ahead. The university is supposed to have a store of knowledge to impart, methods of becoming wise to bestow, a tradition of civilization to pass along. Students who are treated by guilty white liberals as sacred cats in the temple will end up like the omnipotent child in that Twilight Zone episode--until graduation, when god help them in the working world.

chauncey devega said...

Now that is some sanity mr. inspector. Those students need someone to intervene and give them some guidance.

chauncey devega said...

I have no doubt they are running a hustle and gaming the system. Since you were a former participant, who decides that this is a "winning" approach. Watching just that one clip I feel very embarrassed for those young men as the audience seemed to be laughing at them because it was a novelty act.

Sour Kraut said...

Frederick Douglass wept.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Like I said there are unwritten rules. Most judges are well known to the participants, (at least in the formats I participated in), so good teams know what will fly and what won't. The debate world is so removed and self contained that many judges value teams whose arguments and style are creative at playing with the form rather than in debating the resolution. Much like academia, competitive debate is a guild with mores and rules foreign and even incomprehensible to outsiders.

I wonder sometimes whether I was wasting my time with it .

Learning IS Eternal said...

Can't co-sign this one. Whomever their coach/leader is did them a disservice allowing this or convincing them/agreeing that this was strategic.

We have so many weapons in our arsenal, (mentally) rap would have never made consideration.

I take none from these collegiates as I'm sure they are well versed in a myriad of subjects. Everything potent said does not require a beat. Prose will do if passionate.

Weird Beard said...

I watched a documentary on debate once. It seems like Werner really hits the nail on the head as far as the spirit of things. People talked like the micro machines announcer, as fast as possible, reading long hunks of text that made idiotic points, but a machine gun style flurry of them and always ended in nuclear holocaust. That is what typified some of the championship teams, however there were other teams that would just question the nature of reality itself and grind the debate into a discussion of objective vs subjective reality. Every team had their *shtick*, and all were ludicrous and over the top. This was not some sacred ground of informed educated well reasoned verbal parley. This was a clown show on redbull. It was more akin to professional wrestling than a meeting of educated minds. Every one had their finishing moves and style, and it was more about traveling around the country with your friends and hanging out while putting on your circus sideshow debate routine. A huge portion of it was just flash in the pan entertainment. Considering a group of white stoner kids can tour the colleges of the U.S. as a debate team arguing for chaos and refuting empirical reality as their approach to debate, I would have to say that these two students depicted in your video are not out of line. I think your criticism may be more well directed at the state of debate teams as a whole in the modern era, because these two seem well within the bounds of what goes on nowadays. What sucks is that because there is an absence of a strong black presence in debate circles, these two clowns by default end up socially representing blackness. Their white stoner counterparts hawking their chaos wares don't have the weight of representing their entire race upon their shoulders while debating. That's white privilege. The problem is that we need a more diverse array of social representation of black people in debate to take the representative pressure and spotlight off these two. That being said, I don't think they are the problem here.

mondojohnson said...

Note how Mr. Baldwin does not need to yell "Fuck the time!" to clean Buckley's clock: http://youtu.be/oFeoS41xe7w

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