The Privilege Blame Game in College Debate

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The past March, the debate duo Ruffin and Johnson from Towson University was the first female African American team to win the national championships for CEDA, the Cross Examination Debate Association which is the main organizational body for collegiate debate. The two went against another African American team from Oklahoma University. For the past few years it seems that minorities are excelling in the field of debate. In 2013, another African American from Emporia University team won the national tournament, the first in the history of the organization. This year, both teams this year used methods that involved rapping and spoken poetry combined with academic research, unique from what most teams do. For a quick explanation, Cross Examination Debate specifically focuses on debating about a resolution by advocating a plan through the use of academic research. The style of debate traditionally prides itself for using speed talking techniques known as spreading and an overabundance of articles. The past tournament’s resolution dealt with the restriction of the president’s war powers.

In each debate there is an affirmative side that advocates for a plan and a negative side that tries to convince the judge that the world is a better place without the plan. However, in the video of the debate finals, the topic of war powers is only mentioned in the beginning speech. Most focus was put on how the American government was racist towards the treatment of African Americans. Both teams use the technique of poetry and rapping to music to convey their points about “nigga authenticity”.  What’s interesting is that the usage of the n word is forbidden according to the CEDA anti-harassment debate policy yet the judges looked the other way in this case. Would this situation be different if the debaters were different races? To top it off, when the Oklahoma team ran out of time for their speech, they openly stated to “fuck the time”. Although they explained soon after that they meant that time was a construct, if anybody did this at a high school tournament, it is an absolute guarantee that they would be kicked out the tournament.  So the question is why didn’t they face any negative repercussions?

The last few years in the course of both high school and collegiate cross examination (CX) debate has seen a shift in style. More debaters are deviating from the traditional course of simply providing fact to a new style that focuses on philosophical and moral issues in society instead of the resolution specifically. Personal experience counts as a legitimate source of evidence for their contentions. This style of Cross Examination debate puts more of an emphasis on emotional appeal instead of just the cold hard facts. Imagine if president Obama gave a speech or proposed a course of action and instead of presenting statistics, he used “personal experience”.  Or imagine that when planning a policy for education reform, instead of talking about education, the topic that is discussed is racism in America. Sure it’s a new way to approach the issue but does it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the most effective way.

The two different styles of expression is said to be an issue between racial backgrounds. Articles from Salon and The Atlantic openly states that the current structure of debate is inherently racist and favors upper class privileged white Americans.  The Atlantic article cites the Law professor from UC Hastings, Osagie Obasogie, who asserts that the traditional form of debate “makes the viewpoint of the dominant group seem like the only true reality.” This rhetoric sets up a belief that anybody that disagrees with the dominant group is seen as oppressive. Just because somebody has an alternative way means that they should automatically be treated as special. These performative styles of rap and poetry should be left to other categories of speech that put an emphasis on dramatics.  Categories such as Original Oratory exist for the purpose of conveying an opinion or idea. Leave the dramatics out of Cross Examination Debate. I’m not trying to demean their accomplishment because it should be obvious that they have put more than weeks of research for this argument and topic. Anybody who does try to lessen their accomplishment is labeled as a racist although the team used their race to make their argument. These double standards only drive apart the progress of racial equality.  Even in the debate community some are trying to set up a debate league that only focuses on the policy side of the resolution. Advocates of the current system immediately shut down such an idea. The Salon article states that by dismissing race in an argument, it is the same thing as segregation. This is basically stating that by not acknowledging race as a factor, the system is segregationist. Can you see the double bind in this situation? By saying that by not bring race related issues up causes a disadvantage, it puts down the ability African American debaters because it assumes that they cannot understand the traditional style of debate.

We shouldn’t treat certain groups as special because they are “disadvantaged” or they are simply “different”. It’s not because African American debaters are winning championships that some outraged, rather it’s because how they win these rounds. Discrimination is the easier issue to identify in this case simply because they look different but there are also other factors in hand. The usage of performance to appeal to emotion in this style of debate is comparable to introducing personal opinions in science experiments.  In a battle of logic and analysis, personal emotion should be left out of the equation.  These articles from Salon and The Atlantic use the easy excuse of racism when backlash concerning these performance debates is at hand .The college debate association CEDA, prides itself for being adaptable to the debate community themselves so if the debaters want to talk about these issues, they can however does it mean that it’s fair?

It all comes down to who is more privileged in each style of debate. Sure minorities may be doing better using these performance techniques but is it because they’re better at arguing like this or is it because they have an advantage when it comes to their backgrounds. A white person arguing about the treatment of African Americans in today’s society would be less convincing than a black person. These debaters say on the outside that through debate they are advocating for a cause but in actuality it’s mainly because they want to win. To me it seems nowadays it’s too easy to call somebody a racist when somebody disagrees with a certain issue.

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