Hacking Traditional College Debate's White-Privilege Problem

Minority participants aren't just debating resolutions—they're challenging the terms of the debate itself.
Members of the Wiley College debate team present arguments during a practice session. (Donna McWilliam/AP Photo)

It used to be that if you went to a college-level debate tournament, the students you’d see would be bookish future lawyers from elite universities, most of them white. In matching navy blazers, they’d recite academic arguments for and against various government policies. It was tame, predictable, and, frankly, boring.

No more.

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. His partner Campbell, who won the top speaker award at the National Debate Tournament two weeks later, had been unfairly targeted by the police at the debate venue just days before, and cited this experience as evidence for his case against the government’s treatment of poor African-Americans.

This year wasn't the first time this had happened. 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.

Joe Leeson Schatz, Director of Speech and Debate at Binghamton University, is encouraged by the changes in debate style and community. “Finally, there’s a recognition in the academic space that the way argument has taken place in the past privileges certain types of people over others,” he said. “Arguments don’t necessarily have to be backed up by professors or written papers. They can come from lived experience.” 

But other teams who have prepared for a traditional policy debate are frustrated when they encounter a meta-debate, or an alternative stylistic approach in competition. These teams say that the pedagogical goals of policy debate are not being met—and are even being undermined. Aaron Hardy, who coaches debate at Northwestern University, is concerned about where the field is headed. “We end up … with a large percentage of debates being devoted to arguing about the rules, rather than anything substantive,” he wrote on a CEDA message board last fall.

Critics of the new approach allege that 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.

Hardy and others are also disappointed with what they perceive as a lack of civility and decorum at recent competitions, and believe that the alternative-style debaters have contributed to this environment. “Judges have been very angry, coaches have screamed and yelled. People have given profanity-laced tirades, thrown furniture, and both sides of the ideological divide have used racial slurs,” he said.

Presented by

Jessica Carew Kraft is a journalist based in San Francisco.

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