[eDebate] Answering Adam's Question

Ede Warner ewarner
Tue Apr 8 02:01:27 CDT 2008

Dear Community,
While I will speak to everyone, I choose to engage particular folks during this post, engaging their perspectives/responses to Adam's question.  The goal of this post is to create understanding of what my experience says about the NDT/CEDA community and how I think it addresses Adam's pain and frustration.  What I won't do is spend time criticizing Adam for how he expresses his pain, or how Towson chose to make arguments.  Why?  Because the act of criticism at that moment lacks compassion and thus immediately becomes unproductive if the purpose is to address Adam's concerns/feelings.  I recognize that even I can't understand their pain, I can only understand their pain as filtered through my experiences.  And even as I attempt to engage his pain, recognizing that I have likely had very close to the experiences Towson felt over the last couple of weeks, I choose to recognize although they are close, that not identical.  So as such, I've decided that criticism of how they express their pain is unproductive.  So I don't.
My experience that defines the context and credibility for my words is this: I spent almost a decade debating race through the contemporary norms and procedures of policy debate, using traditional policy approaches and avoiding more critical/performative approaches.  The last 8 years I have discussed race in the context of critical and performance labels to varying degrees.  For about 3/4 of this time we preferred judges, first more policy oriented critiques but evolving into almost exclusively critical/performance judges.  
The last 2 years, we have stopped preferring judges based on debate ideology, looking for connections with those judges beyond preferred debate ideology, corresponding with a substantial reduction in our competitive success, a cost that has disproportionally impacted Rosie Washington, Ebony Rose, Brian Huot, Jason Walker, Mary Mudd, Aaron Price, Tiffany McCollum for the last two years, and a host of other Louisville debaters less so.  
So I believe that because of those experiences I am THE LIVING PERMUTATION in every and any sense of the word as it relates to NDT/CEDA policy debate and understanding race and broader issues of diversity.  And it is from the past two decades of debate experiences as it relates to my position as a black man, a policy debate director, and speak from that standpoint.
To Adam:  
Your question: What have black people done to deserve the treatment we get in this activity?  My answer:  If you believe the argument made at CEDA Nationals by Deven and Dayvon, and perhaps by you as well (I haven't heard much about your arguments on the listserv and I wasn't at the tournament), you should already know the answer.  My answer:  Black participants in CEDA/NDT are complicit in the overt and covert support of institutional structures that in a variety of race neutral ways work to disproportionally affect black people.  
But Doc, says Adam, how can that be so?  Towson did any and everything within it's power to bring the issues to the light.  How can the black people at Towson be responsible for the treatment we get when we are attacking the racist nature of the structure?  
I think back Adam to one day when Deven and his white partner Paul, were beefing with me over strategy and how I kept taking it back to personal responsibility and personal agency.  Deven in particular, was very frustrated with me that I wouldn't side with them that the problem was the community, not our execution of the arguments.  And the Louisville students stayed frustrated and hostile that each step along the way, I always began with asking the question, "If what we are doing isn't getting the desired response, then we must do something different or give up?"  You see Adam, being black in a predominately white world, whether it's a predominately white campus, a predominately white debate community, or a predominately white business organization, the choices for "us" are simple:  1) agree with the majority worldview; 2) disagree but choose not to speak up for fear of retaliation and backlash; or 3) disagree and speak, living with the significant consequences of the backlash.  Each of these three choices are devastating on one's identity although those consequences manifest themselves in different ways.  My choice, to look for a fourth option, find a way to disagree and persuade the community to change, has only been embraced by the very few in black history.  I choose to try and be one of those few, and the result is often backlash, sometimes as much from other blacks as well as whites.
>From the moment Adam, that we choose to participate in a predominately white activity, "we get what we deserve."  Why?  Because that's a choice that we make and we fully understand the consequences of that choice.  And isn't that what we want out of a policy debater, someone who makes choices and understands the costs and benefits of those choices?  As an educator, that is what I want and I think you exemplify the best policy debate has to offer.  The better questions that I don't think the community understands is: what do we see in this activity that makes us what to stay in light of our criticisms, and why do we stay given those criticisms?  I saw that as a recurring frustration on cross-x.com and feel it in answers like J.T.'s, in the hallways at tournaments Louisville attends, and in many of the settings that are currently frustrating you.
I know your parents personally and I know that they, like all strong black parents prepare you, albeit in different ways, for how you are going to negotiate the world as a racial minority.  And let me just say Adam, that your growth and development from the time I met you at the Louisville Summer Camp--when you questioned and critiqued every move, strategy and tactic we offered, making the choice to ironically engage racial difference or just ignore it, as one of the biggest defenders of "debate is okay" that I've met next to Josh Hoe--is nothing short of revolutionary.  I see now you asking the same questions we asked of you over those two weeks, and you demand respect and the right to express your ideas as a black man.  I hope your parents are proud of both you and Jared.  I sure am. 
To Deven (spelled correctly today):
I am so, so, so proud of you!  Many obstacles and hurdles were set in front of you (ironically many by me), and yet you persevered and overcame any challenge to get what you always wanted, competitive success by challenging the community on the institutional racist that is so readily apparent to some of us, but invisible to others, and somewhat visible to yet even another group, and all the layers in between.  There is something spiritual in your performance, and as you know from my perspective, God had you win this tournament at this time for a reason.  It's still all about purpose and destiny!  I hope you look past the pain of this experience towards the larger rewards that us mere humans can never reward you with.  Hang in there.
I know you think that the decision to move away from "a metaphorical interpretation of the topic" towards "Take it to the streets" and then "diversity statements", and eventually the framework of persuasion was an over-reaction by me and the wrong turn for Louisville to take.  But I stand today, watching yet another tremendous and successful championship run lie in the ruins of alienation, frustration, and anger.  Many don't understand your pain, most want to use it to make themselves the victim, while others simply want it to go away.  And while a few stand with you in the solidarity of your pain, even they likely offer solutions different from what Adam, and perhaps you and the other Towson folks seek.
But my decision wasn't a snap judgement.  My thought process moves slowly, impacted by a wide range of experiences.  You see Deven, we, Tria and I, saw the beginning of the end of the "debate community is exclusionary and racist" strategy as early as Liz, Tonia, Corey, and RJ's senior year, with only more evidence created during Jennifer and Ebony's championship run, and as excited as I was by your ADA semi-finish, the handwriting was all over the wall there too.  But sometimes the competitive success can be an aphrodisiac, allowing us to avoid or ignore evidence to the contrary.  In fact, the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back was a debate I watched at Kentucky, a debate that you and Shauntrice lost.  I thought your execution in that debate was unmatched relative to the history of the Louisville collective: better than Corey and RJ, better than Liz and Tonia, and even better than Jennifer and Ebony (who Tria thinks generally had the best execution of our arguments).  You see, the Louisville students got better and better at making their arguments, but the community response was less and less engaging, and more desensitized.  So I made a radical change.
Now, as I read a post expressing Adam's pain, which I've seen you share on Cross-X.com, I know that I made the right decision for me.  I knew that no matter how much, "Debate is institutionally racist and exclusionary" won, that alone it was necessary but by itself insufficient to produce real community change.   Deven, I walked away from the 2004 CEDA Nationals and NDT experiences looking, hell even expecting some type of structural change to address the issues we uncovered, and as 2004, 2005, into 2006 passed, it became apparent to me that the changes I was looking for weren't forthcoming.  So I went back to the drawing board.  
Frustrated that the community spent most of their time criticizing us, asking us to change, while doing little to facilitate or create change on their own, I chose to take responsibility and go back to the drawing board.  Winning by itself isn't enough to stop the pain or bring the change.  So I searched for something more. It is my prayer that you thought about what you wanted from wins.  My prayer is that it wasn't validation from this community: that I knew you wouldn't get.  The quality of your person as a debater for me, was understood long before you won CEDA Nationals, and will last long after CEDA Nat's is over.  But to answer Adam's question as it specifically relates to you:  What have black people done to deserve the treatment we get in this activity?You deserve the treatment if you entered these last three weeks believing that you could be validated by competitive success. I hope you see now that you could not.  And if you still don't, my prayer is that one day you will.  God's speed Deven.
To Andy Ellis:
The experiences you and Jackie describe: high fives in the hallway; unique strategic moves to stop the success; and the nasty negative comments are all experiences not-unique to Towson's run for sure.  I can add a few more that can help explain Adam and Deven's tone in the public listserv discussions that challenge some of the contextualizations being offered up:
1) winning debates and having judges spend all their time telling the other team how stupid they were and how easy it was to beat this position; 
2) winning debates and having opponents treat judges very badly with more intensity than is usually seen after debates, with the an air of elitism and superiority that the outcome was never in doubt;
3) winning debates and not getting the same rewards of camp opportunities, or social networking received by others with less success; even when getting those opportunities, people segregating the different debaters at the camp;
4) black on black crime: a host of black debaters being used through emails, in face to face conversations, to support and defend the system being critiqued.
Those are just a few of the consequences that winning alone doesn't become enough to create respect.  And if equal respect doesn't accompany equal winning, the competition becomes empty for black students, no matter what the debate style.  And the community didn't just begin to find ways to minimize the value of black debaters talking about debate and race, anymore then they did with gender and the West Georgia run of Sarah and Rachel, and Louisville's Charles and Cunningham.  I saw it with Corey and RJ, I saw it with Liz and Tonia, and I saw it terribly with Jennifer and Ebony.  I even saw it with Deven and Shauntrice.  Hell, I even saw it with Rashad Evans, who still today says that I only care about Louisville debaters.  
As much as I tried to give Towson their props for being different from Louisville Andy, I also sit in trepidation from some of the choices not only Towson, but all the UDL affiliates are making, essentially white power brokers making decisions about what is in the "best interest" of black and brown students.  Why is that relevant in this case, you might ask?  Now perhaps, given my current distance from the UDL's is such that I'm out of touch with the power structure, these criticisms are unfair...but
These young men, with some support from Shawntia, Daryl, and perhaps other Louisville debaters living in the Baltimore/DC area, are embarking on a social justice movement to challenge a predominately white power structure, but it is likely that even a majority of their teammates, coaches, and mentors disagree with their approach.  In fact, the reality is that liberal views of colorblindness and radical liberal views of race consciousness are used to justify approaches to debate that might be retrograde for these students, given their argumentation choices.  You see Andy, many of the things I've done don't work in your liberal-radical white world, get read as conservative or authoritarian or the like, are important aspects of trying to engage in social protest, and in fact are revolutionary when not fit into the conservative box others choose to use them in.  Time and tested strategies used to varying degrees by Malcolm, King, and the like.  I'm sure for example, that the Brotherhood you spoke of that Deven and Dayon participate in have many conventions that you personally find as retrograde.  i remember the same hallway whispers, critical comments, and backlash from folks claiming to be down with "my cause" too. 
But the choices to operate as a collective, restrict individual autonomy in places that the critique/performative crowd would never consider, had a purpose with regards to students attempting to operate as a social justice movement, with empirical evidence that these methods are effective for this purpose.  The fact that these students perhaps lack a safe space on their own team creates so many emotional and practical complexities, and given the nature of these arguments, perhaps the reality that the coaching staff at Towson isn't in agreement with the arguments being made, the risks created for both the program, but more important the emotional well-being of the debaters likely becomes exaggerated.  I would argue in fact that the additional stress makes it even harder to deal with the community backlash and issues.  I believe that everyone in this community must answer Adam's question, so I ask you Andy, is there any way that you might answer the 2 questions,   
What has the leadership of UDL's personally done to create and support how Adam feels about the treatment blacks get in this activity?  
as well as  
What have you personally done to create and support how Adam feels about the treatment blacks get in this activity?  
To Josh:
I really love your reflexivity and that you sincerely work hard to engage and understand the issues we are discussing, and doing that work is appreciated.  However, one day you need to see how your general response to find the "good" in debate, are likely to be received.  Efforts to balance the criticisms will often come across as efforts to minimize the problem, the pain, and the frustration.  You tie "winning" to validation in ways that ignores the concerns Andy and others are making.  The way people win and the way they are responded to all affect feelings of validation, and by reducing the conversation back to "winning", you only further fuel the frustration.  Accepting and not trying to explain away the reality that this community responds differently to winning when black debaters win by criticizing debate, is an important first step to building connections.  Anything that doesn't start with a concession of the problem instead of trying to contextualize it, then focus is going to move those feeling alienated in the wrong direction, likely feeling that you care more about preserving and protecting the system you love, than fixing the system to address the concerns.  I know your heart Josh, and I believe you care, but your choice to quickly react in "balancing" ways usually create more alienation and frustration.  
If a person was in a car accident, totally devastated with physical injury, an initial conversation by the other car involved about blame and fault is likely not to get the reaction one hopes for.  That's how your comments are sometime received.  Look at how fast your conversation with Scott moved away from a discussion of Adam's question and race to issues that Adam could care less about and only serve to ignore Adam's concern.  Now the reality is that these are difficult questions with likely uncomfortable discussions and decisions, which is why I assume many stay silent, but the first step in acknowledgement and confrontation of racial privilege is an unconditional acknowledgement of the problem.  If not, then usually the answer quickly moves away from race in looking for a solution.  I ask you the same question Josh, What have you personally done to create and support how Adam feels about the treatment blacks get in this activity?  

To Scott:

My Dear Scott.  Thoroughly convinced that the answer to Adam's race question is to ignore it and fight what you believe the real problem to be, elitism.  Here is the evidence that I must ignore to make you the leader that I would have to follow:  1) there are 119 CEDA members and 114 in NDT.  The members are the same.  The organizations do the same thing, and the modicum of difference is so statistically insignificant that any respected scientist would laugh (one has an open national tournament and one doesn't); 2) The race issue hasn't been solved in any organization in America, perhaps the world, but Adam should trust that participation in one debate organization versus another will solve racial ills; and finally 3) The non-elite ran from NDT to CEDA; then the non-elite ran from CEDA to parli; now they run from Parli to NEDA, and the Great Western Forum.  All this moving and yet each organization cries elitism still.  Why CEDA that has decreased over 2/3's in membership from it's glory days is the nirvana is something I still don't understand, any more than I understand why Towson's criticisms apply any less to CEDA schools than others.  But again, even to engage these fallacies only pulls us further from Adam's question now doesn't it?  So my choice to build bridges with Scott, requires that Adam drop his focus on race and pick up your focus on elitism, or he's got nothing?  Just wondering Scott, how do you calculate the value of different racial experiences into your critical thought process?  What is your method for considering our differences on racial perspectives?  And after you answer that question, I ask the same question of you:  What have you personally done to create and support how Adam feels about the treatment blacks get in this activity?  
To J T
Two things at the outset: 1) I really, really, really appreciate your willingness to disclose, discuss, and assume responsibility for the hallway or squad room comments that you made.  The biggest reason we can't have productive conversations is that people aren't willing to honestly and ethically engage the issues.  Yours is an important first step; 2) If your story of being called "racist" refers to a Louisville debater or coach, then I would like to personally apologize.  We spend a lot of our preparation time discussing how to deal with loss and perspectives we disagree with.  Finding productive ways to engage difference has become more and more a centerpiece of our program.  We have kicked people off our squad for disagreeing with judges in unproductive ways (something I sure many of you disagree with and I'm okay with that), because at the end of the day, while I told Adam that our decision to stay and participate makes us responsible for the way we are treated, there are certain human rights and responsibilities that come with being part of the community.  And I assume the responsibility of making sure the Louisville program engages race issues in educational and societally productive ways, I can't not defer that responsibility to the students.  Although I do recognize that my human nature as defined by my personal frustration, alienation, and anger at times has violated my own rules.  Often my conversations of quitting over the years were my recognition that I couldn't deal with these issues productively at that given moment in time.  But I appreciate that you can forgive those students and/or coaches and not allow your frustrations to stall your search for that productive discussion your post says you are searching for.
Your initial reactions, defensive in nature to the charges, serve to attempt to marginalize or reduce the impact of Adam's/Andy's/Jackie's claims, similar to the early discussion about Josh, so I suspect they are usually met with trepidation.  Ironically, I agree with the first two wholeheartedly and in large part, the Louisville direction shifted to address these concerns.  But here is the difference:  I'm a director actively searching for policy solutions to race on a day to day basis for students interested in participating in that advocacy.  You are a coach/director chiming in when someone asks the question, "what have black people done to deserve the treatment we get in this activity?"  I guess what is missing in your response is your demonstrated "compassion" and commitment to the issue.  If you believe that parts of their criticisms have merit, why so much concern with the accuracy of how those concerns are communicated and expressed?  Can you not see how one might receive your tone as "playing the debate community as the victim" and trying to make Adam the oppressor, and how that might invalidate the rest of your discussion about the importance of calling out racism?
I wonder JT, would you see compassion if I was a young woman, walking out of a classroom at a debate tournament, clothes disheveled, clearly beaten, saying that two men just tried to rape me.  Hysterical, upon seeing the men, I started cussing them out and trying to swing at them.  Would your primary concern be the lack of productive communication I used?  What if a young man ran into the Classroom building in Lexington, running from a mob trying to bash him because he is gay?  Would you be concerned about accuracy of response if several members of the debate community caught them at the door and threatened them if they didn't leave, even if it perhaps went against your non-violent beliefs?  These students won a national championship regarding a very controversial, intense and difficult issue, and have been met with unique hostility and resistance every moment since.  Can you not see the emotional similarities?
I mean your note is: 1) all the high fives weren't racist; 2) Towson's argument over-generalizes; 3) Towson's rhetoric is antagonistic and hence not productive; 4) Towson's rhetoric ignores over forms of privilege; 5) here's what I said--I was inaccurate and speculated about the end goal of Towson's argument; and 6) don't piss off judges.
Nowhere does your post acknowledge Towson's criticisms, outside of some generic and theoretical, racism exists and should be called out at every turn.  But you don't describe how and when it is productive in the debate community, only saying the way they did it wasn't.  Do you think Adam should feel that your with him, that you care about his issues, or that if he just gives in to your concerns, you'll be more of a supporter.  Just wondering JT, What have you personally done to create and support how Adam feels about the treatment blacks get in this activity?  
To the Community:
Adam asks a simple question, What have black people done to deserve the treatment we get in this activity? The responses as I heard them: 1) Andy- Racial insensitivity of some in the predominately white debate community; 2) Josh-It's not all bad; 3) JT-Your approach if flawed and not productive; 4) Scott- It's NDT elitism, come home to CEDA.  None of these answers truly engage the question asked, but I'd like to take the liberty of a friendly rephrasing into, What has each member of the NDT/CEDA debate community done to create the treatment black people get in this activity?
I think how each person answers will differ based on experiences and perspectives.  I likely that many will say "nothing" or attempt to somehow debate the question.  But is that enough to stop thinking about the problem or the solution.  That's the issue.
I think that most won't answer this question by saying how do we personally support institutions that create disproportionately negative consequences on black people.  I think that most won't pay attention to the reality that there are common perceptions and frustrations by most blacks in NDT/CEDA debate that transcend debate ideology, or style, and many will be quick to unproductively focus on efforts to disprove that reality.  That is the challenge for those who believe contemporary policy debate is good, just and sufficient and criticisms should be eliminated or reduced or changed to a "different forum", although no other effective forum structurally exists to produce change outside the ballot, and even the ballot has been proven to not always produce change, although sometimes it does.
I also think that most won't see this question as friendly and related to the more important broader question, of how do we personally support institutions that create disproportionately negative consequences on minority perspectives? That is my challenge to blacks to see that relationship, lest they become complicit in their treatment of others when they don't consider the broader question, as it relates to concrete persuasive solutions and coalition building.
Until a structure exists that doesn't create those disproportionately negative consequences, the likelihood that acts of racial insensitivity, acts of disrespect, and general non-educational acts will continue to fester, grow, and turn into repeated bad events.  My thinking about what this community should look like doesn't start with the assumption that policy debate as exists, is superior to other forms of education, but rather, what goals and/or purpose could policy debate have to make it truly superior to other forms of education, and I choose to keep tinkering with my approaches to debate until I find it.  My thinking doesn't assume that I can pick and choose who I want to engage in the community to find that solution.  My thinking doesn't believe that adoption of any single political perspective should trump what my experiences and those of others in similar situations teach me are the most effective policy route.  And my thinking believes that as long as people respond to Adam's question beginning by talking about someone other then themselves, we have no chance of getting closer to a solution to the problem of difference in debate.  
But that's just me.  What does your thinking teach you, about you?
With love,
Ede Warner, Jr.
Director of Debate Society/Associate Professor of Communication
University of Louisville
308E Strickler Hall
ewarner at louisville.edu 
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