[eDebate] Towson, Ede, Josh and race in debate

Zompetti, Joseph Perry jpzompe
Tue Apr 15 01:22:51 CDT 2008

I just sent the message below to Dayvon Love from Towson University.  I had the honor of coaching/teaching Dayvon when he attending the ENDI scholars a few years ago -- an experience of frustration he mentioned in an email a few days ago.  While I've been away at a conference for the past week, I have been unable to respond to some of the messages on eDebate.  Nevertheless, I don't want to tread into the thick of some of this discussion, but merely want to point out some observations I have.
Ede Warner and I go way back.  While we never debated against each other in high school (he's a little older than me), we both debated in Indiana while in high school.  Once in college, I debated against Ede's teams, and then soon after, I butted heads with him while coaches.  He and I even had a "speed reading drill" at the Michigan Classic in 1997 to see who was the faster debater.  Believe it or not -- even though Ede claims the structure and "speed" of debate are exclusionary -- he beat me by about a second or two in that speed reading contest (and I was pretty fast!)
The point of my post, in some ways, echoes the conversation Ede and Josh have been having.  As some of you know, I published an article awhile ago against the "personalization of debating."  I still believe my arguments of that essay.  Essentially, I think that we lose sight of the forest from the trees.  Many debaters nowdays claim that speed, or traditional arguments, or the style of debate are exclusionary.  HOGWASH!!!  Those aren't exclusionary.  That's like saying advanced chemistry, English, or mathematics are exclusionary.  The advanced classes in high school aren't exclusionary....the social/economic/racial forces that underlie social exclusion are the problems.
The problem is -- and I'm not the first one to express this point -- primarily class disparity.  African-American, Latino/a, and other groups do not have access to the same avenues of instruction as do primarily white, affluent students.  When students of color do get hooked on debate, it is often too late (in a competitive sense), since their competitors have had years of experience at high school debate camps, high school coaching, etc.
Does this mean that the fast-paced nature of debate speaking is racist?  Or that the traditional forms of argument are marginalizing?  Absolutely not.  What it means is that there is an underlying and systemic problem of access to debate in our educational system.  I have seen students of color debate with traditional arguments and at high rates of speed (does anyone remember Andre Hylton from Dartmouth? -- or better yet, does anyone remember Ede Warner???).  Or how about Luis Magallon from Fullerton (pretty quick, huh?).  Of course, these are only a few examples.  Do they prove the rule?  How many white kids can't speak fast?  Has anyone looked at that?
The bottom line is that speaking fast or arguing in a certain way is not a racial thing.  To say that it is, is actually an essentializing -- if not racist -- argument in itself.  As if to say that certain groups of people can't do something in a certain way.  The REAL problem is one that systematically precludes the participation of certain groups of people.  And here we find that debate often excludes folks due to material constraints.  Is that the debate community's fault?  Perhaps, at least on some level.  Is it the educational system and the Governors of states who don't provide enough funding for state K-12 schools to have appropriate and meaningful co- and extra-curricular activities?  ABSOLUTELY.  Are people in our community like Josh and Ede spinning their wheels when they argue against each other?  Maybe.  I think this conversation is fruitful, but not at the expense of crushing friendships and obliterating potential alliances.  Josh has constructed the most diverse national high school debate institute in the country.  Ede has fought the good fight for racial diversity for over 15 years.  Should they be fighting against each other in a world who needs advocates for diversity?  Probably not.  Are we missing the focus for what we need to fight?  Probably yes.
Just my thoughts...and, to answer Dayvon, Deven, and others...what am I doing?   Most of you already know.  Am I doing enough?  Probably not.  I'm trying to work on that....
Much love,
I know it's been awhile since you won CEDA nats. But, first, I wanted to give you and the team some space to let it all sink in, and second, well, as a professor in the middle of April, I've been swamped with work.  In fact, I just returned from a convention which sucked up a lot of my time.
Nevertheless, I wanted to give you a hearty CONGRATULATIONS for winning CEDA!!!!  That is amazing and fully deserved.  I am very proud of you!
I know that Towson (and you) have been catching a lot of flack lately about the whole race thing.  Other folks are just jealous or they just don't understand.  I want you to know that I am really proud of you!  Thanks to Andy (because I couldn't be at CEDA), I was able to see the final round on-line.  You were amazing.  And, I thought there was no doubt you should have won that debate.
I read your post about some of the experiences you faced in debate - including the scholars lab at ENDI, the year I met you.  Your recollection of that experience surprised me, since you mentioned that no white people even talked to you for the first week.  That's not how I recalled it - especially since I talked to you that first week.  Perhaps you meant the other debaters.  I don't know.  Nevertheless, I remember vividly talking to you about how to engage policy debate with your feelings about the structure of exclusivity that occurs within debate (which occurred within the first week).  I do remember, however, how some of the other students were very distant towards you, not knowing who you were  or what you were about.  If you'll recall, you and your partner were the only Baltimore students in the lab, so I perceived that as a "they're from Baltimore thing, and we don't know them" sorta thing.  However, I can see how you would've perceived it differently, especially the way you explained it in your eDebate post.  
I guess this is where I have trouble with some of the discussions on eDebate lately.  So much rests on perception, that it is difficult to have a meaningful discussion.  You know what I mean?  In other words, some folks see things one way, others see it another.  And, if you happen to be in the marginalized group, you perceive things as threatening, insensitive, or even oppressive.  While, at the same time, the other group cannot see it.  
Who is right?  Who is wrong?
Perhaps one, perhaps the other, perhaps neither.  The trouble is, history guides our interpretation so much that even when one group unintentionally offends another, conflict ensues due to a lack of common understanding.
For example:  I know you, respect you, love you.  But if I made a decision in a debate that was contrary to the Black Aesthetic, would that offend you?  Perhaps.  I don't know.  But a particular issue or decision runs the risk of misunderstanding without a full comprehension of context and appreciation.
I don't think I have the answer to the problems facing the debate community.  But, I do know one thing -- no one can take away your accomplishments, no matter how they might try.  You definitely earned and deserved your CEDA national title.  And I, for a white guy who is immersed in privilege, respect you and honor you for that.
Much love,

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