Open letter to non-Black Native people in debate


Taylor Brough

University of Vermont, B.A.

2016 CEDA Nationals Champion

I should start by saying that I think Frank Wilderson is right about the position of Native people in the US racial schema. In Red, White, and Black, he argues compellingly that Native people are situated in a liminal space between life and death—that we are haunted by the dual specters of sovereignty and genocide; that our demands occur simultaneously in a coherent register of land repatriation, land theft, and treaty rights and in an incoherent register of an incomprehensible and ongoing magnitude of massacres, rape, starvation, boarding schools, and smallpox. Wilderson’s work has provided me with some of the tools to describe the gap between coherence and incoherence, a gap which is made especially evident in debate rounds. And particularly clear is that Native debate[1] is inclined towards talking in the grammar of sovereignty rather than genocide.

I am here preoccupied with our enunciative capacities in debate—with what I perceive “Native debate,” and specifically non-Black Native debaters, to be doing in service of Settler/Master (mis)recognition, what the consequences of such doing might be, and what it might mean to push against the disciplining force of recognition in debate. The ontological fact of genocide/sovereignty as a dual positioning for Native people, coupled with academia’s push to identify ourselves at the site of (coherent and recognizable) trauma (what Wilderson terms “intra-human conflicts”), has led Native thought in debate, broadly, to do three related things:

1) prioritize the coherent discussion of sovereign loss over one of genocide and its incoherence,

2) articulate ourselves as always in conversation with (read: traumatized by) the Settler,

3) distance ourselves from a Black/Red conversation or from Black/Red theorizing. These three moves are all antiblack in addition to being an insidious manifestation of the genocide that structures half of our (non?)being.

Depressingly, if we were to historicize “Native debate,” we would have to begin with a litany of non-Native debaters reading “Give Back the Land,” offering sovereignty as a solution to a tragic history of genocide that relegates Native people to phobic/phillic objects of the past whose futures are in the hands of those Settlers who bravely dare to talk about them. The terrain in which everyone can become Native—or at least become an advocate for Natives—is a cleared landscape produced by genocide but also, significantly, produced by antiblack slavery.[2] This history of non-Native debaters’ representations of sovereignty, land repatriation, and treaty rights as the only solution to genocide also reaches into the present.

What is most disturbing to me about this ongoing history is that we have yet to tie virtually any debate round to actual, material land repatriation, sovereign gains, or the upholding of treaty rights. These material gains involve labor from Native people organizing at the grassroots level, not an academic labor from Settlers. Debate arguments do not facilitate sovereign benefits for Native peoples.

Further, the struggle for sovereignty itself does not overcome or solve genocide. The removal of the Hunkpapa Lakota Oyate and their relatives at the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock should be proof enough of this—sovereignty as a politic is often met with, rather than resolving, genocidal violence.

Non-Black Native people in debate have performed a similar land-based politic. Native debate has become so associated with words like “land,” “sovereignty,” “space,” “place,” “treaty rights,” and others, that it is almost impossible to theorize Native debate absent sovereignty as a grammar that marks our existence. So both non-Native debaters (who claim to advocate for Native peoples’ sovereignty) and Native debaters (who claim to advocate for something that usually falls into the grammar of sovereignty) are talking in essentially the same register, with incredibly limited slippage towards genocide as a vector of violence. And, for Native people, like non-Natives, debate arguments do not and cannot facilitate the material elements of decolonization that these land-based arguments frequently rely upon.[3]

Sovereign gains don’t happen in debate rounds, but for some reason the (mis)recognition of Native enunciation as sovereignty persists, in that the word “land” harkens to Native debate in almost every instance, that almost every debate involving Native people reading perceptibly “Native” arguments includes a discussion of “treaties” or “sovereignty” or “land-based pedagogy” or “spatiality.” What other reason could this be than a structure of desire around recognition from the Settler/Master? If we really follow the history of how “Nativeness” has been misrepresented in debate by Settlers, it becomes clear that much of contemporary Native debate, strangely (or as I argue, not so strangely), mimics these misrepresentations.

Of course, debate is an economy of (mis)recognition. That “Native” becomes coextensive with “land” in debate is no accident. It is an enunciation that has been evoked prior to the involvement of any Native debaters or coaches. And it is reiterated by non-Black Native debaters with increasing certainty about the truthiness of Native relationships to the land. Systematically absent from this conversation, of course, is a discussion of genocide. I have gestured above towards the ways that the desire for recognition from the Settler/Master motivates this conceptual move towards the register of sovereignty. As Wilderson writes,

“The crowding out, or disavowal, of the genocide modality [by the sovereign modality] allows the Settler/’Savage’ struggle to appear as a conflict rather than as an antagonism. This has therapeutic value for both the ‘Savage’ and the Settler: the mind can grasp the fight, conceptually put it into words. To say, ‘You stole my land and pilfered and appropriated my culture’ and then produce books, articles, and films that travel back and forth along the vectors of those conceptually coherent accusations is less threatening to the integrity of the ego, than to say, ‘You culled me down from 19 million to 250,000.’”[4]

This gesture towards conceptual coherence and therapeutic value is why there is a celebrated and ongoing association between “land” and “Native” in both non-Native argumentation and in arguments made by Native people. It is why we cannot theorize about Native debate absent the contingent register of sovereignty.

I am hesitant to claim that sovereignty should be completely abandoned as an analytic for obvious reasons—I think Wilderson also gives credit to indigenous conceptions of sovereignty, what it unseats, and how it operates, while still articulating a critique of sovereignty unrivaled by much of Native studies. I am not interested in suggesting that all Native people ignore our peoples’ land relationships or histories of broken treaties as politic throughout the United States or the world. I agree with Qwo-Li Driskill’s suggestion, alongside similar ones from other Native theorists, that sovereignty must be re-theorized significantly rather than echoing the propertied enterprise that confers legibility to state formations.

Regardless of my reluctance to disavow the potential for sovereignty as a politic outside debate rounds, I think it is obvious that sovereignty in its terms in debate—as a recognized and fundamentally “Native” utterance—is genocidal and anti-Black.

Broadly, my argument is that genocide is an undertheorized arm of an antagonism that halfway positions Native people, and that the basis of such undertheorization is the desire to be (mis)recognized as nearly-Human by the Settler. This claim invites an investigation of the context of (mis)recognition in debate and what is particular about debate itself with regard to Wilderson’s theory of position. Debate is inevitably a space of recognition, coherence, and transparency. It seeks to uncover, make clear, and expand consciousness more than it promises to occlude, hide, or make incoherent. This condition of debate is significant not because that makes it different from the rest of the academy, or the rest of civil society, but because it offers a specific situation from which to apply the critique of recognition.

In the age of academic identity politics, the identification of the self as a subject of trauma has emerged as the primary locus of (recognizable) enunciation. Many who are familiar with Eve Tuck’s work have read her critical analysis on the academy’s demand for damage-centered narratives and the kinds of traumatized neoliberal subjectivity they produce—as those who are continually indebted to a parasitic regime of recognition.

When this critique is applied in debate, it frequently targets identity-politics models of intervention in academia which posit the traumatized subject as a primary locus of critique. For example, many of the ableism debates I’ve judged contained arguments locked entirely in this register—where the traumatized subject is itself offered as a structural analytic in a manner that is always parasitic on Blackness. Teams who read arguments that they refer to as “disability pessimism” and describe disability as a form of “ontological death” often go on to claim that no change has come from reading critical arguments in debate and that we should be pessimistic about the ability for debate to become more inclusive of disabled people. This is, at best, an appropriation of Afropessimism based on a reductive reading of Black debate. Significantly, the misrecognition of Black debate that is rearticulated through “disability pessimism” also includes the secondary claim that critical argumentation has not produced shifts in the institutional schema of debate. But “disability pessimism” would not exist without Black debate. You can’t bite Afropessimism and then disavow the intellectual labor of Black people as the condition of possibility for your argument. Worse still, “things have never changed in debate for disabled people,” is not an advocacy. It is just a recognized enunciation of the trauma of degraded subjectivity.

In this example, the degraded subject masquerades trauma as analysis while occluding structural phenomena. They merely say, “The world is a horrible and traumatizing place for me, therefore listen to me reiterate my trauma.” And more often than not, as Eve Tuck writes, “All we are left with is the damage.”[5] These so-called interventions posited by identity politicians are ineffective in that they fail to provide a solution to a problem that they have misidentified because of their own egoistic (contingent) investments. In other words, identity politics doesn’t work because it is antiblack. Identity politics is only interested in iterating a degraded subject as fundamentally innocent of violence, ethical, and on the right side of history at all times, because of that person’s experience of a (contingent, as opposed to gratuitous) violence.

Identity politics that have pushed us all to identify ourselves based on our traumas accrue, for Native people, in intra-communal policing strategies that use trauma as a site of authenticity—and authenticity as a foundational, genocidal gloss for identification. In many ways, this conversation about position begs a question of indigenous authenticity in debate—who is and is not really Native is a question fraught with centuries of historical baggage. And it carries weight in debate because the epistemic terrain of “indigenous scholarship” or “Native thought” demands a conversation about embodiment and experience as instantiations of the ontological. For Native people, the debate around authenticity is structured by a debate about blood quantum—or more accurately, blood quantum is one of the many genocidal registers through which we can understand the subject/object formation of the Native. Genocide and sovereignty are the co-constitutive registers determining Native position as being in/out of the world in the first instance.

As Eve Tuck describes, those who are traumatized are seen as having truly lived. Trauma and authenticity slip between each other as discourses which authorize us to enunciate a “Native” experience, one that is apparently generalizable to experiences far beyond our own, and one that tends to be used in service of the land-based arguments about sovereignty that I have thoroughly critiqued above.

The competitive space of debate exacerbates such trends. The slippage between trauma and authenticity is so real for us (perhaps because of the depth of genocide as a specter and its haunting gratuitous continuance) that it has become an easy disciplinary mechanism for creating affective investments in white racial kinship. In other words, Native people are still relying on Settler/Master regimes of recognition that can confer validation for certain (coherent) traumas. So you have a few Native people who are already insecure about whether or not we are indigenous enough, who seek to prove our authenticity by articulating it in the terms of trauma. But, under the structure I’ve described above, such trauma can only authorize our authenticity insofar as it can be made coherent to white judges in order to receive their validation and value! For many non-Black Native people in debate, this apparently justifies the slippage away from Blackness and the prioritizing of antiblack racial anxieties over an actual conversation about ontology and modernity.

In other words, in an instance of identity politics, where trauma must be isolable, human, subjectified, and coherent in order to be validated as authenticity by the Settler/Master, sovereignty gets the job done in a way genocide does not. Again, it is the assumption that recognition by the Settler/Master is favorable, or even necessary, that motivates Native people’s investments in arguments about land, space, place, sovereignty, and treaties. It is also this assumption that facilitates the false move to authenticity (false in that it is only given coherence by a genocidal and antiblack apparatus of recognition). Native people have been (mis)recognized by the Settler/Master since Taino peoples were met with Columbus’ genocidal misrecognitions in 1492. Much of this (mis)recognition rests on the incoherence of genocide.

Genocide is not a name for violence in the way that ‘arson’ is; genocide is a linguistic placeholder connoting that violence which out-strips the power of connotation. To represent it we have to dismantle it, pretend that we can identify its component parts, force a name into its hole—macrocytes, spur cells, kidneys at half-throttle, a thoroughly ulcerated stomach, Wounded Knee, Sand Creek—and make it what it is not, the way one fills the tucked sleeve of a one-armed boy. But these fillers, these phantom limbs of connotation, can only be imagined separately, and as such they take on the ruse of items that science, love, aesthetics, or justice—some form of symbolic intervention—can attend to and set right. They become treatable, much like the massacre at Wounded Knee were it not for the fact that to comprehend Wounded Knee, three hundred-plus men, women, and children in a snow-filled ravine, one must comprehend those three hundred synchronically over three thousand miles (the forty-eight contiguous states) and diachronically over five hundred years. Here, madness sets in and the promises of symbolic intervention turn to dust. We are returned to the time and space of no time and space, the ‘terminal.’”[6]

The magnitude of this hole—the impossibility of representing or narrativizing how genocide as a modality continues to position not just Native peoples but the extent to which it is a structural principle of modernity itself—is not easy. It is certainly not as easy to articulate in a debate round as sovereign loss is, nor is it as easy for Settlers to hear.

In order to no longer occlude the emergence of Red/Black theorizing in debate, non-Black Native people in debate must begin speaking in the register of incoherence, which demands engaging conceptually and argumentatively with Black people in debate. The avoidance of such a conversation (or series of conversations) can only be rooted in antiblackness and will only reproduce antiblackness. While Native people can be recognized by the Settlers we are talking to in the register of sovereignty, structurally, Black people (including people who are Black and Native) have no such register at the level of ontology. “Whereas Humans exist on some plane of being and thus can become existentially present through some struggle for, of, or through recognition, Blacks cannot reach this plane.”[7]

The simultaneous coherence and incoherence of the “Savage” position has thus far led non-Black Native people collectively to invest ourselves in antiblack kinship relations in debate that refuse to speak to or with Black people except when using them as a scapegoat to gain recognition from the Settler/Master institution of debate. This is because, more often than not, non-Black Native debaters are only tasked with talking to Settlers. I don’t mean this in terms of whether we have white friends—I mean argumentatively and conceptually, our work is creating a Settler/Native binary that conspicuously erases and systematically under-theorizes Blackness, antiblackness, slavery/prison, and Black people. Too many non-Black Native debaters don’t even have an answer to the question of whether Black people are Settlers. That there are Native debaters who feel ambiguous about this question at all suggests the rootedness of Native debate in antiblackness.

It is beyond the scope of this letter to offer specific critiques of the myriad of (inadequate) ways that many non-Black Native scholars claim to “position” “Blackness,” but it is overwhelmingly true that their discussion of antiblackness consistently describes it as a system of racial identification subservient to settler colonialism. In debate, however, this neglects the indebtedness of non-Black Native debaters to the intellectual and argumentative labor of Black debaters, coaches, and judges. In other words, to reduce antiblackness in debate to a system of racial identification subsumed structurally by settler colonialism is ahistorical, given that it has been the work of Black people in debate that has made Native debate possible at all, as tenuous and numerically small as we are.

Why, then, are non-Black Native people in debate so invested in describing settler colonialism as the sole matrix of power under which violence operates? Much of this scholarship (Eve Tuck’s work, Jodie Byrd’s, and other similar texts from Native studies) critiques integrationist elements of Black studies as seeking inclusion in the national project—but Afropessimism broadly, and Wilderson’s work specifically, is far from integrationist. To my knowledge (which is extensive but obviously not exhaustive when it comes to Native debate), non-Black Native debaters have been largely unwilling to contend with the thesis of Wilderson’s book, even when reading other scholars who allege disagreement with him, as most of these scholars do, from the vantage point of sovereignty.

A coherent conversation with the Settler about sovereignty in debate is unlikely to challenge the (mis)recognition that leads to the high level of politicization around who is really Native and who is not. Similarly, the numeric lack of Native people in debate, as a function of genocide itself, makes it difficult to articulate what Native resistance has been, is going to be, or even what it is doing right now. Rather than an aspirational politic that suggests we should culturally infuse debate with indigeneity (the implicit endpoint of many of these conversations about “decolonization” which are ultimately revivalist and inclusionist attempts related to Native spiritual or cultural practices), there is an (under-theorized) incoherence to our position that I believe should motivate us to enter into the fraught terrain of Red/Black theorizing. Nothing Native is happening in debate—not that there are not Native people in debate, but I do not believe debate is a space that we should aspire to “indigenize,” “decolonize,” or anything in that register.

In debate, Native people are misrecognized, whether through technologies of capture like blood quantum mythologies, misreadings of indigenous cosmologies, or genocidal imaginations of Noble Savages. Fuck non-Black non-Native people who are structurally responsible for those misrecognitions. To the degree that recognition is inevitable in debate, I think many of us are pushed by our coaches, debate partners, by those who judge us, and by civil society more broadly, to articulate ourselves within those frames in order to authenticate ourselves. This is my analysis of trauma politics above. How does the register of authenticity change when we are talking to someone other than the Settler/Master and their junior partners? I believe it changes significantly. I believe that for Native debate to a) increase meaningful Native participation in debate,[8] b) attend to the irreconcilable genocidal question that for us always undergirds sovereignty but can never be coherent in the way that sovereignty and land loss can, and c) attend to social death and the non-position of the Black, it is imperative that we stop talking to and for white people argumentatively.

(Mis)recognition is inevitable in a communicative and performative space like debate. Therefore, we have to make decisions about whose recognitions we will orient ourselves towards, how we want to be recognized, and by whom. Structurally, non-Black Native people have not been talking to Black people because many of us refuse to be authorized by the ethical dilemmas of accumulation and fungibility that attend Blackness.[9]

There are, for example, many non-Black Native people who express ressentiment about Black debate—that Black debate has not made space for Native debate, as if that was the obligation of Black debaters and coaches, or as if Black debate by virtue of its very existence has not made space for Native debate, or as if Settler/Master debate does not owe argumentative space to Native people. It is disturbing that non-Black Native people tend to express major grievances with Black debate, or with Resistance or Wilderson or Afropessimism (all coded as Black debate), rather than with Settler/Master debate, including the debaters, coaches, judges, and practices that attend to its institutional form.

Further, it is clear from the argumentative content of much of Native debate— not merely the systematic absencing and/or undertheorizing of Black people from those theoretical angles, which itself should disprove them, but also the primary focus being sovereign restoration, treaty reconciliation, or the return of indigenous lands (usually meaning all of Turtle Island)—that antiblackness is endemic to its ongoing function. That so many people reading arguments about treaty rights, land repatriation, or decolonization have not found an answer to the question “What happens to Black people when the land is returned?” is very telling about the anti-Black investments that attend enunciations of sovereignty in debate. That there are Native people in debate who continue to insist that Black people are positioned as Settlers when all evidence points to the contrary (though this is not to suggest that individual Black people cannot invest themselves in settlerist nation-building projects), is antiblack and inadequate scholarship that cannot forefront a theory of position.

[1] In many ways, “Native debate” is a misnomer in that it implies an institutionalization that does not exist for Native people. Due both to our numerical smallness and the lack of collective organization or community amongst Native people in debate, it is hard to theorize about what “Native debate” is or what we are doing. As I argue here, “Native debate” invariably invokes land-based politics, and it is so wholly (mis)recognized as such that debaters who are both Black and Native are frequently denied access to their own Nativeness at all. Thus the lines that contour to form our (generally false) conceptions of “Native debate” as that which Native people are doing in debate are obviously antiblack in that they preclude consideration of the scholarly and interpersonal contributions of those who are both Black and Native as not Native enough, presumably because they are not attendant to the land or not attendant to the land in the same ways that non-Black Native people’s work is homogenously understood to be.

[2] Tiffany King argues compellingly in her dissertation In the Clearing: Black Female Bodies, Space, and Settler Colonial Landscapes that the clearing as the site of genocidal Settler production is also the site of the antiblack violence of the Master. In other words, the settlement is also a plantation and the plantation is also a settlement. In other other words, debate is a site of anti-Native genocide, as much as it is a site of antiblack social death, as much as it is a site of Settler/Master subject-making.

[3] There are clearly significant differences between Native people’s arguments in favor of sovereignty and those of Settlers. But the Native debaters who claim to solve sovereignty or material decolonization are also often misrepresenting and misrecognizing the history of struggle for sovereignty or treaty rights within our various nations. It is, in fact, the similarity in these misrepresentations and misrecognitions between Settlers and Native people that is disturbing to me here, and worthy of theorizing.

[4] Frank Wilderson, Red White and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms, 152.

[5] Eve Tuck and K Wayne Yang, R-Words: Refusing Research, 226.

[6] Wilderson, Red White and Black, 195.

[7] Wilderson, Red White and Black, 38.

[8] Thank you to Louisville and the ongoing legacy of Black debate for offering the terms for this political conceptualization and goal.

[9] Wilderson, Red White and Black, 241.


We Be Fresh As Hell Wit’ Da Feds Watchin’: A Bad Black Debate Family Responds


Shanara R. Reid-Brinkley, PhD

Assistant Professor of Public Address and Advocacy

Director of Debate, William Pitt Debating Union

Department of Communication

University of Pittsburgh

Amber Kelsie, M.A.

Doctoral Student, Department of Communication

University of Pittsburgh

Nicholas Brady

Doctoral Student, Department of Culture & Theory

University of California, Irvine

Ignacio Evans, B.A.


Towson University

The following comments are designed to offer a thoughtful engagement with the recent release of Brendon Bankey’s Wake Forest University M.A. thesis. The growing body of academic work on race-centered debate practice is a productive turn in our community-wide consideration of issues of inclusion/exclusion and the processes of knowledge production in debate. Yet, in this essay we hope to describe some serious concerns with this particular project in the hopes of adding even more complexity to our community’s current discussion of race, argument, and competitive political deliberation. We argue that the Bankey thesis is riddled with faulty assumptions and misinterpretations of Fanon, the Reid-Brinkley dissertation, and the practices of race-centered debate in contemporary competition.

The Bad Negro Family and Bankey’s Misreading of the Mo(ve)ment

Bankey’s fundamental misreading of the Reid-Brinkley dissertation and the development of race-centered debate practice produces a caricature of Dr. Reid-Brinkley as the bad black mother, the black matriarch, the failed female parent attached to the failed (and absentee) black father (Fanon) who produces deviant black children.[1] The thesis is populated by a number of references to race-centered alternative debate practice and practitioners, such as “Reid-Brinkley’s model of resistance,” “Reid-Brinkley’s movement,” “Reid-Brinkley’s supporters,” “Reid-Brinkley’s theory of resistance,” and “Reid-Brinkley’s resistance.” What initially strikes us is the reduction of the framing of resistance. Not only does Bankey attempt to place Reid-Brinkley at the head of a mo(ve)ment that has been successful exactly because of its lack of structure or central leadership, but he also incorrectly assumes that Reid-Brinkley’s work has offered a single method and/or theory of resistance for black debaters. We challenge Bankey to point to a place in any of Reid-Brinkley’s work where she has argued for a unitary, exclusive form of resistance. We would like to see evidence of this urge to define a universal black resistance in debate that is the central internal link to Bankey’s criticism.

The race-centered, performative style of debate has been heavily influenced by a number of thinkers, including Reid-Brinkley, Daryl Burch, Ede Warner, and Rashad Evans who do not agree on a single method or mode of resistance within debate competition. These thinkers did not require Dr. Reid-Brinkley’s dissertation to recognize that debate is “too white, too male, and too straight.”  That conclusion can be made by observing the writing on the wall.  And, though visible, these thinkers are only part of a network, or collective, of thinkers which includes coaches, judges, graduate students and student debaters. It should not have escaped anyone’s notice that this argument form has evolved over time. That evolution has been the product of conversations, where undergraduates and graduate students have significantly affected the thinking of coaches and academics. No one person drives or controls this mo(ve)ment. Movement here should not be considered a noun, a singular or confined entity, with a thingness that we can identify and define. Instead, this movement should be considered more like a verb, it is action and practice responsive to exigent circumstances; it is not identity. Mo(ve)ment is a bringing together of like minded people who are willing to think together despite divergences they may have in theory and practice. This mo(ve)ment is becoming—pushing against, through and beyond the fixity of negative black and brown stereotypes of which Bankey’s thesis is an exemplar (it is precisely for this reason that we believe that “resistance” embodies the disalienation Bankey seeks far better than Bankey’s thesis can).  Bankey, and he is not alone, has simply asserted a characterization or definition of this “mo(ve)ment” in a manner inconsistent with the reality of its development and its evolution. We would have liked this author to justify his use of the phrase “Reid-Brinkley’s movement” as we are unsure what this thing is that he is referring to. The Reid-Brinkley dissertation offers a description of the context of race within the debate space and an analysis of one means of resistance to the politics of racial exclusion in debate competition. Bankey describes Reid-Brinkley’s discussion of the significance of the body in interracial space as offering an entreaty to use the body as the only means of resistance. We do believe that the body is a significant tool for engaging in tactical resistances, but that just misses the point. The dissertation is significant because it makes the body part of the context, part of the description of the rhetorical situation. It is a misreading of the dissertation to argue that it suggests a single method of resistance simply because it outlines the context of anti-blackness in debate; the body is always already a part of the rhetorical situation. Enlarging the scope of the rhetorical situation to include the body means that the body can be one of many potential tactical sites of engagement with anti-blackness, as all tactical and strategic sites of resistance remain bound by their performance through the body. It seems that Bankey’s position on the body is more than thirty years behind contemporary rhetorical theory.

In critiquing the Reid-Brinkley dissertation, Bankey likens what he has identified as the Reid-Brinkley method with black nationalism and the Black Arts Movement. Drawing on Eric King Watts’ criticism of the Black Arts Movement, Bankey argues that the Reid-Brinkley dissertation privileges a black aesthetic resistance that seeks a “purification” of “proper” blackness, a “purely objectified” blackness that is designed to build a coherent concept of black identity in debate.[2] He argues that this tendency in the Reid-Brinkley interpretation is an example of rigid positivism and produces dogma. He argues further that Reid-Brinkley’s work and the kind of debate “inspired” by that work fails to attend to the causes of black suffering in favor of a focus on the aesthetic value of black performance. Yet, Bankey fails to provide any internal link from Reid-Brinkley’s dissertation or public rhetoric that would substantiate such a claim. We find these characterizations unrecognizable in any statements made by Reid-Brinkley. Reid-Brinkley’s work, even outside of her direct work on debate, persistently grapples with such characterizations of blackness and their relationship to producing avenues of resistance. Bankey even quotes Reid-Brinkley discussing her social location in the in-between spaces of various social identities that are often in conflict with one another. Her work goes far to complicate how black people define and perform blackness within the interaction between race, gender, sexuality, capitalism and heteronormativity. Any attempt to create a purified blackness has historically produced disastrous results for black communities. Bankey has significantly misread Reid-Brinkley’s work if he believes she would argue for any such purification.

Which leads us to the most significant mischaracterization of the Bankey thesis, one that destabilizes the coherence of the criticism it offers. For Bankey, racial resistance in debate can be conflated into a universal whole from which a generalized criticism can be launched. Yet, Bankey’s attempt to characterize all of race-centered debate as necessarily dependent on Fanon or Wildersonian Afro-pessimism is not only misleading, but is intellectually bankrupt. There is no such thing as a Reid-Brinkley model of debate and there is no single method or theory that characterizes this style of debate. If one has watched the evolution from Louisville to the spread of this argument across multiple college and high school teams, what should be immediately apparent is the diversity of methodological and theoretical engagements. Bankey’s conflation of this diversity is an attempt to construct a ‘strawman’ argument, and it is indicative of a shallow, but common, reading of what is happening in debate. Bankey’s reduction of black thought in debate to one theorist, theory or methodology is an attempt to constrain that which is clearly seeking lines of flight or thoughts of the outside. Because black experience is multiple, contingent and contextual, single methods or theories of resistance could not possibly offer an effective response to anti-blackness. Individual black people do not all have the same experience with anti-blackness (although there are likely to be some similarities) as their lived experiences are bound by the contexts in which they experience anti-blackness. Race-centered debate, Reid-Brinkley and Evans are not arguing for a singular notion of blackness from which to produce a universal model of resistance. Any scholarship based on such assumptions is by its nature false.

Whiteness and Demanding a Definition

Bankey questions Reid-Brinkley’s choice to not define whiteness in the dissertation and notes further that there is a conflation of whiteness with skin tone.  Relying heavily on communication scholar Bryant Keith Alexander, Bankey argues that Reid-Brinkley’s thesis participates in “White Studies,”[3] and “projects a subjective understanding”[4] into raced encounters.   Before commenting on whiteness and anti-blackness, we must point out that there is no rhetorical encounter that is not subjective.  To suggest so flies in the face of almost everything that has ever been written in the modern history of rhetoric.  Bankey seems confused in his thesis about the position of subjectivity and its validity in rhetorical practice.  At times, he includes subjective accounts of his own experience.  The stake for his thesis—presumably to protect high school students from the bad black people—is premised upon some notion of subjective harm.

It is common practice in race studies to define the use of the terms whiteness and blackness for the purpose of the authors work. Reid-Brinkley’s decision to not define whiteness was not an act of intellectual laziness as much as a resistance to defining that which seemed/seems to her to fundamentally operate by its very inability to be defined. Whiteness is not stable; it moves across institutions, values, beliefs, practices, bodies, performances, identities, subject positions, legal status, desires, sexuality, gender, nationality, religion, locality, ability, and so on. It can constitute all of these things some of the time, but not necessarily all the time. As rhetoric scholar Leda Cooks notes, “Whiteness, as a set of rhetorical strategies employed to construct and maintain a dominant White culture and identities, has always shifted to incorporate dissenting or divergent voices, to render invisible that which it cannot swallow.”[5] Whiteness is cannibalistic, eating or making use of any and everything that can be actualized toward its extension as an apparatus of power. As a doctoral student Reid-Brinkley chose to define whiteness through its examples rather than through a singular or particular definition of something that seems always already multiple. Whiteness exists in an adversarial relationship with blackness, and thus Reid-Brinkley is less interested in the study of whiteness directly as she is interested in the study of anti-blackness, or that underside of whiteness that seems to offer a coherence to a concept that actually can only function through incoherence. While biological appeals to racial distinction no longer make sense in our contemporary moment, racial distinction still serves as a tool of signification that makes stable whiteness and blackness and thus works as an apparatus of power. Yet, it is less Reid-Brinkley’s choice to leave open the question of the definition of whiteness that receives the most direct criticism, as much as it is the identification of “white people” with “white skin” and therefore with whiteness that frustrates Bankey. Bankey’s criticism is not new. Many authors, particularly white liberals, respond to contemporary studies of blackness and anti-blackness with this critique (we see such literature appear in debate rounds).  But what is whiteness without those that can be marked as “white people”? Or, as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva asks, what is “racism without racists?”[6] Whiteness without white people is a project of a (neo-)liberal engagement with diversity and anti-racism efforts. Such positions argue that whiteness is the problem not white people.  Or worse (and simultaneously), they argue that challenges to racism are productive of racism.  This kind of post-racial appeal in Bankey’s thesis is especially disconcerting.  It is also at odds with Bankey’s mobilization of African-American studies.  For example, Eric King Watts, cautions against the post-racial argument that if racism is “socially constructed” then we can be done with the discussion:

“Tropes of ‘race’ do indeed have a signification system that is textual and material—coded into institutions we inhabit and the social relations regulated by them.  But there is more: tropes of ‘race’ inhabit us as those social and political practices and ways of being make emergent forms of subjectivities and identities with potent aesthetic values—that is, with values that are sensually learned and ‘known’.  Saying that race is a “fiction” does very little to disable its vigorous affects.”[7]

There is no racism without bodies coded and trained through practice.  There are subjectivities that are raced which means that there are bodies that “look white” that are implicated in whiteness.  White privilege in this frame can be recognized as an unearned benefit while offering a position of redemption when privilege is used toward anti-racist efforts. Yet, one can simultaneously be engaged in good anti-racist work as a white person, while engaging in political and social actions that reproduce privilege. And yet, we already recognize that whiteness is not just about skin color, though we cannot deny the existence of white-skin privilege.  Whiteness is normative—it produces behavioral and performative patterns that sustain the significance of whiteness as a signifier. Bankey critiques what he calls “Reid-Brinkley’s model for resistance in the flesh” as a failed political project with dangerous implications for contemporary debate practice. Yet, we are often confused by such criticisms that seem to argue that black scholars are producing racial, biological and social distinctions rather than simply responding to the context of anti-blackness. In other words, Reid-Brinkley’s dissertation work does not argue nor does it imply that race is biological. We are all made of meat. In fact, in the dissertation Reid-Brinkley specifically engages Hardt and Negri’s Empire which argues that, in the contemporary era, race is no longer authorized through the biological as it is through the cultural. But to be clear: although race is not biological, it does depend on the body. For the black body, it is its blackness that marks it as other, that marks it as not white. Thus, Reid-Brinkley cautions against the smooth transition from biological to cultural explanations of race, so that we not lose sight of the marked nature of the body and the body’s place in the process of racial signification. Bankey’s attempt to ignore the significance of the body is inconsistent with the actual history and contemporary manifestation of race, and it is inconsistent with the sustained academic and intellectual engagement on racism that would be found in a certain section of the library. The raced body in the American context is an inescapable part of any inter-racial (and intra-racial) rhetorical situation, even if race is not the immediate subject of the communicative engagement. The discourse that surrounds President Obama easily demonstrates this to be the case. Even winning the Presidency cannot fully erase blackness from Obama’s body and, in fact, he is held in contempt because of his black Body.  We can think here of the questioning of Obama’s relationship to the  “Harold Washington model” or, better yet, the relationships Obama shares with American citizenship, his African father, and the relevancy of his white mother. The speaking subject is a speaking body that is colored, sexed, gendered, classed, and so on.  The speaking black body is in a difficult position in American rhetorical contexts, as the body cannot be escaped.  The body highlights the internal tensions in the concept the “speaking subject.”[8]  Neo-liberal agendas on race, like Bankey’s, wish to ignore the body as context within rhetorical and deliberative spaces, but that makes the body as part of the rhetorical situation no less significant.

Another of Bankey’s major concerns is the constraint the Reid-Brinkley dissertation places on individuality or the development of subjectivity—i.e., the idea that we are always already trapped by our bodies. We agree that overdeterminations are concerning, but we disagree with the implication that we should jettison any concern for our finitude or context.  To do so would repeat the practices of whiteness, which produce decontextualized standards for subjectivity. The Reid-Brinkley dissertation does not engage in an abstraction.  Rather, we would say that the quest for an “authentic communication” is exactly the kind of abstraction of which we should be wary. Reid-Brinkley’s dissertation instead argues that the process of racialized abstraction of the body is a rhetorical context through which bodies communicate in the U.S. context. In other words, racialized abstraction is contextual; it is simply part of the rhetorical situation. Bankey’s thesis asks us to ignore the contexts associated with rhetorical situations and thus offers communication scholars an anti-rhetorical analysis of the rise and development of race-centered debate practice. If Bankey’s fear is that racial “abstraction” produces a fundamental antagonism that prevents the kind of “authentic communication” necessary to resolve communal issues of exclusions, he can only make this claim through a disavowal of racism. In other words, Bankey’s argument that the dissertation produces a false conflict between black people and white people could only retain a semblance of coherence if we suspended the idea that racism is pervasive.  This claim is not one in which even the authors that Bankey’s thesis relies upon would support. The abstractions on the body are always already there.  They are those persistent tropes that produce the racialized subjectivities Eric King Watts refers to in the above quote.

We disagree that the dissertation produces abstractions as much as it clarifies them.  We are however interested in the brief insight Bankey offers as a potential alternative to such overdetermining abstractions. Bankey argues that his positionality at the borderlands of black and white (vis-à-vis his interracial familial relationships) can be analogized to interracial dating. We agree that in the borderland space between black and white dating (or familial) partners one might find a useful space for theorizing the relationship between whiteness and blackness. But we take issue with the presumption that this space is especially accessible to Bankey.  It seems that Bankey can access his interracial relationships to actualize this borderland space, while simultaneously denying the space of the borderland to Reid-Brinkley and Evans. This move is shocking to us.  First, the denial of the borderland space to black people, particularly those at the simultaneous intersection of femininity and queerness is an act of white male policing. It is a stealing back of the center stage, an act of hijacking racial discussions, and centering white male experience as the only expert voice on race. The naïve self-righteousness of Bankey’s position becomes even more apparent when he notes that he doesn’t need to explore the black section of the library in order to understand race relations that were highlighted for him as a young man growing up in the suburbs in a biracial family. The pervasive assumption that one can simply know blackness—that it is not worthy of serious and deep academic engagement—is something you would never find in relation to any other object of study. The presumption that blackness and anti-blackness is not worthy of scholarly consideration is problematic. Many scholars have spent their academic lives studying black history, culture, and politics. If someone said they knew everything about the Jews and the Holocaust because they grew up in New York and were married to a Jewish woman that would be considered incredibly offensive. Equally offensive would be the argument (often made by those on the political Right) that women’s studies departments are unnecessary because one has a mother and a sister and therefore knows all that needs to be known about gender oppression. Such presumptuousness by a young scholar-in-training is politically dangerous and is an example of the contemporary assault on Black Studies. What scholar believes that they know so much about a subject that they no longer have to study it to learn new connections or new trends in thought? All of the authors of this response are blacks engaged in studies across black history, culture, theory and politics. For us, the study of race, and specifically blackness/anti-blackness, (amongst other things including gender, sexuality, class, and radical politics) has been a critical part of our intellectual development. Such study has offered us the language and tools of engagement necessary for reading and participating in racial, queer, feminist, and/or anarchist politics. If we as black people, who have actually experienced racial oppression, find it necessary to study race in order to more thoughtfully and more thoroughly define the black experience across the diaspora then it is disingenuous for white people to argue that they know all there is to know about race without the same committed study.

Bankey’s positioning of himself at the borderland while excluding (multiply situated) black people in debate from that same space makes little sense to those familiar with the history of race in America. Black people have never not had to be in close relation to whiteness.  This is Dubois’ theory of double consciousness (which, though especially emblematic of black experience, is a way of understanding the world that can be learned by non-blacks). Black people have always existed in an in-between space of blackness and whiteness with anti-blackness serving as the context for this relationship. Black folks in America are always already in an interracial relationship with whiteness; this is especially true in the context of debate. The tone of Bankey’s criticism assumes black people exclude white people from their space, but MPJ and other debate practices demonstrate the direct manner in which white people exclude black people from interracial dialogue in the debate space. An even more recent example of how structural racism functions is the exclusion of Elijah Smith, the reigning NDT champ, from the Kentucky Round Robin, and the attempt to change the rules pertaining to transfer students.  We are disappointed by this addition to the consistent complaint made by whites that black people must be constantly accessible to whites even while white people disavow the structure of policed segregation in supposedly common spaces.  In fact, it seems quite likely that this thesis will inspire debate arguments that produce exclusions of black students rather than an inclusive space of participation. We find it highly unlikely that it will produce an authentic communication or disalienation.  There are countless examples of the manner in which black people attempt to meet the communicative and bodily expectations of dominant culture and dominant debate.  Code-switching is part and parcel of our interracial romance with debate, an example of our commitment to compromise. Black people often code-switch into “white-people speak” when dealing with white people while using black language and tonal intonations (regionally specific) when in majority black spaces (in fact, it seems that it is when we “speak authentically” in the presence of whites—share ourselves with whites—that we are charged with the crime of being “intentionally” unintelligible). Within debates, (vis-à-vis framework for example) there is a denial or a disavowal of even the possibility of an engagement across rhetorical difference, which is the move Bankey makes. He refuses to code switch in the thesis by not attempting to understand the kinship networks in debate for black people or to engage in rhetorical practices to demonstrate a commitment to engaging difference at the level of method and performance.[9] How often do we encounter white people who can code-switch (and no we don’t mean the latest hip hop slang) into the communicative and socio-political practices of black culture? The black is always already at the borderland. But double consciousness is something that for most people—especially non-blacks—must be learned and practiced.  We believe that these kinds of practices and attempts on the part of black people to meet whites more than half-way are evident for those who choose to see.  But also we must point out that in communication studies code-switching, the vernacular, counter-publics, and many other concepts evoke the double-sidedness of rhetorical practice in ways that complicate the very notion that there could ever be a pure communication.  We therefore invite Bankey to read the Communication Studies section of the library as well as the Black Studies section.

Our relationship to debate can easily be described as an interracial love affair. The debate community is majority white and whiteness characterizes the performative and stylistic norms of competitive policy debate.  We need not only refer to Reid-Brinkley’s thesis for this kind of analysis.  Shelton K. Hill and Pamela Stepp’s work on black participation in debate and white stylistic practice has been overlooked for far too long.  We think that our relationship to debate is a romantic/desirous coupling, a flirtation across racial lines that has often left many of us bruised and bloody at the hands of whiteness and white people. We are in an abusive relationship, one that denigrates and maligns our black thinking while engaged in (neo-)liberal efforts to capture our black bodies. Nonetheless, we work to create an erotics of debate that can affirm our selves in the face of such denigration.  The borderland space that black debaters, judges, coaches, and directors occupy offers a unique perspective from which to view both the beauty and the ugliness of our community and its practices. Such a perspective provides new insights and new avenues of engagement toward changing the conditions necessary for producing new knowledge—the kind that does not block the development of black thought based on misdirected accusations of anti-intellectualism.

Signifyin’: Why Only The White Trickster (Gamester) Gets to Speak

Bankey argues that Reid-Brinkley’s interpretation of the potential benefits of the use of signifyin’ as rhetorical strategy in interracial deliberation ignores the notion of trickery which is foundational to the practice of signifyin’. However, Bankey adheres to a simplistic understanding of the practice of signifyin’ within black culture and thus Gates’ definition of signifyin’ and the significance of the trickster figure. First, Bankey focuses on the trickster figure in the Esu story because it seems to mirror the interracial context of debate. While Gates’ discussion of the Esu story is important, attention to the various kinds of singifyin’ deployed by black cultures across the diaspora gives a fuller account of the diversity of signifyin’ practices. Playing the dozens is an example of signifyin’ in the contemporary context of black America. Signifyin’, or the dozens in black culture, does depend on the use of misdirection in order to signify on one’s verbal opponent. Yet, it is a fundamental misreading of signifyin’ to assume it depends on an inauthentic form of communication. The dozen’s are played within black culture: some scholars are even analyzing the use of singifyin’ amongst black twitter users who mark their blackness through black language and cultural practices that are designed to signify to black readers. Bankey misunderstands the potential significance of signifyin’ as a potential rhetorical strategy in debate. The Esu figure is not just a trickster or figure of chaos; (s)he is a teacher, and (s)he guides and develops those (s)he encounters. The method of teaching may be painful, but (s)he provides important lessons. The Esu figure might be characterized by this “partial list of qualities” which “might include individuality, satire, parody, irony, magic, indeterminacy, open-endedness, ambiguity, sexuality, chance, uncertainty, disruption and reconciliation, betrayal and loyalty, closure and disclosure, encasement and rupture.”[10] Esu is a “classic figure of mediation and of the unity of opposed forces.”[11] In the context of black-white relations, the point is not just to trick one’s opponent through misdirection, it is also an attempt to highlight the seeming inability of white people to speak from and through black linguistic practices. Basically, white people require racialized others to speak in their coded language practices to the exclusion of other possibilities. In other words, Bankey’s thesis lacks any analysis of power that might suggest that communication is structured by a dynamic in which some forms of communication are hegemonic and some marginal.  It assumes that we all communicate in the same way, and then blames black people for not communicating in the appropriate manner to soothe white anxieties.  There is little distinction between the academic claims made by Bankey and the common complaint made in society that black people are intellectually lazy, illiterate, dumb, or obstinate for speaking in ebonics, or for rapping, rhyming or using figurative language.  These assumptions are symptomatic of a direct refusal to communicate in a full sense of the term through the privileging of a majority-controlled means of communication.  We think that so long as this refusal continues, “authentic communication” or “disalienation” remains impossible. Given the status quo, the use of black language practices within the space of debate is a potentially effective training ground for producing individuals able to engage in public deliberation across a diversity of cultures and communities. We train debaters to speak to elite populations and institutions, but we are failing to prepare them for the contemporary political and social sphere with all of its potential cleavages.

Bankey’s turn to Watts’ critique of the use of signifyin’ as a rhetorical practice in interracial deliberation is also nonresponsive to the realities of the competitive debate context. For Bankey and Watts signifyin’ is a practice of obfuscation one that violates attempts to create the “authentic communication” Bankey’s thesis calls for.  But even for Watts some play on, and appropriation of, a dominant text is part and parcel of “speaking unmasked” in public.  As example, Watt’s draws upon Dubois’ rewriting of the patriotic song “America” as “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”[12]  Furthermore, to demonstrate a tenuous link from Watts’ criticism to the Reid-Brinkley dissertation, Bankey must make a number of faulty assumptions. First, the Louisville team signifies on the opposition. The discussion of the cross examination period is particularly instructive. Reid-Brinkley notes that cross examination is often an opportunity to flex both intellectual and attitudinal muscle as common practice in debate competition. In addition, she argues that the Louisville women appropriate this traditional performative strategy for cross examination, but with a signal difference. They flex their attitudinal muscle through a black women’s performative style that seems disquieting for their white male opponents who are not only unsure how to read their dismissals, but are surely confused about how to respond to them. It is not that their opponents fail to “understand” their language, but that the opponents have little lived experience from which to draw upon to read the Louisville women’s bodies, tonal inflections, etc., which they use to mark blackness through black cultural practice. Opponents miss the “meaning” or “significance” of the performance though they may understand the words.  Again, analysis of such rhetorical situations can only be enriched by an understanding of double consciousness.  We recognize Watts’ criticism as a cautionary tale about the potential for signifyin’ practices to disrupt communication. However, Bankey has demonstrated no clear link indicating that the signifyin’ practices Reid-Brinkley discusses and those occurring in contemporary race-centered debate practice falls prey to such a critique. Competitive debate is a unique environment. The practice of signifyin’ alone would fail to meet the communicative standards necessary to have a fair debate. Yet, none of the students involved in race-centered debate practice depend on signifyin’ or even black aesthetic performative practice alone from which to build their argumentative strategies. This argument is akin to the “race baiting” arguments those on the right deploy against any politic conscious of race.  It also reveals the value of double consciousness, and the unifying possibilities that can come from signifying in political discourse.  For example, Robert E. Terrill argues that Obama successfully used double consciousness rhetorically in his “A More Perfect Union” speech to respond to racist claims made by the political Right and to present a vision of unity across racial difference.[13] To imply that contemporary signifyin’ practices are only aesthetically valuable is disingenuous.  While performance is clearly important, an engagement with history, politics, and philosophy is also incredibly important. To ignore the collaboration or permutation, if you will, of performance, with history, theory and argument is yet another attempt to denigrate black thought as anti-intellectual.

Second, we find it interesting that the trickery associated with signifyin’ is considered a violation of the space of “authentic communication” when the debate community has its own history of a trickster figure in the figure of the gamester. Some of the most innovative coaches and debaters are praised for their ability to come up with tricky plan/counterplan texts or topicality violations or theory justifications. We hold these tricksters/gamesters in high esteem. This is yet another example of how practices marked by whiteness can be read as acceptable and those same practices when deployed by black bodies to justify black thought suddenly become unacceptable and are presented as barriers to the educational and communicative process. In other words, it is another example of how “black” debate does not count (or become intelligible) as “real” debate. When it is the “gamester” it is considered strategy, but when it is the “trickster” bodies become hailed as black and speech begins to signify inferiority. As H. Rap Brown noted, “America has negroes in the dilemma of thinking that everything black is bad. Black cows don’t give good milk. Black hens don’t lay eggs. Blackmail is bad. You wear black to funerals and white to weddings. Angel food cake is white, devils food cake is black. And all good guys wear white hats.” The West Georgia (Davis & Feliciano) example that Bankey cites is actually a better example of the traditional gamester figure in debate. Their play with the form and content of their advocacy statement is consistent with the strategy associated with constructing viable plan/counterplan texts. Bankey does not offer a direct explanation of why the West Georgia example qualifies as signifyin’.

How Do You Want Us Seasoned?: Bankey’s Misreading of Fanon

Bankey’s choice to highlight a very limited use of Fanon in the Reid-Brinkley dissertation ignores the broader methodology the work offers as a means of engaging black academic thought and performative argumentative strategies. The dissertation grapples with a number of theories and thinkers in an attempt to offer a potential roadmap for engaging in and theorizing about race-centered alternative debate styles. In other words, the dissertation rejects adherence to any one thinker or any one body of thought, and instead engages poststructural theorists, rhetorical theorists, black feminist theorists, race critical theorists, social movement theorists, and so on. The choice to engage a diversity of theorists is a tactical strategy of academic engagement. These theoretical traditions are often adversarial to one another, but the very nature of their disagreements allows these theories to highlight limitations and openings in theoretical and practical considerations of social liberation.  Bankey’s use of Fanon is self-serving and is part of a larger academic movement to liberalize black radical thinkers.  Bankey’s privileging of the Philcox translation without any engagement with the Markmann translation lacks historical and academic context.  The Philcox translation has become particularly popular in some academic circles because it transforms Fanon into a more palatable figure that the academy can easily digest—for example for the “cosmopolitanism” endorsed by Anthony Appiah. It is as if Bankey is suggesting that Fanon, the thinker that said “decolonization smells like cannon balls and gun powder,” would be pro-Framework or proper political discussion.[14]

Bankey is too quick to dismiss the Markmann translation and too quick to dismiss the bulk of the text Black Skin, White Masks in either translation.  The many misinterpretations that we find in Bankey’s analysis and application of Fanon are too numerous to mention here.  We can however point out a few:

1)   Fanon is neither just psychoanalytic nor phenomenological.  He is in excess of both.  Further, the “shortcomings” of the Markmann translation cannot be reduced to a privileging of psychoanalysis over Fanon’s interest in phenomenology.  This suggestion fails to take account of the text as a whole.  For example, Bankey places the bulk of this argument on the distinction between The Markmann and Philocox translations’ rendering of the chapter five title “The Fact of “Blackness” and “The Lived Experience of the Black” respectively.  Bankey argues—as his thesis title makes plain—that “The Fact of Blackness” does not exist.  The title, “The Fact of Blackness,” Bankey says, leaves out a concern for experience.  Bankey is not the first to make this claim.  But we think this misses the point.  Neither title evokes a psychoanalytic framing or a loss of phenomenological perspective as much as they both, in their own way, evoke the complicated and undecidable gap where performance and ontology meet (as Moten noted).  The Markmann translation evokes that “the fact of blackness”—that is, the fantasy of blackness that is written on to black bodies through the child’s declaration “Look! A Negro!,” Y a bon Bonania, “tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetishism, racial defects, slave-ships,”[15] or the countless litany of anti-black abuses—is a fact of Black life.  As Bankey himself says, it constitutes the “fore-structure” of existence for black bodies.  We (and Fanon and many, many other black thinkers) recognize that individual bodies do things, think things, and live unique lives.  We also recognize that those experiences are constituted in part by anti-black racism.  We take that fact seriously, rather than facilely.  We think Fanon does as well.  Note that much of the book is about Fanon attempting to tease out the generalizable pathologies of blackness.  He deals in categories, not because it is convenient, but because there are categories of experience that are instructive.  Bankey becomes anti-phenomenological when he overlooks this important point.  Phenomenologically speaking, “experience” is lived experience, a bodily experience—not the “mere experience” to which Bankey reduces the concept.  The imprisonment that Fanon recounts in this chapter is both an epistemological and an ontological violence that influences his performance.  Note, for example, the difficulty that he finds in a bodily movement as simple as smoking a cigarette.  This bodily alienation is a fact of the lived experience of “the Black.”  Also note that the Markmann translation is not “The Fact of the Black,” but “The Fact of Blackness.”  Here Markmann’s translation evokes a quality of the affective force of being effected into existence by “the white gaze.”  Similarly, the Philcox translation (“The Lived Experience of the Black”) also evokes this paradox of individual experience and categorical experience.  Here we do not find, “The Lived Experience of Blackness,” but the lived experience of a particular category of being.  Honoring Fanon’s subtleties requires that we attend to the situated-ness of experience in a full sense rather than simply overwriting it with a narcissistic and insipid appeal to individualism.

We can give many more examples from the text that would support our reading of Fanon as thoroughly concerned with race as a ground from which to produce a radically new (non-pathological or self-hating) politic rather than offering a program for some superhuman overcoming of racism: the articulation of racism as “sociogenic” rather than “ontogenic”; the reduction of black bodies to objecthood; the concept of an “epidermal racial schema,” that complicates the coherence of the “body schema” concept in phenomenology; his statement that “we shall resort to the obvious fact that wherever he goes, a black man remains a black man;” [16] or his statement that “the universal situation of the black man is ambiguous, but this is resolved in his physical existence.”[17]  This reading is not positivistic, nor is it “scientific” or “analytic” in the sense of Fanon’s indictment.  It certainly is not more positivistic than the concept of “authentic communication” devoid of “abstractions” on the body.

2)   The claims that a) Wilderson’s work is premised upon an interior essence of blackness; b)all Afro-Pessimists can be reduced to Wilderson; c)Reid-Brinkley’s work can be reduced to Wilderson; d)Moten’s work negates Wilderson or Sexton’s work; e)“DSRB Inspired” debate is premised upon an interior essence of blackness because of some false allegiance to Fanon, are all suspect.  It almost seems as if Bankey is pitting black people against each other to make the case that black people need to get over it, rather than to explore the ways in which they are in dialogue, sometimes across space and time.  For example, Sexton and Moten have had complex and enlightening engagements with each other about where “Afro-Pessimism” and “Black Optimism” agree and disagree (in the end, they conclude that they are arriving at the same place through different avenues).[18]  Hartman and Wilderson have discussed how their work engages and complicates one anothers and found the process productive.[19]  Black students are not all reading Fanon.  If anything, Bankey himself demonstrates a false allegiance to Fanon, not simply because of his weak reading, but because he fails to complicate the coherence of his Fanon narrative.  Fanon indeed was a product of his time; but that claim is not enough to warrant the cherry picking of the last chapter of the book at the expense of the entire text or his whole corpus.  It is unclear to us how it is that Wilderson must “demonstrate that Fanon’s lived experience is the universal experience of all black persons.”  Bankey seems to first support this claim by pointing out a seeming reversal of the famous Fanonian maxim (in the Markmann translation), “Ontology—once it is finally admitted as leaving existence by the wayside—does not permit us to understand the being of the black man.  For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man.”[20] The reversal is to be found in the re-rendering of this same passage in the Philcox translation: “Ontology does not allow us to understand the being of the black man, since it ignores the lived experience.”[21]  For Bankey, Wilderson’s reliance on the Markmann translation leads him to an essentialism since he ignores the lived experience of individual blacks.  We think this misunderstands the role lived experience plays in Fanon’s worldview (see point 1.). Bankey interprets “ignores the lived experience,” or “leaves experience by the wayside” as a call for a radical individualism: black people are so different that it makes no sense to speak of blackness in Bankey’s world.  This is incredibly reductionist.  First, becoming object is not simply an inability to be individual, though it is that too.  It refers also to the subject/object distinction and supports the claim that there is a (non-)ontology of blackness.  Moten, who writes of “the resistance of the object” in In The Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, would agree with this assessment.[22]  It is certainly necessary to recognize the individual experiences of individual black people, but it is not sufficient to overcome anti-black racism.  In fact, that very recognition of individual experience that ideal subjects enjoy is barred as a rule from blackness.  That is to say, the seeming “reversal” is no reversal at all.  Bankey has simply misread the text.

If we extend our selection of the passage from the Markmann translation we get:

“In the Weltanschauung of a colonized people there is an impurity, a flaw that outlaws any ontological explanation. Someone may object that this is the case with every individual, but such an objection merely conceals a basic problem.   Ontology—once it is finally admitted as leaving existence by the wayside—does not permit us to understand the being of the black man. For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man. Some critics will take it on themselves to remind us that this proposition has a converse. I say that this is false. The black man has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man.”[23]

The Philcox translation offers a fairly different wording; significantly what is removed from the Philcox translation entirely is the line: “Some critics will take it on themselves to remind us that this proposition has a converse.  I say this is false.”[24]  After this section of the passage, Markmann’s translation goes on to explain that the “metaphysics” of the Black (“customs and agencies”) were “wiped out” by civilization.[25]  In the Philcox translation, these same agental capacities and conditions are “abolished.”[26] Here is a moment in which a studied comparison between the two translations—and the Markmann translation in particular—can be enlightening.  Though the wordings are different (and one more strongly worded than the other), the relationship of whiteness to blackness offered in each is not mutually exclusive, but mutually revealing.  Bankey interprets this passage as indicating that a discussion of blackness as such reproduces racism by ignoring lived experience of individual blacks.  We think that is the opposite of what is expressed in either version of the text.  Rather, the texts explain that individual/subjective/agental experience of a given black person is exactly what cannot be accounted for because that being is overdetermined by blackness (at symbolic, material, and metaphysical levels).  Bankey misreads Philcox’s translation to suggest that we can “get at” “the lived experience of the black,” in a way that would be intelligible under the current (white) framing (gaze).  But the rest of the passage, not to mention the entire chapter and book as a whole, explain at length that lived experience is exactly what is unintelligible and distinct from subjective/white individual capacities for experience.  In light of this reading, Bankey’s implication that black people (in debate/in the world) stop interrogating whiteness and white bodies is especially nonsensical.  It assumes that racism is simply petty prejudice that can be bi-directionally imposed.  Fanon in this passage makes it clear that this proposition has no converse.

There are criticisms that one could make of Wilderson, and many have.  We here do not care to defend Wilderson’s use of psychoanalysis for example.  But the suggestion that he makes his burden a proof of universal black experience has failed to see the forest for the trees.  Black experience is universalized as black (“Look! A Negro!”).  Individual experience is constituted in this conundrum.  This condition—of blackness—is something we must work through, rather than wish away.

3)   Bankey’s second support of his claim about Wilderson, and black debate by extension, is that Markmann mistranslates “Y a bon Banania” as “Sho’ Good Eatin’.” For Bankey, this translation obscures the French colonial context of anti-blackness within which Fanon operates.  Attention to the specific context of a text is a fair concern (which we wish Bankey had more fully practiced).  Y a bon Banania for Bankey is a rhetorical trope that imposes “negative” essences upon individuals.  Since these stereotypes are socially constructed, “we cannot look to race to develop a universal interpretation of an individual’s existence.”[27]  Here it seems that Fanon’s statement, “The black man is not. No more than the white man” serves as an invitation for post-racism.[28]  Certainly, racial tropes are “socially constructed.”  They are also durable and easily transmittable in many permutations across space and time.   In this respect, we find that “Sho’ Good Eatin’” marks such a permutation that speaks to the endurance of racist tropes.  The Sambo, for example, has in its own right a rich legacy in the United States.  Y a bon Banania is not merely a blatantly racist symbolic sign.  Bankey seems to offer more to this account in his reading of affect, but it still falls flat.  Y a bon Banania is not just hurtful—it is an injunction for blacks to behave a certain kind of way for whites.  It calls for blacks to be the grinning Negro who soothes white anxieties about the phobogenic object which is the Black.  Bankey notes that this figure was premised upon a European desire for blacks to be happy with their oppression, but we would like to add that this trope also denies the intensity of racism itself.  That is to say, in response to racism, black people are called upon to smile, to not be discomforting to whites, to enjoy their suffering, to not be as Scott Harris wrote in his 2013 NDT ballot, “so busy socially constructing enemies that they lose sight of who their allies are as they throw them under the bus.”[29]  It flattens the lived experience of racism into a character that can be solved by a simple change in attitude.  The reality imposed by Y a bon Banania pairs well with this passage by Fanon:

There is a quest for the black man.  He is yearned for; white men can’t get along without him.  He is in demand, but they want him seasoned a certain way.  Unfortunately, the black man demolishes the system and violates the agreements.  Will the white man revolt?  No, he’ll come to an arrangement.[30]

Does Bankey want us seasoned a certain way?  Are we breaking too many agreements?  Should we simply smile?  For Bankey, perhaps Y a bon Banania is the “roadmap to freedom” or “authentic communication” that he denies to Wilderson.

4)   It should by now be clear that Fanon does not suggest that interracial discourse with whites is sufficient to overcome racism.  In fact, he makes it clear that many interracial interactions with whites are extremely unhealthy for black people.  For example, Fanon goes into great detail about the self-hate he finds in black women (and black men) who seek to garner favor from whites through cohabitation and other methods.  Appiah, in his introduction to the Philcox translation—which Bankey cites as his primary support for his privileged (mis)reading—points this out himself.  Bankey is so quick to argue that resistive practices in debate are anti-interactional that he fails to participate in the ongoing and relevant conversation that teases out what kinds of interactions are valuable.  As a result, disalientation for Bankey simply means soothing white anxieties.  For Fanon, the requirement that we soothe white anxieties is part and parcel of the pathology that infects black people and blocks blacks from a process of disalienation.

Fanon warns us: “In Europe, the black man, whether physically or symbolically, represents the dark side of the personality. As long as you haven’t understood this statement, discussing the ‘black problem’ will get you nowhere.”[31] We would like to sit with this warning.  Disalienation does not entail a forgetting of being Black.  It means not being imprisoned by one’s blackness.  It means making use of one’s blackness in an empowering way.  Not wishing it away, except insofar as we work against that which constitutes blackness: whiteness.  We end with the Fanon of Wretched of the Earth: “To break up the colonial world does not mean that after the frontiers have been abolished lines of communication will be set up between the two zones. The destruction of the colonial world is no more and no less than the abolition of one zone, its burial in the depths of the earth or its expulsion from the country.”[32]



[1] This racist trope which pathologizes the black family and kinship relations was brought into contemporary national discourse with the Moynihan Report, but Hortense Spillers points out that this trope has a long standing history in the US context.  The symbolic order, which the Moynihan Report reflects, is an “American Grammar” whose locus is the severed kinship relations of the African captive in the slave trade.  Within this context, we find it especially disconcerting that Bankey’s thesis is bookended with a pathology of the bad black debate family and the redeemed white family which adopts black children.  See Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” Diacritics 17.2 Summer 1987, 64-81.

[2] Brendon Bankey, The ‘Fact of Blackness’ Does Not Exist: An Evocative Criticism of Resistance Rhetoric in Academic Debate and It’s (Mis)Use of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, Salem: Wake Forest University, 2013, 126.

[3] Bankey, The ‘Fact of Blackness’ Does Not Exist, 151.

[4] Bankey, The ‘Fact of Blackness’ Does Not Exist, 22.

[5] Leda Cooks, “Pedagogy, Performance, and Positionality: Teaching about Whiteness in Interracial Communication ,” Communication Education, vol. 52 no. ¾, 2003, 10.

[6] Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States, 3rd ed.,  Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010.

[7] Eric King Watts, “The (Nearly) Apocalyptic Politics of ‘Postracial’ America: Or ‘This is Now the United States of Zombieland,’ in ‘What is this ‘Post-‘ in Postracial, Postfeminist… (Fill in the Blank)?,’” Journal of Communication Inquiry, vol. 34 no. 3, 2010, 216-7.

[8] For those interested in venturing into unexplored sections of the library, we would suggest the following works, which are instructive on this point.  See, George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006; Richard Dyer, White, New York: Routledge, 1997; Ruth Frankenberg, How the Irish Became White, New York: Routledge, 1995, Thomas Nakayama and R. L. Krizek, “Whiteness: A Strategic Rhetoric,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 81, 291-310; Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s, New York: Routledge, 1994; George Yancy, Look, A White! Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2012; and Sara Ahmed, “The Phenomenology of Whiteness,” Feminist Theory vol. 8 no. 2, 2007.

[9] We would encourage the author to engage the following texts: Lazarre, Jane, Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness: Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons, Durham: Duke University Press, 1996; and James McBride, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, 10th anniversary ed.,  New York: Riverhead Books, 2006.

[10] Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, 6.

[11] Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey, 6.

[12] Eric King Watts, “‘Voice’ and ‘voicelessness’ in rhetorical studies,” Quarterly Journal of Speech Vol. 87 no. 2 2001: 179-196.

[13] Robert E. Terrill, “Unity and Duality in Barack Obama’s ‘A More Perfect Union’,” Quarterly Journal of Speech Vol. 95 no. 4 Nov. 2009: 363-386.

[14] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. by Richard Philcox, New York: Grove Press, 2005, 3.

[15] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. by Charles Lam Markmann, New York: Grove Press, 1967, 112.

[16] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. by Richard Philcox, 1st ed., New York: Grove Press, 2008, 150.

[17] Philcox, Black Skin, White Masks, 150.

[18] “But Moten is just that much more interested in how black social life steals away or escapes from the law, how it frustrates the police power and, in so doing, calls that very policing in to being in the first place.  The policing of black freedom, then, is aimed less at its dreaded prospect, apocalyptic rhetoric notwithstanding, than at its irreducible precedence.  The logical and ontological priority of the unorthodox self-predicating activity of blackness, the ‘improvisational exteriority’ or ‘improvisational immanence’ that blackness is, renders the law dependent upon what it polices.  This is not the noble agency of resistance.  It is a reticence or reluctance that we might not know if it were not pushing back, so long as we know that this pushing back is really a pushing forward.  So you see, in this perverse sense, black social death is black social life.  The object of black studies is the aim of black studies.  The most radical negation of the antiblack world is the most radical affirmation of a blackened world.  Afro-pessimism is ‘not but nothing other than’ black optimism.” Quote from Jared Sexton, “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism,” InTensions Issue 5 Fall/Winter 2011, 37.

[19] See Saidiya V. Hartman and Frank B. Wilderson, “The Position of the Unthought,” Qui Parle, Vol. 13 no. 2 Spring/Summer 2003, pp. 183-201

[20] Markmann, Black Skin, White Masks, 110

[21] Philcox, Black Skin, White Masks, 90.

[22] See Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, Minneapolis; London: U Minnesota Press, 2003.

[23] Markmann, Black Skin, White Masks, 109-110.

[24] Philcox, Black Skin, White Masks, 90.

[25] Markmann, Black Skin, White Masks, 109-110.

[26] Philcox, Black Skin, White Masks, 90.

[27] Bankey, The ‘Fact of Blackness’ Does Not Exist, 76.

[28] Philcox, Black Skin, White Masks, 206.

[29] Scott Harris, 2013 NDT ballot, pg. 10

[30] Philcox, Black Skin, White Masks, 153.

[31] Philcox, Black Skin, White Masks, 166.

[32] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington, New York: Grove Press, 1963, 41.

An Open Letter to Sarah Spring


Amber Kelsie

Rashad Evans

Jillian Marty

Shanara Reid-Brinkley


We are not doing anything in secret. No secret “doomsday” strategy was hatched on the Resistance Facebook page in some secret backroom discussion. The discussion happened on the NDT CEDA Traditions page where Rashad Evans (who is not a current member of the Resistance Facebook group nor a member of the CEDA forums) publicly announced his decision and described the reasons for the choice. In addition, Rashad changed his judging philosophy to reflect his decision. In all caps at the bottom of his philosophy he writes: “I will be operating on a 29.5-30.0 scale in all open debates that I judge for the indefinite future.” A few others have experimented with the strategy in a few debates at Wake before finally deciding to add the above statement to their judging philosophies. We offer the following explanation in the spirit of openness called for by Sarah Spring in her CEDA Forums post. However, it is interesting that our judging paradigms become relevant at this moment.  They have not seemed to matter previously. 

            Lack of community discussion is neither random nor power-neutral. We have tried to have discussions.  These discussions have been regularly derailed—in “wrong forum” arguments, in the demand for “evidence,” in the unfair burdens placed on the aggrieved as a pre-requisite for engagement.  Read the last ten years of these discussions on edebate archives: Ede Warner on edebate and move forward to Rashad Evans diversity discussion from 2010 to Deven Cooper to Amber Kelsie’s discussion on CEDA Forums and the NDT CEDA Traditions page. We have been talking for over a decade, we have been reaching out for years, we have been listening to the liberal, moderate refrain of “we agree with your goals but not with your method.” We will no longer wait for the community to respond, to relinquish privilege, to engage in authentic discussion, since largely the community seems incapable of producing a consensus for responding to what “we all agree” is blatant structural inequity. It seems that meta-debates/discussions about debate are generally met with denial, hostility and—more often—silence.  This silence is in fact a focused silence.  It is not people in the Resistance Facebook group that comprise these silent figures—it is (as has been described) “the old boys club.”  We have been quite vocal—and we believe that it is this very vocalness (and the development of a diversity of tactics in response to status quo stalling tactics) that has provoked response when response was given.  Sarah Spring’s cedadebate post is a case in point. 

The decision to change our speaker point scale is not in order to produce a “judging doomsday apparatus” (this kind of apocalyptic rhetoric might more aptly be applied to the current racist/sexist/classist state of affairs in this community), though we must admit that we are flattered that our efforts have affected the community enough to result in such a hyberbolic labeling.  It indicates that civil disobedience is still an effective tactic; the debate community should take it as an indication that our calls for change are serious.  We will continue to innovate and collaborate on tactics of resistance. This “crisis” in debate has no end in sight. The rationale for changing the point scale was not simply to “reward” people for preferring the unpreferred critic.  We recognize that MPJ produces effects, and we hoped that changing our point scale was a small but significant tactic that was available to the disenfranchised in this community.  MPJ:

A)   Limits judging opportunities for blacks, browns, and womyn

B)   Limits opportunities for debaters who are (and are not) black, brown, and womyn to be judged by such critics.

The effect is: 

A)   That the evaluations of these categorically marginalized critics are deemed not valuable or costly.

B)   That the debate efforts of categorically marginalized debaters are deemed not valuable.

We believe that debaters deserve to have black, brown, and womyn critics (in general debaters should be judged by multiply situated critics across varying social locations). We think the community deserves to know what we have to say.  Therefore, it seemed appropriate in this context to play the discriminative logics at work against themselves by demonstrating just what “value” or “cost” our evaluations could have.  We worked with the limited options available to us. It seems this system works as long as it is comfortable for the majority or the major powerbrokers.  The community pays lip service to, or simply ignores, the concerns of those for whom this system is not working.  Now it is everyone’s concern.

To be clear: we did not alter our point scale because we believe we are not preferred for unjust reasons (we know we are not preferred for unjust reasons), but because the system produces the effect of magnifying and enforcing on a social scale the delegitimation of blacks, browns, and womyn.  We think this is a question of ethics and a question of pedagogy; it is something that stunts the growth of all members of this community regardless of identity or social positioning.

Stuart Hall said “crisis occur when the social formation can no longer be reproduced on the basis of the pre-existing system of social relation.”  This community is in crisis because the reality of debate has changed.  The backlash we have faced in response to this crisis (“breaking up with the K,” unethical engagements with arguments, resentment, refusing to listen to certain arguments, and even refusing to listen to particular teams, etc.) is reactionary conservativism.  Blacks, browns, and womyn face micro-aggressions in this activity constantly.  Sometimes it is outright hostility. We are always already uncomfortable in this space that many so easily call a community. We are always already aware that this community would prefer an empty celebration of diversity without the critical re-interrogation of the activity that our very presence demands.

In these kinds of hostile environments, self-segregation is a self-protective measure.  We produce safe-spaces where we may gather, discuss, regroup, lift spirits and figure out how to resist while maintaining sanity.  We see nothing wrong with this. In fact, any review of the history of social movements and activism would demonstrate the necessity of building spaces for the disenfranchised to speak and plan resistance to a powerful majority. The Resistance Facebook group is such a forum. To even describe the gathering of people in the group as a clique demonstrates the very invisibility and lack of concern that people of color face in this community. Our experiences of discomfort and horror stories of blatant hostility are invisible in this framing. If our experiences were real to the majority, rather than just what some students are using to win debate rounds, then the necessity for the Resistance Facebook group would be clear. The group is a forum for ally building.  Often it is a rare place where the K v K or Performance v Performance debate can be considered in its practical and ethical implications.  It is precisely the kind of place for open discussion that Sarah Spring calls for—the kind of place where discussion that needs to take place often does.  But those discussions also do not stop there.  Discussions that begin in the group are often taken to wider groups within the debate community to broaden the discussion and yet they are often derailed and then we must retreat and regroup, review our strategies, discuss potential options, and seek advice. Note that the example of the “active and lively debate” about the hotel architecture at the Clay mentioned in Sarah’s post, was hashed out for months on the resistance page before many of us began to speak publicly about the issue. It was through that vibrant debate in the Resistance Facebook group that produced the very conditions for the open discussion you mention. The Resistance Facebook page is a response to the increasing ghettoization of some bodies and some discursive forms in debate—not the other way around.  The fact that the existence of the group was what was critiqued rather than the necessity of the group is deeply troubling to us. 

It is unclear what the bright line is between “group discussions or backchannels or facebook groups” and a discussion group (articulated as “closed backroom discussion” – which is by the way, homophobic) which produces disenfranchized discussion  As far as we can tell, Sarah Spring is upset that she has not been able to see what mischief the slaves are hatching “in the slave quarters on the plantation.”  The Resistance Facebook group has a wide range of members.  It includes current debaters, former debaters, coaches, judges, high school students, academics (with no relationship to debate), radical community activists. All members of the group are granted administrative access once they are admitted, so people request admission through the relationships they have cultivated with already existing members.  If someone has not been invited to the group, it is because they lack authentic relationships with any of the members—perhaps the perceived secrecy of the group could be better understood as a symptom of the lack of social relations you have with a wide group of differently situated people.  The argument here is likened to the question, “why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?”—an argument meant to imply that it is the burden of the black students to make friends with the whites, and that the whites cannot be faulted for choosing to maintain distance.  There are a number of issues that marginalized members of the community simply do not know about.  For example, many of us did not discover the existence of Sarah’s post until the last round of the evening, although we have since learned that people have been talking about it (not to us) throughout the day.  If you are excluding yourself from us—via MPJ, on the quad, in the hallway, at the hotel—then you should hold yourself accountable, not us.  We are not secret.  We are not hiding.  We are just invisible to you.

P.S. It is no longer called the Dixie Classic. 

This offers an excellent introduction to the high school topic.

More on the high school topic to follow, an interesting choice given the space exploration topic because exploring and developing could be seen as increasing investment in transportation infrastructure, particularly with a broad interpretation of “in the United States” as “initiated in the U.S.”

Here is the wording and the brief overview provided by the NFL:

Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its transportation infrastructure investment in the United States
Over the last ten years, there have been a series of significant transportation infrastructure failures indicating the nation’s once world-class infrastructure is falling apart and other nation’s are pulling ahead of the United States. Transportation infrastructure policy featured prominently in President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address and is likely to be a main component of his re-election campaign. This topic offers debaters a rare opportunity to consider how…

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Interview with Dr. Shanara Reid-Brinkley conducted by Scott Odekirk on 2/13/2012 at the University of Texas debate tournament. Shanara is the first black woman director of debate in the country, a professor of communications at Pitt, and a general goddess of knowledge.

Minor edits were done to this article on 4/8/2012 and can be noted by brackets []

Odekirk: ok, really 4 general questions… the first one is just, why do you think the same debaters win all the time?

Dr. Reid-Brinkley: I think there are a number of reasons, there are some structural reasons of course – resources are critically important in our community, number of coaches, how much time you have to devote to debate outside of the tournament space I think is a really important one, so it makes me sort of think about Iggy and Ben, when they are not at a debate tournament, life…

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Some Thoughts on the Role of Personal Experience and Debate

Some thoughts on the role of personal experience and debate…

 – THE judy butler

Coach, University of West Georgia

The question is not do we debate from our personal experiences (I have never heard a team say we personally experience oppression and you don’t so we win) but whose personal experiences do the structure of topics reflect – I would humbly suggest that they presuppose a relation to the state as a neutral, natural and normal tool of policy, that you can program in a goal and out comes an OUTCOME – not an historically AND CURRENTLY hostile institution that was anything but neutral in its subjugation of you and those who look like you – 18 to 24 year old black males know they disproportionably populate the jails as a class – their FRIENDS go to jail, it is not a statistic that they just read about – and the concomminent day to day reality of the policing of young black men that requires a great deal of real, in person contact between the security organs of the state and those young men – and not much of it is positive or feels like protection – the statistics are glaringly apparent.

Pretending debate or any policy making deliberation can be somehow separated in anything but a very surface and artificial way from ones personal experience is counterintuitive – you can acknowledge it or not – but I defy you to teach novice debaters how to debate without appealing and referring to their personal experiences

While functioning as an assistant debate coach at Emory, I came into my (and THE) first Emory sponsored urban debate lab with very little sense of what the relevant differences would be between the 12-year-old Westminister students who had historically populated my novice labs and novices from inner city and suburban Atlanta schools with zero debate background, My experience had been with young, usually very privileged prep school kids as high school novice labs and they had been educated from that perspective. My pitch about why debate was cool contained a list of presidents and powerful social and political actors who had debated and it was very successful – as a rule. I suspect that is because these kids found it credible to believe that they were destined for power– so seeing the world, as they did, from the perspective that you could imagine growing up to embody a person positioned to be the impetus for a huge change in social conditions through existing power institutions because you or at least people like you will be inheriting the reins of power, They believed that role playing the government was really a practice arena for their futures ––

My urban debate novice lab did not envision public service in the sense of running for offices that house power as their future, nor their past or present, for that matter – their own historical heroes (and their parents and role models) were activists, not politicians – the government had been an enemy, then reluctant defender of civil rights AT BEST. – There was a stark contrast between the cards we showed them about whether government actions can solve social conditions and their lived experiences with state institutions and state interventions into their personal experiences. Their lived experiences are in sharp relief when contrasted with these neutral policy assessments; these institutions are not theoretical to them, Their experiences are of being at the receiving end of powers use, not in its control room, which means its visibility and function in their everyday lives is much more prevalent and concrete than your average prep school kids – immediately they vociferously protested my strategy for the summers entertainment – why would we do that – work really hard for two weeks, in a LIBRARY, and READ COURT OPINIONS- its summer and we are kids – why will this be anything but a bullshit fantasy pretending to be the power-wielders when we are merely its objects – and none of what you (Judy) are talking about (the literature, that is) speaks from our perspective as the resisters against those institutions that are designed to mask or further our literal subjugation like Supreme court opinions – old white man promises that usually pan out to an excuse to justify more subjugation – – and what possible reason can you give us for going along with this –

My answer back in the moment was so that you don’t become the Mariel Cubans that this court screwed so badly – so your next written correspondence isn’t from jail – not because you are a criminal, but because the MANs power is real: it has the motive (subjugation and centralization of order and control) and the means (ability and institutional power in the form of courts, cops, agencies, teachers, guards, judges, immigration officials) to label you as such IS real, and we gotta be able to see it coming (understand the systemic physical and rhetorical practices that manifest themselves in our confinement) so that we can avoid their jabs and look for openings to jab back – if you don’t know what they are up to, they are harder to beat – and they are ahead in the struggle – whose the frickin underdog here – so if your personal experiences have positioned you such that the organs of the state feel aimed at you rather than aimed against your enemies for you (and anyone in the New Orleans Stadium during Katrina got to figure that out in a very personal manner), the topics structural and continual practice of empowering the state in the name of its potential to achieve some social good might strike one as counterintuitive and a total waste of time at best, and a requirement for you to advocate and participate in the further masking of the reality of state power in your own personal experiences at worst – as Damiyr Davis often said, George Washington was my Hitler, and the idea that George would have been totally comfortable owning a person like Damiyr as an object –I find that a fair reason for suspicion of the state and its historically grounded heroism persona as a tool for social change.

So, like I said: Pretending debate or any policy making deliberation can be somehow separated in anything but a superficial and artificial way from ones personal experience is counterintuitive – you can acknowledge it or not – but I defy you to teach novice debaters how to debate without appealing and referring to their personal experiences – and if you are ever confronted, as I was with a stark contrast between your personal experiences and theirs, it is a sobering and educative moment – and if you truly manage to get them to DIVORCE themselves from their personal (feelings and experiences that formed their views) selves while they are contemplating what whole social policies should be, it sounds pretty scary and eliminates our gut check on the stories we hear that describe reality from real people – and that sounds like a recipe for is one of the ways in which our ideas about people get turned into neat, top down dictated formulas about actions taken upon objects; and those who have exercised agency as subjects through the institutions of power feel like they accomplished some end, when in fact their unacknowledged empowerment of the state to perform some good end has a rachet-like effect on the systems power vis-a-vis those it controls and shapes (the usual suspects), giving the illusion of progress toward some linear social good, when in fact there is a net loss in power relations between the state and SOME (hence, potentially all) people of a given, identified group. thanks for reading.

Personalized Debate and the Difficulty of Building Coalitions

Personalized Debate and the Difficulty of Building Coalitions

By Dr. Shanara R. Reid-Brinkley

Question for DSRB: Here is the gist of the question – I’m a gay, white, economically privileged male but don’t want to have to speak about being gay to win a ballot in a debate round that requires me to speak about my personal experience. How can gay people have an honest engagement around personal experience without having to out themselves for the sake of the ballot?

This is a great question and I am honored that you came out to me to ask it. I’m a lesbian and so considering the intersections between race, gender, class and sexuality have been critical to my interpretation of non-traditional debate and exclusion within the community. I may push a few buttons in this conversation. But, I do so to get you to think about your own social positioning, not to attack, demean or debate you about your concerns. I think you have every right to be concerned about coming out in the debate space and the potential ramifications associated with such a choice. This does not mean I think you should stay closeted, but I don’t think you should ever be forced to announce yourself before you are ready. You might be ready to disclose your status to people in the community that you trust but may not be ready to discuss it on the public competitive stage of the debate round. That’s ok! Only you can determine when you feel strong enough to become a public advocate around gay issues. So. I hope the thoughts I offer here will help you find a way of engaging that makes you feel empowered and safe.

First, the assumption that you are “rich, white, and heterosexual” may be erroneous in fact, but correct in the context of representation. In other words, what they are really attempting to discuss is how your body signifies in the American social imagination. In other words, despite the fact that you experience ostracism or discrimination because you are gay, if people you encounter don’t read you as gay, then you have the privilege of passing. Which means you are only dis-priveleged if people know your sexuality status. This does not mean that you don’t face dis-privelege, just that your body may read as straight, male, and economically privileged which means that you receive those privileges interacting in society on a day to day basis. Now, here’s the contrast. For many, their subjugated status is marked BY their bodies. One cannot remove blackness or gender from their bodies if their bodies are marked as such.[1] So, if I enter a room of majority, white and male bodies, the difference that my body makes is an announcement to that social body, before I have ever spoken a word. The fact that you have the choice to announce yourself (not necessarily the choice to be gay) positions you differently in the power relations of the body and the signification of difference attached to it. Notice I say that you are differently positioned, not that any other oppression is more important or significant than yours. Instead, my point is that you want the fact that you experience subjugation to be a free pass from not being accused of being part of an oppressive class. You must consider your social location and its attendant privileges. Simultaneously, your experience with subjugation should be a tool to build coalitions. But, you must navigate both positionalities. Having and not having privilege. Your body, your social location signifies privilege whether you want it to or not, and that has real material privileges that you must be able to recognize and respond to if you want to help reshape the world. Don’t run from your privilege, use it! That’s what you were doing when you decided to run race centric affirmatives. But, just because you are open-minded enough to discuss race, does not mean that you don’t still have a lot to learn about how power and privilege function.

You make a few assumptions about the use of personal experience in debate that I want to question. Most of the students who use personal experience in debate are not doing so to just win the round. The students of color (and their allies) that make race centric arguments are not just talking about their personal experience to win a ballot. There are way more easy ways to win a ballot than to make yourself vulnerable by discussing your personal experience. Their use of personal experience is a choice to share, to offer those who have never encountered the issues they face an opportunity to put names to the faces of real people facing real problems. Debate encourages us to remain disconnected from the subject matter and makes it easier to ignore the cries of the disenfranchised. That you assume they are asking you to engage personally just to win the debate is incorrect. Instead, they are asking you to open yourself up to honest engagement which requires that you make yourself vulnerable too. It is out of that space of vulnerability that real empathy across difference can be built. This is not about individual debate rounds, its about the very nature of the debate community. When they ask you to invest yourself personally, they are asking you to join hands and put your body on the line, just like they do every time they step foot in the hostile environment of national debate tournaments.

So, how can gay people respond without having to out themselves? You don’t have to out your sexual orientation to speak from your social location. Be able to not only recognize your privilege, but how it functions to disenfranchise others, and begin building a means to counter that privilege that will give you access to coalition building with the other students. The reason you feel “accused” in these debates is because you don’t like being identified with the oppressors and so your “gayness” offers a means for you to avoid that status. But remember, you can be both privileged and subordinated simultaneously which is why we need very nuanced analysis of the interactions of power relations. If you engage from this position of both/and, it will open up many possibilities for engaging these issues that will make you feel like you are part of the solution to the problem of exclusion in debate. Your question demonstrates that you are grappling with these issues, and right now that is good enough. Continue the process that you have clearly already started. And, thank you for engaging rather than turning your back on these important conversations. I hope what I have said here gives you some food for thought. And, I hope that if you find any part of my comments frustrating, that you will embrace that feeling, because that is the sweet spot, the area of intrapersonal reflection where the important work on the self is done. Keep working.

[1] Although, racial passing for those who are light enough does happen, more so in the past than now. And, people may style their bodies to perform different genders. Just wanted to offer those two qualifications.

Privilege, Personal Experience and the Research Burden: Avoiding the Race Debate

Privilege, Personal Experience and the Research Burden: Avoiding the Race Debate

By: Dr. Shanara R. Reid-Brinkley

Assistant Professor and Director of Debate

Department of Communication

University of Pittsburgh


In the aftermath of the Georgetown v. Loyola NDT semi-finals debate, featuring my interview, I have received numerous emails and facebook messages from coaches around the country. All of the emails were quite receptive of the thoughts I offered in the interview and so many of the questions are about the meaning of alternative debate practice to the community and to the production of knowledge within debate and argumentation. I have attempted to respond to those emails individually, but one email in particular struck me as asking a number of questions that many coaches and students may be asking. So, I’m responding to the email publicly. The author of the email I am responding to has indicated that he does not wish to be anonymous in this conversation. So, I extend my thanks to Michael Antonucci for sending thoughtful questions and being willing to engage in a productive conversation.

Question/Barrier One: Personal experience in debate discourages engagement. “Their perception is that even if they know the authors inside and out, they can’t use certain authors to argue from their own experience. If a standard for winning is advancing a compelling narrative that questions privilege, in some way, they can’t win.” These students feel “They’re dealt out of the game from the outset.”

1)    Their perception is incorrect. There are many authors in the area of race and ethnic studies that are members of dominant identity categories. Many of them offer an excellent engagement with the issue of privilege, public representation and the power to speak. But, I think your question speaks to a deeper issue. They’re reaction is exactly what the movement teams are citing as the problem. White privilege allows those privileged by whiteness to not have to engage the issue of race directly. As the white, male heterosexual body stands as the definitive norm that which is the universal space of subjectivity offers them the choice to turn their backs on the conversation. One can recognize their privilege, but refuse to confront it. That refusal to do so is privilege itself. For those who are required to confront the socio-political significance of their race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, sexuality, disability, et al., on a daily basis there is very little space for refusal to acknowledge what is a material condition that signifies in American public discourse. My point is not that the subjugated will respond the same way to disenfranchisement, but that however they respond, they cannot refuse to respond. For black and brown bodies, the difference from whiteness is sadly a necessity of the very process of becoming self in the American context. And, unless they are willing to confront and respond to their social positioning in the networks of power, they won’t even be able to see the amazing arguments they could use which would be way more strategic than their tired old framework and topicality blocks. And so yes, they will run scared from this argument, avoid directly engaging it, but what they will find is that the judging pool is becoming less sympathetic to framework arguments. They will increasingly lose these debates. Having said that, the kind of growth privileged debaters must engage in to effectively respond to these arguments is not impossible to develop, but it is a very difficult process. Reading authors that you are simply looking for cards to cut from is not the best use of time. Your students will need to read more broadly, watch some good civil rights movies and documentaries, but more importantly they must have someone that they can trust to speak honestly and bluntly with them about race and privilege. I’ve been teaching courses about race for the past ten years at majority white colleges and have done so for years at debate institutes around the country. So let me be clear, that this process is a difficult undertaking that requires a committed teacher who cares for the student’s growth and welfare. Someone who can be responsive to both the highs and lows of this process. While my own representation in the debate community is one of a person who is volatile in race conversations, such an image is not at all accurate. Instead, I see students in my classrooms and labs as not students, but MY STUDENTS and that comes with a great deal of responsibility as I guide them through very difficult conversations about difference across race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, etc. My classes are always interracial and I have navigated the varying perspectives, social locations, and experiences in what many professors see as situations fraught with potential minefields. But, honesty (some would say bluntness in my case) paired with the love, care and concern of an educator go a long way toward ushering your students through the journey.

2)    More broadly, I think we as debate educators have a responsibility to teach our students to engage these issues. Yes, yes, I know not every college policy debater becomes a policymaker, but the students that we produce often find themselves in significant positions of power. When your students must advocate to a diverse audience or produce the research or speech text for someone who will, will their strategy be to ignore issues of difference when they present themselves? Or will they respond and wonder why their normal talking points seem to fall flat in front of minority audiences? Current debate practices teaches debaters to only speak to those in power, those privileged by subject positions that ensure their issues and concerns are represented in the space of public deliberation. And, before anyone jumps on me, I do think that discussing engagement with the state is important (its not the only important focal point for debate, but it is a useful part of our conversations). However, knowing how to speak to the government or the political elites is not the only audience that policymakers must speak to. Public support is a critical part of our public policy analysis. Americans are a diverse audience, what you say to Northern Protestants may be very different from what you say to Southern Baptists, for example. Identity, character, and public perception of candidates and officials are a critical part of the process of making argument in our current deliberative sphere. Debate has excised this critical part of rhetorical practice in an attempt to create a neutral, experimental deliberative space. But, some people’s social location offers a visual difference that belies the assumption of the debate space as identity neutral. We can not escape our identities or social location. They critically impact our perspective of engaging in the production of knowledge. What topics we choose, how we choose to debate them, and how we choose to judge them are necessarily tied to our personal experiences, perspectives, and our position within the social structure. Then why are we pretending that there is some neutral or objective space from which we engage in academic deliberation and public speaking? In the “real world” students like yours will be unprepared to speak to diverse audiences, they will make communicative mistakes that can have dire implications for their goals. This isn’t just about getting privileged students to care about the disenfranchised as much as it is a stance that requires them to engage people who lack their privilege in an honest and direct fashion. A manner that demonstrates that even if they don’t know everything, they are trying and have done some prior work to gain understanding. The worst is for some white person to approach people of color expecting for them to teach them everything about racism in American and how they can fix it. That gets you nowhere, you are just looking for an easy answer and there is no easy answer. So your unwillingness to struggle and educate yourself about these issues before asking for help is just another instantiation of your privilege. But, the subjugated are often willing to reach halfway if you (the privileged person) are willing to reach out for honest and open conversation. We can often since your sincerity. And before you say that I don’t get to determine if you are sincere, you’re right. I can’t determine if you are sincere in your own soul, but I can trust my instincts that say you are not ready to engage honestly and sincerely and choose to bypass that conversation. You can’t fight the good fight all the time, that only results in revolutionary suicide as you give so much of yourself that you begin to lose yourself. Interracial dialogue is hard, and its really hard when you are being verbally attacked rather than rhetorically embraced. Confronting privilege is hard, but it is a choice. Whatever that choice, you should be able to defend it in the 2NR/2AR. This movement/these alternative styles of debate centered around difference aren’t going anywhere, in fact they have proliferated well beyond the Louisville Project. So, people can stick their heads in the mud if they want to, but the movement will continue to see you in the outrounds at national high school and college tournaments.

More to come in this series. So, stay tuned.


Topical starting points


Fairness, Predictability and Knowledge-Making Practices

Fairness, Predictability and Knowledge-Making Practices

Transcription of Dr. Shanara Reid-Brinkley lecturing WGA DF in November 2011, Carrollton, GA

Discussion includes talk about WGA Black Athena (Egypt) affirmative on the 2011-2012 democracy assistance topic.

I think one of the smartest arguments I saw Louisville (around 2008) make, which is really reformist in their intent but could be potentially revolutionary, was their argument that the debate community is in violation of the racial social contract for engagement. Louisville then argued that this justified their not being topical on the Aff so all of the oppositions fairness and predictability claims must be read against this original violation of the contract. Their argument wasn’t that we should just get rid of fairness or predictability claims. Once we get to a point where the kind of changes that we are identifying, like in knowledge making practices etc., then fairness and predictability claims may be more useful in that context. But if predictability claims are designed to maintain a certain manner of knowledge production or certain systems of power, then they are in violation of this idea of a social contract, they feed into the argument about the ontological status of the black in the context of anti-blackness. It demonstrates or operationalizes that the black has no place in civil society. When the black intends to speak from that position or to simply highlight that position in civil society, then how does society respond, it crowds it out, it says no. It says, you are out of place or out of order, you represent chaos. And what does the system do when it is confronted by chaos? It resolves the chaos to bring it back into order. The current ordering demands that society maintain the positionality of the black as the ontological other, while simultaneously structurally adjusting the black into civil society. Arguments like you can read a topical version of your affirmative seems like an example of the kind of structural adjustment Wilderson speaks to.

We are not just critiquing topic selection or topic development, we are also critiquing knowledge production in areas that we define in terms of research. So why isn’t your affirmative about Egypt and the concept of the development of democracy in the context of anti-blackness a predictable affirmative in the research literature. The reason it’s not predictable is because it’s not in the confines of the space we have identified as available for research. Your whole argument is an argument against the normative manner in which we draw the circle within the research literature. Your argument isn’t that there shouldn’t be a circle, that the topic can’t function as a circle. Sure we could attempt to affect the knowledge making practices by changing the topic or the process of selection for topics, but I fear that that may just be a surface level reformist change that won’t result in a change in the practices of knowledge that we participate in within the debate space. In other words, even if we changed topics to go beyond the traditional wording of contemporary topics, that may not result in changes in what the community conceptualizes as potential research areas within these new topic areas. If we really got into diversifying what we think of as areas of research, it’s not like we wouldn’t define some boundary with the topic, but what fits in the area of the topic would necessarily expand. To some extent that’s not that problematic, look how many affirmative’s are on this topic, we have all of these countries. You can do democracy assistance in any way, but we have decided that the only way that you can do democracy assistance is based on the way that the USFG has budgeted it. Because we have decided that that should be the line of predictability. We could have decided that the line of predictability lay elsewhere. In other words, the lines we draw are arbitrary, but not neutral. How about we just draw the line at what academic research has decided is the available space of conversation surrounding democracy assistance. Or how about we define it in the context of not just academic research but also what revolutionary activists, who are producing grassroots scholarship may have to add to the discussion. This style is not designed to allow people to say anything that they please in a debate round. At the end of criticism of normative debate practice, the project isn’t that we should be doing the same thing for the next 40 years of debate competition, instead this is a temporary intercession or intervention into the debate space. That temporary intervention is designed to create some potential changes in how we engage in topic selection, how we engage in research, who we believe are potential avenues for expert evidence, all of those things could potentially change. So that we could then understand what would be predictable in that frame because that would become the research space. The students in the movement are asking fundamental questions about what democracy is and what it means to participate in it. That they do so by questioning the practices of democracy within the United States in order to begin making an argument about how the United States can begin to help and support democratic revolutions abroad is an attempt to highlight the problematic practices of democracy and efforts to demonstrate its shortcomings. Otherwise we end up exporting our own democracy, which we admit is deeply flawed, to other nations absent a discourse of critically interrogating democracy, as not just a system of government, but a practice of everyday life. Debate changes, it grows, so there’s no reason why the debate community can’t come up with a means of stabilizing forms of predictability and provide fairness in terms of debatable ground in the context of this expansion or complication of what we consider as the available area of research.