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.


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