Moment of Clarity: High School Debate in Review

This year, I spent an immense amount of time contemplating whether or not I should quit debate. It’s a thought that crossed my mind many times. What could I be doing right now if I wasn’t cuttings cards, making blocks, or attending tournaments? More importantly, who would I be without debate?

I can’t be quite sure who I’d be without it but I know that my time in debate has been ridiculously difficult and painful, as well as incredibly meaningful and eye-opening. Either way, debate was supposed to be game or an extracurricular activity, but it ended influencing my life in so many aspects, for good or for bad.

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“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, debate is a game of survival of the fittest: those who can’t debate quit, those who get mentally fucked quit, and the thing is, can we really fix it? The game is rigged. It always will be.”

– Kristina Curtiss

My time in debate was tainted from the very beginning. I started policy December of my freshman year. My friend did it, a bunch of other people I knew did it; I wanted to be a lawyer, so why not? Our school didn’t have a coach (or a cogent program really), so I went to private classes at the Chinese Cultural Center with the rest of the freshmen debaters. I remember my first class: it was in a cold room with a group of seven or so boys I kind of knew from school. They all spoke quickly in unfamiliar jargon, and none of them acknowledged my presence unless it was to make a condescending comment. The coach was friendly but didn’t explain much of what was going on, instead, he told me to observe a practice debate. At the end of the two-hour class, he explained to me what the Fem IR Kritik was and asked if it and feminism in general interested me. I said yes and the rest of the room snickered. (Apparently, gender equality wasn’t – probably still isn’t – a strategic or serious concept.) From December to May that year, I attended four tournaments with that team and coach, yet it wasn’t until camp that summer that I had a concrete understanding of what a link or any of the basic components of debate were. In classes back home, the hostile environment made me scared to ask questions. I didn’t want everyone else to see me as stupid; I wanted to be taken seriously.

Fast forward three and a half years later and I can’t say the environment in debate has gotten much better for me. For a supposedly progressive community, we’re absolutely horrendous when it comes to many important issues, including but not limited to sexual harassment and institutionalized oppression and/or discrimination. In just the past year, I’ve dealt with both firsthand: sexual harassment is far too prevalent, and as a non-black woman of color who doesn’t read traditional arguments, I am not taken seriously by either side of the ideological spectrum (in fact, the only time I think I’ve been taken seriously in debate was this past weekend when I was judging LD debaters who obviously wanted my ballot); I’ve been told to leave debate because I don’t conventionally affirm the resolution but I’ve also been told that my performance is illegitimate and the violence I discuss is illusory because it is not stereotypically black enough. In manners much closer – literally – to home, I’ve dealt with a plethora of internal team problems in the past year, which resulted in partner switches, becoming double 2s, and two bid rounds I should have, but was unfortunately not given the opportunity to, debate in.

In other words, my experience in debate has been neither ideal nor pleasant. If I was being completely honest about what it means to be a queer woman of color from a small school who chooses to talk about systems of oppression, the following is a pretty good summary:

You’ll be told to leave the community, to read something different. You’ll be screwed over no matter how hard you work, especially when you work your hardest; and when you accomplish something you never thought you would have, you’ll want to feel proud of yourself, but you’ll realize that to most of the community, you are no one. And at the same time, you’ll look at others who had much less than you and realize that they still did more than you could ever do – so who are you to complain, what about you wasn’t good enough, what did you do wrong? More importantly, how can you tell the people succeeding you what it’s really like? How do you tell novices that they’ll feel excluded, worthless, at the very least, immensely frustrated? How do you tell them that they’ll probably lose at least one round they should’ve won per tournament because some oblivious judge doesn’t think the words coming out of their mouth are true or worthy of being discussed in debate? Yet, they’ll keep debating anyway – you did – because that’s what feels/felt right – even though you are insignificant because you don’t have bids, because no one knows who your coach is or where your school is or who you are; and if they do it’s because you’re someone’s ex-partner or someone’s girlfriend or someone’s previous hookup. You’ll win a bunch of rounds, get a bunch of awards, and crush a bunch of assholes but at the end of the day, you are still just no one or the person he’s supposedly fucking.

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“But debate gives me a place where I can talk about stuff that I wanna talk about and debate is a place where we can find people who have our backs. It’s a place where strangers turn into family. Debate can be a home and a site of empowerment in a special way.”

– Natalie Wang

Despite all the bad, I’ve garnered plenty from debate in terms of individual skills (and I’ve met talented, intelligent, and overall amazing people who I will always be grateful for and are being thanked elsewhere). Prior to it, I was verbally inarticulate and very shy, especially in classroom settings. I turned beet red speaking in front of the class. I had no idea how the contents of news articles or history books had anything to do with me and those around me. I was docile. I was passive.

Since then, I’ve come a long way. In addition to getting all of debate’s typical “portable skills,” I’m no longer shy or inarticulate; I’m very comfortable not only speaking in front of people, but also advocating for things I believe in. I’ve found what interests me and what I want to do with the rest of my life. I’ve developed the sense of aggression that sports coaches tried so hard to cultivate in me prior to debate. I’ve learned how to transform ugly anger into beautiful and productive things. I’ve become more socially aware. If debate has taught me nothing else, it’s that our actions have countless implications on others whether we foresee them or not, and accountability is important. Inaction is violent, words are powerful, and oppression is oppression, no matter the setting.

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I may never really be able to decide whether the costs of debating outweighed the benefits. But I do know that I’m proud of what I’ve done in debate with the experience I was given.

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