DWB: Debating While Black

“Your sister and her friends hotboxed a car in an elementary school parking lot, and when a cop came, he wished her a safe ride home! Imagine what would happen if I were in that situation! The resolution that the War on Drugs is unfair clearly stands.” Yield remaining time to the chair. Let my closing statement hang in the air as my predominantly white blockmates and fellow debaters silently mull and accept the rhetorical weight of my statement, my identity, my blackness.

Finally, dab three times in celebration.

The phrases “respect my experience,” and the related “check your privilege,” urge others to consider how their biases may affect their positions and the debate itself, often to great rhetorical effect. But not having the experiences most associated with my race complicates my use of those phrases. I’ve never interacted with the police. I’ve had the fortune of having attended two esteemed academic institutions since the seventh grade. I’ve never been the direct target of racist speech or violence.

As a result, I feel a little disingenuous for appealing to experiences associated with blackness that I don’t have. Make no mistake, I’m not wishing for those experiences in order to validate my identity or to gain “black cred.” Rather, due to my race, people wrongly assume that I have had certain experiences, an impression that I can use for rhetorical effect. My identity doesn’t make good rhetorical fodder. Yet, my “identity” does.

Moreover, those phrases can be argumenta ad auctoritatem et ad hominem—arguments whose rhetorical force stem from unfairly evaluating the speaker instead of their speech—so why bother using them? Their use seemingly goes against the fair debate, where the “rules of debate” are strictly and universally enforced so that an argument’s strength is evaluated independent of its speaker.

Years of classical education and debating have taught me that the “ideal debate” is one where personal experience is kept to a minimum and the winner is he who presents the most objective evidence the most strongly—presumably in Greek. Although political discourse doesn’t take place in that sterile world of logic driven debate (read: a high school debate class), we still try to appeal to those “rules of debate” when we feel like some sense of civility, fairness, or respect has been violated.

Yet appeals to those rules can themselves be unfair, especially when applied unequally. Consider the name-dropping of black orators and appeals to debate etiquette to silence a political position under the guise of attacking its presentation. From Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr., black orators have been something of a fixture in the American political consciousness, partially due to their triumph over academic, racial, and sociopolitical barriers to be considered worthy of participating in national discourse.

Yet their inspiring example is used to establish a “you-must-be-this-respectable” bar to even participate in discourse, a restriction which disproportionately limits who debates and what positions are present. The pursuit of my “ideal debate,” in practice, often perverts the fairness those norms try to uphold and even reinstates those same barriers to exclude the marginalized from discourse.

The usual reward for managing to enter the debate while black despite those barriers is being called “articulate.” Although well-meaning, this compliment can be particularly loaded for black people because it can be both demeaning (articulate, compared to the stereotypical black person) and patronizing (articulate, i.e. simply speaking with proper and somewhat formal grammar). Put another way, being “articulate” is often synonymous with “sounding white,” something I have also been accused of over the years.

I heard more of those comments as I entered high school, and continue to do so today. “Sounding white,” in a twisted way, was acknowledgement that I gained some understanding of the “rules of debate,” and was worthy to participate. But this is actually a reflection of education—a privilege paid for by my parents—more than skill.

Some of the most powerful pieces on race I’ve encountered were written from personal experience more than objective data. Yet they would probably be dismissed for being too emotional, while my writing would be accepted, especially given the proper Latin translation of two logical fallacies above. Being articulate can be often enough to warrant a position as “the token black debater,” whose agreement can be used to validate another’s opinion on racial issues, but whose lone presence alludes to the still excluded.

My racial identity is defined by neither black marginalization nor black triumph. Rather, it’s more defined by that interplay of privilege and tokenism, being in the simultaneously empowering and other-izing position of “speaker for your race.” I can’t fully determine the fairness of asking others to “respect my experience” without knowing what my experience means to me. But I can recognize that the rules of debate aren’t as objective and fair in practice as they are idealized.

While my privilege has established me as the representative of the marginalized, the self-declared arbiters of the “ideal debate” often reject those individuals’ experiences and arguments for being “unobjective evidence” or “uncivilly presented.” Maybe it’s for the best that I use fallacious rhetoric in addition to logical arguments to more forcefully debate our shared opinions in their absence.

Maybe those rules should be bent in the name of that same fairness.

Hansy D. Piou ’18, a Crimson editorial editor, is an Applied Mathematics concentrator in Quincy House.

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