Community Resolution #5: Race in Debate by Sunhee Simon

SunHee Simon is a LD curriculum director at VBI. She is currently a junior at Stanford University and coaches here and there.

As debaters feel more comfortable talking about black issues in debate, we still don’t see a rise in black participation on the national circuit. Even more startling, discussions on the inclusion of Latinx debaters are practically nonexistent. I’m not here to make a case for why we deserve to be in debate or how debaters and coaches need to make this place a home for us. That has been done eloquently over and over again[1] [2] [3] [4]. What I am going to discuss are ways to involve more Black and Latinx debaters in debate themselves as opposed to just arguments talking about black and brown experiences in the abstract. That being said, let’s jump into our final article for this series.

Resolved: The debate community must be explicit and intentional about its attempts to bring Black and Latinx debaters and coaches into LD and PF.

1. Student Recruitment

This strategy can manifest in different ways because recruitment is most effective when you tailor your strategy to the community you are in. Similar to what was said in the last article about gender in debate, be more active in your attempt to reach out to Black and Latinx students in your schools. This means strongly holding onto these novices and being active in creating a culture where they feel they belong. Sure, this can be done by also putting minority students into positions of power, however I’m also asking you (coaches, judges, educators) to be advocates. When you see microagressions taking place—“wow, you are so articulate” or a judge putting their pen down when they hear “antiblackness”—pull that perpetrator to the side and hold them accountable. Reach out to the student and let them know you are there for them. Black and Latinx students, especially those who are low income, are already expected to prioritize athletics over academics. If you do not validate students who are not only trying their best but at least trying to test the activity out, you are contributing to the problem. Recruitment doesn’t just take place in a school, it should be a continuous orientation we have to retaining these students in the activity.

2. Staff

“I think camps should bring in more Hispanic Debaters/Mentors. Debaters who are currently attending camp feel alone because there isn’t someone they can relate their culture and experiences with.”—Anonymous

This is absolutely correct. There has been difficulty in securing Latinx staff especially at many of our institutions. While there may be some Latinx student in LD and PF currently, staff is severely lacking. While this might not be as applicable for PF (although it might be worth a try), I strongly suggest that camps and schools start tapping into collegiate NDT-CEDA debate. Because of UDLs (Urban Debate Leagues), there are many Black and Latinx policy debaters. Additionally, collegiate debate scholarships have made it so they are still involved in the activity well into their college years. Some of these younger collegiate debaters typically are RAs at policy camps instead of instructors because there are many older coaches who are more qualified to teach at policy camps. As such, these college debaters would jump at the opportunity to help children learn something new. This makes them prime hires for your camp and, if you appreciate their work, your school team during the year due to their availability in the summer. Many of them are already well equipped to teach LD which continues to strive to be a smaller version of policy debate. They will be more qualified than your average first year out as well. We cannot just wait for novices that haven’t been recruited yet to grow up and teach at our camps and work for our programs. For now, we should tap into the resources that exist or the cycle will simply repeat itself.

3. Camp Students

This goes hand in hand with suggestion number 2. You must diversify your camps staff and camp student body simultaneously. Don’t be the camp that invites 2 black kids to camp and plasters their photos all over your front without accommodating for their educational, social, mental, financial, and cultural needs. This isn’t an immediate change, of course, but we can and should be deliberate about how we are bringing more black and brown kids in. Camp opportunities provide the gateway for success during the year, so using camp as an interventionist tool is a great start. You can do recruitment during the year—I’d suggest not only looking at the 1 black kid on the LD TOC circuit who isn’t a senior but also looking at local circuits as well—or you can work with local UDLs (which I’ll discuss in depth later). Especially when discussing low income minority students and camps, this is an opportunity to put your money where your mouth is and help them get the best debate experience you can offer. However, once again, don’t just provide for the students monetarily without also creating diverse faculty. If we can agree that putting girls in leadership positions on debate teams or having more female coaches helps create positive role models, the same should be applied to camp culture and the adults we hire to instruct children.

4. Expanding perceptions

1. Diversity judging (sort of how the TOC did it)
2. Support groups for different marginalized groups
3. Q&As (maybe) for people who want to learn about different cultures but are often afraid that backlash may come as a result” –Anonymous

Debate at its core is about communication. In order for all of us to get the most out of this activity there needs to be dialogue and there need to be multiple perspectives incorporated into all of our conversations. We, as a community, have not been doing the best job at maintaining black and latinx judging at tournaments—especially in late elims—and must do better so that those who do the best competitively are not only impressing white judges, but making arguments to and taking criticisms from black and latinx ones. TOC implemented diversity judging last year. While there is certainly merit, and many programs can try to do the same, there is always a problem with creating diversity when you are too abstract. We should explicitly do this for black and latinx judges. This can be done by having special panelists—judges chosen by the tournament who cannot be struck—or simply having tournaments hire more black and brown judges instead of encouraging them to volunteer rounds.

As for support groups and Q&A’s, these suggestions are excellent especially among students. For the past few weeks, this series has talked about support groups and panels and what they could look like. It would do good to adopt those methods in the context of race as well.

5. Partner with your local UDL

I’m a strong supporter of helping children from urban areas debate. While there are certainly a multitude of racial/ethnic identities that are a part of a UDL, there are still an overwhelming amount of Black and Latinx students who learn debate in these leagues. As mentioned previously, policy debate receives most of these debaters because that is what is offered in many UDLs. I do strongly believe, however, that if the LD and PF community did more outreach and partnerships, we could see UDLs adopting LD and PF divisions in their leagues. As a result, I will present what a partnership can look like for three different experience groups in our community:

For students: You’d be surprised how many UDLs would love to work with you. Especially for those of you looking for volunteer hours, consider helping your local UDL. Offer to help train novice and JV if you’re varsity (typically, there are informational packets with a predetermined curriculum, so it is a matter of delivering this information to younger students). Help the teachers work through concepts as well especially because most of them usually have no debate training. If that seems too much for you, offer to debate some of their top debaters! All of these require little effort from you but can go a long way.

For college students: Similar to what I said above, you can easily volunteer to work with these students. However, you also have the opportunity to actually coach. Each UDL may have a different model for how this happens. For example, in Newark Debate Academy (which is not a formal UDL any longer but operates similarly), there are more partnerships and coaching positions for Rutgers students. However, in the Silicon Valley Urban Debate League, they offer internship positions with stipeds for working with the students and helping the teachers on whatever they need. Take the time to find out what your local league is doing and what offerings are available. Teachers are grateful to have college kids come in both as debate “experts” but also as examples of debate helping with college success. Even if you don’t want to be a “circuit” coach or are on the fence about teaching debate in college, you can work with novices and JVers. The expertise you have from already having done debate in high school will be incredibly helpful at little cost to you.

For Program Directors and Older Coaches: Consider trying to create a working relationship with your local UDL. This can range from something as small as weekly scrimmages between your team and one of the teams in the UDL or it can go as far as traveling with children of the league and sharing room space. As with anything that involves more administrative work you should tailor your strategy to what your school permits you to do but it doesn’t hurt to give is a try.

There are many solutions and many avenues we can talk about when we’re thinking about race in debate. I can only make a few suggestions but as a community we can create action.

Thank you for listening and a special thank you to those who read through all of the categories in this series as well as the students who contributed during our first year doing “Equity Day” at camp. Our community has infinite potential and is still malleable. It is up to us to shape it.

Read the previous resolution here.






    Excellent, practical, well written piece. It is exciting to see young urban debate alumni like yourself interested in cultivating more Black and brown leaders. BAUDL would absolutely love weekly scrimmages with our students. We are happy to post this all over our social media. Great work, SunHee!