My school is known to put students through a lot of academic stress, from the pressure of taking up to 11 AP classes by senior year to encouraging us to join as many clubs as possible. Perhaps ironically, as we entered high school, my friends and I decided to relieve our stress by joining a new club: Speech and Debate.
For many, Speech and Debate is a useful tool to gain legitimacy in the eyes of colleges by learning how to articulate ideas as well as win awards. For others, it is an opportunity to share passions, views, and perspectives through storytelling. At the beginning, my friends and I belonged to the latter category. Unfortunately, as with most things, I quickly learned that this sort of mindset is hard to maintain in such a competitive environment.
In my first year, I joined Congressional Debate and Oratory. For context, Congressional debate is a mock congress where one is given a docket of bills and assigned to argue for the affirmative or negative. Oratory entails memorizing and reciting a ten minute speech about anything you’re passionate about.
Long story short, Congress was a complete mess for me and my friend. During my first and only competition in Congress, I experienced more racism than I ever had. The day of Congress, I decided to wear my hair natural with confidence because I was beginning to feel comfortable with my black heritage. My thick, kinky curls bounced as I strutted through the school I was competing with. I felt confident considering that few black students have historically participated in Speech and Debate. Such an environment is quite challenging for me and others of color, because you know that few people could understand your struggle, and you thus have a much smaller circle of support at times.
Things started going downhill from the moment I entered the door to my first round An older white male who was a coach for another school approached me. He stopped me and began to make remarks about my afro. In between laughs, he stated how “exotic” I was, and how he used to have “hair like that” back in his day. I was in shock and could only quietly stare at him as he walked away like nothing had happened. I composed myself, wiped away my tears, and tried to just focus on what was ahead of me. I wasn’t going to let a single person take away my pride.
As I entered the room, my friends and I began to hype one another up, ignoring the elephant in the room.BAM! The gavel aggressively smacked the table, implying that the session was starting soon. The chamber collapsed, which meant that both novice and open (advanced) students were competing in the same room. This, of course, startled my fellow novice friends, and as we made our way over to our captains for some advice, a well-known Open Congress senior stopped me in my tracks. He grasped my hand and asked me in the most condescending tone, “So what’s it like being one of the only black people here?” My heart stopped. I looked around the room hoping to garner support, but most of those participating were white. I knew I was in the minority.”Absolutely great,” I responded, drowning each syllable in sarcasm.
My friends and I retreated to our seats, stunned. The judges entered the room and the session began. Hoping to shake off the unsettling events, I chose to speak for a bill. Congress is structured in a way where the speaker stands in the center of a circular configuration where all the other “Senators” sit. I made my way to the middle of the circle with the timer behind me. The bill was about the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and my speech discussed the many forms of racial bias present in the agency. I respectfully disagreed with the previous speaker. Concluding my speech, I looked up from my pale yellow writing pad with a smile and waited for questioning. I received a few questions and answered them relatively easily. As I made my way back to my seat and sat down, the same senior that made the remark about my racial identity marched to the front of the room, notepad in hand. A wave of fear washed over me as he began to speak. He laughed as he proudly announced how my argument was a “rant about morality” and how my experience as a black student meant nothing. The whole chamber cackled as I looked at my friends, equally stunned, for support. When he finished his speech, tears flooded my eyes, but I knew that I had to stay strong. I couldn’t cry on the spot. I’m proud of my roots, and I needed to represent my people with strength.
As the session continued, I spoke once again, this time overwhelmed with the number of questions that students had made against my arguments. I felt like the world was against me. I felt alone. To make it even worse, when I sat back down, the open competitors sitting next to me began to pass me notes. I could barely make out the chicken scratch, but the general consensus was “C’mon speak up!” “Talk!” “We don’t bite!” I mouthed for them to stop, but their faces flushed as they covered their mouths, trying to hide their giggles. I was surprised by how the judges seemingly never noticed their obnoxious behavior, considering the fact that we were only four feet away from them. But then again, I should have seen this coming considering my past experiences of discrimination from others in school.. I went home that day bawling as I was reminded of the fact that my blackness made me a target. I was so close to quitting the club.
The following morning, I woke up with eye bags as dark as plums and reluctantly put on my blazer and dress pants. When my team arrived at the school, I quickly marched to my first room and took a seat in the back, in the hope that I wouldn’t have to deal with the harassment I faced before. None of the judges looked like me, which I’ve now realized is the norm.
But I found something different in Oratory than I did in Congress. I felt empowered every time I went to the front of the room and delivered my speech about eurocentrism in the education system. I felt validated, even if there were no black students competing in the event. For ten minutes, I had at least the opportunity to bring a new perspective to those listening. I didn’t even care if the judge scored me well. My passion for bringing justice to those of color consumed my thoughts.
Little did I know, I was sharing a speech that would soon bring me to the tournament deciding National qualifications. I used the same quirky, authentic, and raw speech I wrote at the start of my first year of Speech and Debate that had brought me all this way. It was my first time competing in Open Oratory. I had stayed up for hours practicing this speech because I believed that such a message of justice needed to be brought to the national stage. Round after round, I left the room with pride, knowing that had I done my job in bringing awareness to the flaws of our education system. As I sat waiting for results, one of my coaches approached my friends and me. He asked me how my second round went, and I told him it was one of the best I’d ever performed – I never stuttered or missed any blocking (planned movements).
In a somber tone, he told us that none of us had qualified for finals.
This was a slap in the face. I had made it to finals for every competition that I had competed in; my passion was always commended by the judges. Tears flowed down, and my face scrunched itself like a dried apricot. I didn’t know what I did wrong. The truth was that I didn’t do anything wrong. I had placed first in all of my rounds—except for one. Filled with confusion, I marched through the school searching for the judge that ranked me last. My heart raced as I approached her. I asked if I could talk with her and I could see that my tear-stained face alarmed her. As we walked together, I asked for the reason for her decision and informed her that if she had just ranked me fifth, I would have been at finals.
She had ranked me below someone who had forgotten their own speech. I stopped walking, forcing her to look me in the eyes as tears continued to roll down my flushed cheeks. I could see the guilt in her eyes, her obvious discomfort with this confrontation. I explained that my speech matched the time limit and everything else she could possibly use to deduct points and that I had placed first in all of my other rounds. My voice cracked with every other word.
“You were too passionate,” she stated simply. “It was just so much.” She gave me a hasty apology then left for her next round. I was left standing as the world spun around me. Walking back to my teammates with my damp blazer sleeves and bloodshot eyes, I conversed with my two best friends in the hopes of gaining some words of encouragement. We cried together, then we drowned our worries with karaoke.
Looking back, that judge was not worth crying over. As a person of color, delivering a speech that challenges society is risky, especially in a Speech and Debate setting. You never know your judge’s experience, their possible biases, and their knowledge of the craft of Speech or Debate. To this day, adults approach me about the kink of my curls, students still question my presence because I am black, and judges continue to mark me down for my “overwhelming passion.”
This season, one of my best friends and I are doing a Duo interpretation, which can be either humorous or serious. We are doing a piece about police brutality, and though it is still early in the season, it is obvious that some judges absolutely despise us and our topic.
Recently, it was our first time seeing a well-known Duo perform in one of our rounds. The group’s piece included various jokes about the marginalization of the LGBTQ+ community and racism. For instance, one of the students’ whispered something along the lines of, “I’m really sensitive today.” Their partner’s response was, “I didn’t know that you were gay.” Their characters then traveled to a Latin country. One of them attempted to utilize an accent but instead put on a very stereotypical, white-washed “Hispanic” accent. My partner and I looked at one another in shock. After that round, we approached other students asking how they felt about the piece. The whole group acknowledged that what they said could have been hurtful for some. But more surprisingly, they stated that they have seen worse in Speech and Debate. With one season of Speech under our belts, my partner and I thought that such explicitly discriminatory behavior was not going to be tolerated. Sadly, we were very wrong. The group made it to finals and placed in the top three among very talented groups that were leagues above them. My partner and I were devastated that we didn’t break to finals, but this has become normal for us. When doing a non-humorous piece, especially about something “taboo” like race, other groups have a leg up. Judges, especially those who are white, may feel that such pieces of humor are more appealing and thus deserve a higher ranking. The hard truth is that the trauma that I have faced as a black person can never be fully understood by someone who has never experienced it.
The fact of the matter is that Speech and Debate can be frustrating, especially if you are a student of color. At times it can feel as if the whole world is against you, but that’s how you know you’re doing it right. When you are following your passion, there is going to be pain. There are going to be tears, and there are going to be instances where you may question your own drive. But as cheesy as this sounds, don’t give people that satisfaction of taking your passion from you.
There have been various trials and tribulations that I have faced as a person of color participating in a traditionally white extracurriculars. But such challenges have simply made me stronger. I’ve learned the importance of middle ground when handling situations of discrimination. I have realized that in Speech and Debate, I don’t just have ten minutes to meet the expectations of my judges; I have ten minutes to represent the silent voices of our nation when no one can interrupt me and no one can walk away. There is beauty in having a judge who is uncomfortable with your subject matter because, at that moment, you are their first step in gaining understanding. Even if they only hear and don’t listen, push forward. You never know who you may have inspired at that moment. Passion is painful, but that’s what makes it worth it.
Your friendly neighborhood change agent