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A Reckoning After Morehouse Withdraws From Debate Tournament, Citing 'Anti-Blackness'

Members of the Morehouse College speech and debate team at the 2019 Pi Kappa Delta National Championship at Hofstra University. Coach Kenneth Newby is seen at the center, and student debater Daniel Edwards is at front left.
Morehouse College Speech and Debate Program
Members of the Morehouse College speech and debate team at the 2019 Pi Kappa Delta National Championship at Hofstra University. Coach Kenneth Newby is seen at the center, and student debater Daniel Edwards is at front left.

The debate over race in America has reached the world of competitive debate itself, as the team from Morehouse College withdrew from a national tournament after members say they experienced mockery, bias and dismissal. Other teams followed Morehouse's departure from the tournament, leading to its cancellation and a forum about race in the debate community.

The speech and debate team of the historically Black men's college had been competing in British Parliamentary style debate at the United States Universities Debate Championship 2021 earlier this month. The tournament was conducted virtually over Zoom. The incident was first reported by The Undefeated.

Morehouse team captain, senior Daniel Edwards, says in Round 5 students from other teams broke the tournament's rules by turning on their Zoom cameras while the Morehouse team was speaking. He said members of other teams would roll their eyes and laugh at the Morehouse team, and mock their voices.

"They would try and mimic and caricaturize the kind of communicative idiosyncrasies of our voices while trying to invalidate our arguments and using that kind of just racist mockery to address our points in the round," Edwards says.

Edwards says his debate teammate is queer, and their opponents would mock the tonality of the teammate's voice over Zoom.

"That was just so incredibly offensive that we felt like we needed to go to [the equity committee] immediately after because that's the job that they're put in place for the tournament to do," Edwards said. "And it had a very harmful effect on the emotional and mental health of my partner. So obviously, as captain of the team, I'm going to want to take a stand."

Members of the Morehouse College speech and debate team in 2019.
/ Morehouse College Speech and Debate Program
Morehouse College Speech and Debate Program
Members of the Morehouse College speech and debate team in 2019.

Then there was the judging.

In a debate concerning how children's stories may be modified to enhance their marketability and reach wider audiences, the Morehouse team used examples from the African diaspora and Indigenous peoples. Edwards says the judges told them afterward that they had initially ranked Morehouse higher, only to dock their ranking because all of their examples were from the Global South.

The Morehouse team was appalled.

"That kind of idea that because we're using stories that are from people who are often marginalized and of minority experience, that we would lose the round or receive a lower ranking than other teams who used white examples and white stories was incredibly offensive," Edwards says.

When they brought their complaints to the tournament's equity committee, Edwards says, the committee said they were taking their complaints seriously, and would make a statement about racial equity before the next round.

But the statement never arrived. Ken Newby, director of the Morehouse College Speech and Debate Program and a professor at Morehouse was told it wasn't ready yet.

So the Morehouse team put together a statement of its own, and announced it was pulling out of the tournament.

"[A]fter experiencing issues of anti-Blackness, and ableism by extension, at this tournament to a worrying extent we can no longer continue to compete and support the tournament in good conscience," they wrote, and outlined their experiences.

Edwards says that too many participants approach debate like it's a game, and frequently make offensive statements and arguments.

"This tournament was a culmination of years of innate and not-so-well concealed racism within the debate community that came to a head," says Edwards.

Other teams followed Morehouse's lead, including sibling institution Spelman College, a historically Black women's college, as well as Clemson and Vanderbilt universities, according to The Undefeated. The tournament's organizers then canceled the competition and hosted a forum on anti-Blackness and racism within the debate community, at the suggestion of the Morehouse team.

The tournament's organizers and equity team released a statement in which they cited communication failures as the cause for their not releasing a statement after Round 5.

"Looking forward, it is important to understand the events of this tournament and our personal failures, as a lesson for any future debate tournaments, and center the voices of Black and BIPOC debaters in the ongoing discussion. It cannot be the case that these statements and events fade into debate history as so many other similar events have," the statement said.

But Robert Brown, the debate coach at Spelman College, says it will take more to fix the problems of debates. He was a collegiate debater at Morehouse, and now teaches there.

He says college debate is typically dominated by the Ivy League and leading public universities. And, he says, it's a setting where Black debaters, including Black women and Black queer women, are routinely marginalized in toxic ways.

It can be instances of having their voices or laughter mocked, Brown says, "but it can also be where your ideas are dismissed or where Black women are spoken over."

And even with the discussion following Morehouse's statement and withdrawal from the national tournament, Brown doesn't think the debate community has really confronted these issues yet.

"I think that this has begun that reckoning, but I don't think that there's a full conversation about how to change it," he says. "My impression is that this is kind of a moment that happens in a lot of diversity circles where we, you know, say, 'Oh, my gosh, that's happened.' And we rush to put a Band-Aid on it without fixing the core issues about how people get treated and who has the right to say what and when."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.