REDEFINING THE WORD: A team’s strategy in competition unsettles some in the collegiate debate community, which has long been about exploring ideas and articulating meaningful arguments
Collegiate debaters across the country spent months this year formulating their response to the idea that presidential war powers should be limited.
Many of the debate teams argued over such issues as drone policy and the merits of a just war, while others took a narrower view. In one case, a team cited examples of misogynistic images of war in video games to make the case for curbing a president’s authority.
ABOUT THE N-WORD PROJECT: Following several incidents involving players using the n-word, the National Football League this year instructed game ofﬁcials to penalize players who used the word on the ﬁeld of play. The policy, though, was widely criticized as being heavy-handed and out of touch. As the league wrestled with the issue, a team of Washington Post journalists examined the history of this singular American word, its spread through popular culture and its place in the vernacular today.
The exchanges were lively and, occasionally, philosophical and challenging because organized collegiate debate is not strictly about arguing for policies. It is about exploring ideas and articulating meaningful, if at times obscure, arguments. One team took that tactic to a new level.
George Lee and Rashid Campbell, both award-winning debaters and University of Oklahoma students, argued this: “War powers should not be waged against niggas.”
Lee and Campbell use the n-word frequently in private conversations, and they felt comfortable bringing it into their arguments at prestigious national collegiate debating tournaments to make their point that government policies have harmed vulnerable African Americans. Stretching the framework of the resolution beyond the narrow confines of the merits of presidential war powers, Lee and Campbell cited elements as broad and diverse as the lynching of black men in the 19th century and the war on drugs to argue that the U.S. government had been unjustly waging war on its own people.
Such issues lead to “a question of what it means to be human,” and whether communities can exist under such circumstances, Lee said during competitions.
The young black men used the n-word repeatedly as they made their arguments. It was part of their rhetorical strategy. They knew that many of their competitors would be uncomfortable hearing it and would never repeat it themselves. For Lee, who grew up in a predominantly black area of Bryan, Tex., using the word turned what he said was the traditional power dynamic on its head.
“How we looked at it, there is no instance that a black person has power over a white person except for this,” he said, referring to what he called his right to use the most freighted word in the English language.
The team’s free use of the n-word in its run through some of collegiate debate’s most prestigious tournaments — Lee and Campbell reached the final round of one event and the semifinals of another — created a stir on debate-oriented Internet message boards and certainly unsettled some opponents.
“Initially, it is somewhat jarring,” said Andrew Markoff, who recently graduated from Georgetown University and faced Lee and Campbell in a tournament earlier this year.
But Markoff, who is white, said he and his debating partner came to accept Lee and Campbell’s use of the word without challenging it, and they found ways to counter their opponents.
“One thing, I think, that my partner and I came to realize is that their argument is about performing their position as black men in a way that is liberatory and that involves the use of the word,” Markoff said. “We said, ‘It’s not a good place to mount a challenge. It’s certainly not our place to reappropriate the word. It’s certainly not our place to speak to its efficacy.’ ”
Georgetown was one of the few teams to beat Lee and Campbell in the National Debate Tournament.
Still, the University of Oklahoma duo — among a handful of top black college debaters in the country — succeeded in bringing the racially charged word into mainstream debating competition.
Three months after the debate season ended, Lee and Campbell were in Baltimore working with high school students at the Eddie Conway Liberation Institute’s summer debate camp at Morgan State University. During a lunch break, the two explained their debate style and spoke about their experience in the tournaments while using their expansive vocabularies and deep reading of African American studies scholarship to further expound on their ideas. They are youthful and passionate, nerdy and Afro-centrist. Both have plans to coach debate and attain graduate degrees.
Like many collegiate debaters, they enjoy exploring the meanings of words, and in the case of the n-word, Lee said, “We feel like it has various levels to it.” He referred to its use as a term of camaraderie, its ugly history during Jim Crow and the ways it is still wielded to denigrate blacks. Lee and Campbell used the word in all its forms during competitions.
When they developed their argument around the word at the beginning of the debate season, they knew it would be controversial. Their style intentionally goes against norms within debate. They have worn dashikis or kente cloth rather than suits and ties as they compete. They incorporate music into their presentations and use spoken word and poetry rather than the breathless speed-talking that is common among top collegiate debaters. They sometimes use profanity to make a point.
When a white debater would argue that the Oklahoma team should not use the n-word because of its history or suggest that the use of the word was unfair because it put white debaters at a disadvantage because they could not also feel free to say it, Lee had a ready retort.
“Well, I think it’s not fair that you are able to do a lot of stuff I can’t do,” he would say before pointing out the privileges that he said benefit people with white skin, such as the ability to move through society more freely than others and see one’s own experiences and viewpoints as the norm.
In the end, Lee considered the debates that pitted him and Campbell against other African American debaters to be the most intellectually challenging. In the final of a tournament hosted by the Cross Examination Debate Association, Lee and Campbell faced two black women from Towson University. Both teams conceded that “war powers are being waged against niggas.” But the Towson women, Korey Johnson and Ameena Ruffin — who also used the n-word in their presentations — argued that Lee and Campbell’s ideas were too focused on negative imagery and were too pessimistic.
“Imagine a future that is radically different from the present,” Johnson argued, saying that the emphasis should not be on the “violence” being done to the black community but on the hope for a better future.
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The Towson students won the debate in a 7-to-4 decision, becoming the first team of black women to finish first in the event. But the reaction to their victory was mixed.
The final debate between the Oklahoma and Towson teams was questioned on Internet discussion threads and subjected to mocking videos, including mean-spirited parodies of Lee and Campbell’s argument that included no reference to the academic ideas they addressed. The criticism focused not only on their use of the n-word, but also on their debating style. A few teams from predominantly white schools talked about forming a separate tournament that would exclude the kinds of issues that Lee’s and Johnson’s teams raised.
Willie Johnson, a debate coach at Rutgers University, was on the panel that judged the final between the two teams. He thinks the controversy surrounding their debate arose because some people “missed the exchange of scholarship.”
“A lot of it became about the negativity of the word,” said Johnson, who is black.
Deven Cooper, who in 2008 was part of the first black team to win the Cross Examination Debate Association tournament and is a debate coach at California State University at Fresno, recalled using the word briefly during a debate six years ago. Lee and Campbell’s usage was more prominent, and Cooper initially questioned whether it was effective.
“In every situation you have to be prepared to defend what your iteration of the word means,” he said, adding that he eventually found the Oklahoma team’s argument — including the use of the word — persuasive.
This summer, Korey Johnson was coaching high school students on the Morgan State campus along with Lee and Campbell. Lee, who graduated with a degree in African American studies and is enrolling in a master’s of higher education program, is friendly with Johnson, who is in her third year at Towson. They spent off-hours rehashing their arguments in the tournament final.
Neither had regrets about using the controversial word.
“Everything we did — we [were] straight up about it. And that’s what made it problematic,” Lee said. “If we talked about black people and used rhetoric like ‘urban’ or ‘inner city’ or ‘underprivileged people,’ it probably would be acceptable.”
Johnson, who was also taken aback by criticism of the teams’ debate performance, concurred with Lee. “It’s policing of language,” she said.
On that point, they were in full agreement.