Speak Up: To the Part of the Speech and Debate Community That Has Stayed Silent

by Anouk Yeh

Dear Speech and Debate Community,

I started speech and debate when I was in the seventh grade. I don’t remember when I started becoming obsessed with the activity, but I  know that  it was always the fearlessness of the community I was drawn to. As an Asian American, speech and debate felt like the only acceptable outlet for me to demand radical action for the issues around the nation. 

Throughout my four years in the activity, I have constantly been in awe of the bravery of competitors when it came to fleshing out local and national injustices in speeches. I have been floored by the amount of passion competitors speak with about issues like social inequality, the climate crisis and racial injustice. To me, speech and debate was a community that never seemed afraid to blatantly condemn injustices in rounds.

However, now, that seems to be the problem: we have grown too comfortable with only using our voices in round – only where it is convenient.

On May 25, I, along with the rest of the nation, watched in horror as George Floyd was murdered by a white policeman in broad daylight. While the situation was unfortunately not unprecedented, it served as another glaring reminder of how the system has historically failed the African-American community. 

While I have been proud to see many fellow competitors on the local and national circuit speak up, spread awareness and protest against the racism embedded in our country’s law enforcement, I have also been stunned by the silence from a large portion of the community – many of whom have previously been fearless champions of racial justice in their speeches. 

In the words of the 2019 POI National Champion Ella Schnake, speech and debate is an activity that “thrives on calling out oppressions all over the world.” All trophies and medals aside, the activity is founded on the goal of helping students develop their voice in the face of injustice, not just onstage – but in the real world. 

So, to members of the speech and debate community who have stayed silent in the face of our nations’ turmoil, please, do better. Please do not only speak about racial injustice when it is safe and convenient for you to do so. Please do not forget the times you have used issues about race to your advantage in round. If you say you are passionate about social justice and racial equality, that passion should not dissipate as soon as there are no judges to rank the convincibility of your passion. 

So, if you have ever performed a piece about racism or xenophobia, speak up. If you have ever run a race kritik to your advantage, speak up. If you have ever used racial injustice as a talking point in your speech, speak up.

Only talking about racial injustice when it helps pick up a ballot or secure a 1 in round is ingenuine.  Commodifying racial injustice to fit into a competitive agenda is embarrassing and disappointing. The livelihood of this activity is built upon calling out the oppression and marginalization in our communities and we as a community, should not – and cannot – stop fighting  as soon as the round is over.

So, to speech and debate competitors across the nation who have stayed silent, speak up, use the voice that this activity has taught you to harness. Your silence is deafening. 

In solidarity, Anouk Yeh

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