Interview with Dr. Shanara Reid-Brinkley conducted by Scott Odekirk on 2/13/2012 at the University of Texas debate tournament. Shanara is the first black woman director of debate in the country, a professor of communications at Pitt, and a general goddess of knowledge.
Minor edits were done to this article on 4/8/2012 and can be noted by brackets 
Odekirk: ok, really 4 general questions… the first one is just, why do you think the same debaters win all the time?
Dr. Reid-Brinkley: I think there are a number of reasons, there are some structural reasons of course – resources are critically important in our community, number of coaches, how much time you have to devote to debate outside of the tournament space I think is a really important one, so it makes me sort of think about Iggy and Ben, when they are not at a debate tournament, life is about feeding their families and getting through college. You know what I mean. There is no like I get home from a debate tournament, and I spend every day until the next debate tournament sitting in the debate office, doing debate work and being able to produce all of this research. It’s like when you get home, it’s like does my sister have my food to eat tomorrow? Do we have like the things we are gonna need for the next month, there is just soo much that has to be done, and you don’t have time to just sit and work all the time. So I think there are resource disparities, yes, you know, Northwestern may have more money than somebody else, you know like a smaller team. But there is even internal resource disparity in terms of who has to work to go to school, who doesn’t have to work to go to school and has time to just invest in nothing but debate. So I think those are some of the issues.
Odekirk: What do you think about how debate chooses the ideal debater?
Dr. Reid-Brinkley: That’s where I was going next. Right? This is part of what I talk about in the dissertation and what sort of formed the idea for the dissertation, was coming back to the circuit after 3 years. And, I came back after Liz and Tanya had finished, so I did not get to see their run. I didn’t get to see any of their show. I didn’t even know it was happening.
Odekirk: I remember sitting in those rounds, and just GOD!
Dr. Reid-Brinkley: I know! And, I’m so sad I missed it! You know what I mean? But, I was through with debate at that point, I wanted to be a scholar, I had no intention of ever being back in this community what so ever. Ever! Had no intention of coming back, this is a hostile environment. I wanted to be a scholar, people here didn’t treat me like they respected me or wanted me to be here at all, whereas people in the academy did. And, I had no interest in coming back to this community, and people started to approach me and ask me questions about ‘what do you think about what Louisville is doing?’ and I was like well what? ‘well they said people like you are Uncle Toms, and black folks can’t speak fast’ – all of these white people. No black people were talking to me about it. Cause I had a bunch of white friends in debate. So, all these white people were like coming at me: ‘Shanara, I don’t like it, I’m sure you aren’t gonna like it’ they were just indignant. And, so, I was like: “what then? why all these white people indignant?” That was my reaction. My reaction was not “they can’t say that about black debaters” my reaction was like “why are all these white people tripping?” So I came to a tournament, and watched a little bit of the after Liz and Tanya Louisville show, and Deven was really young at this point, but at Towson. And I started looking at it, and went back and looked at some of the Loiusville footage, and I was like, ‘oh its very obvious of whats happening here. Black people are talking about race, white people are uncomfortable. And what was very interesting to me, is that the liberal white people were the most uncomfortable. These are people that I considered allies, right? And for them to be having this reaction to these students, I was like ‘something is going on here.’ And so, as I looked at the situation what I began to realize was how, in terms of whiteness, and masculinity, and class privilege functions in debate, is that we have an ideal. Right, an ideal debater that has to do with speed, and ability to argue, and very fast and efficient line-by-line debating. But, it’s more than that. Because all of those technologies that we identify as success in our community are attached to certain bodies. Right? So if our history of success looks like white men with money, right? Then the very ideal of what successful debate looks like is white men with money. And, that became a real issue for me. And it was heartbreaking for me in a lot of ways, because when I was a debater there wasn’t enough black people in debate for there to be like, for your entire identity to be about being black. Right, so you came in to debate, you were successful, and your blackness had nothing to do with it.
Odekirk: Did you find your voice in debate?
Dr. Reid-Brinkley: I found my voice in debate. And temporarily lost my soul. Found my voice. I started debating as a freshman in high school in the pilot program that later became the urban debate league. And we were 1 of 2 black high schools that debated on the Georgia high school circuit. And so going to tournaments where there were no other black people, and then the bus full of black people that we had just brought from our 2 black high schools in Atlanta going to South GA, and being first and second novice speaker, and first, second, third, fourth and fifth novice teams. Right? And top varsity speaker, and we were the only black folks there. We were just spanking that ass all through the GA high school circuit. Right? So that gave me this voice, I was really shy before then, if you had met me then it would astound you that I am the person I am now. I was shy. I was overweight young black woman from a black high school, with a working class black family. You know, but, I had a lot of support. My family were ex-civil rights activists. I mean, my grandparent’s house was bombed by the KKK when my mother was 2 years old because they were active activists in Tennessee. I grew up with this aesthetic of ‘you are supposed to do something for black people, to push us forward.’ So I always knew I was supposed to do something special. And debate became that avenue for me to do something special. It gave me my voice. But when the urban debate league hit my junior year of college, like the summer before my junior year of college. That changed the debate community in a lot of ways. Rather than just being a good debater where people would take me under their wing, I was an Emory debater so I had a lot of resources. I had the ability to be good. People recognize talent. Will Repko. I used to run up to Will Repko and hug him every time we arrived at a debate tournament, because he was that supportive of my career. Literally, hug Will Repko. Now we don’t even speak to each other, because the urban debate league changed the debate environment. When it got to the point where I was no longer just a really smart cool good debater, and I was ‘oh, she is our black debater’ because I became a poster child for the program. So by the time I was a senior, and at CEDA nationals my senior year, and Melissa wanted me and Steven Bailey debate together and the whole tournament was a buzz with the potential possibility that an all black team was about to win CEDA nationals, that became the context in which I had to compete. And when that happened it confused me, because I no longer knew if I was Shanara the real person, right? The person who had all these experiences, the person that did well at debate, and like these people I was really accepted. Or, was I the image? Is this Shanara the poster child for the Urban [Debate League]…right? Who are you voting? If you are gonna be voting for me, am as I smart as I thought I was? Or as you are telling me who I am? Total psychic split. Total psychic split. There was me, and then there was her. The image. It got so bad for me, that by the time I finished my last year of debating, or got close to that least year, my last year of competition I did not go to class, any class, that whole semester. In order to be psychologically prepared to go to debate tournaments, I had to just, not do school. At all. And so, I was on the verge of failing out at Emory. I had to take a year-long psychological withdrawal. Which didn’t mean I really needed counseling, I just needed an excuse to get out of school without them failing all of my classes and screwing my GPA. And, so I had to take that year off. And during that year off, I spent starting my treatise on what was problematic about the Urban Debate League. That’s when I wrote and I coached for Emory. Now, I’m writing this, and I’m talking to Melissa Wade about what I’m writing. And, Melissa has known me since I was 13 years old, this woman took me under her wing when I was 14, and I stayed under that wing straight through. And, so I’m telling Melissa I’m starting to recognize that this community has caused me to have this psychic split, and that split made me start to think about what the Urban Debate League really meant, and what diversity initiatives really meant in our community. And, I started writing about it. And, Melissa’s reaction was ‘oh no. No, you are just freaking out, you are just a kid, nothing that you say is a legitimate criticism of what’s happening here.’ Which started my break with Melissa, and that started my break with the UDL. So, I stopped getting the phone calls that said “Shanara I need you go fly to Baltimore and meet with the teachers and administrators and talk about the program. All of that stopped. I was very quickly removed.
Odekirk: This whole network, like you said is a crucial part of your identity, so I know you’ve said to me a lot of times you feel like an outsider. Do you think that, debate can solve that kind of a problem, or is it intrinsic to debate?
Dr. Reid-Brinkley: I don’t think its intrinsic to debate at all, cause if I did I wouldn’t be here. I love debate. I believe in it. I believe in us as a community, that we can deal with these issues. What is heartbreaking is the refusal to do so. Not that we can’t. But, the refusal to do so. By people who I thought of as allies in this fight to do something in terms of meaningful participation in terms of people of color in this community. When it became clear to me that Melissa and I were not on the same side, it broke my heart. It wasn’t just Melissa, it was Will Repko and David Heidt. Right, David Heidt was my personal coach for my junior year at Emory. He stopped traveling with the NDT side of the top teams. He would go where they went, but everywhere we went he went. That was Melissa’s agreement. D. Heidt your personal coach. David Heidt does not even speak to me. D. Heidt doesn’t talk to me. So it is just astounding that the debate community was only willing to accept me when I was saying what they wanted to hear. The moment I started being critical of that experience they were like ‘oh, well you’re just a crazy.’ When I was standing up telling funders for these multimillion dollar grants programs were looking into and attaching to their debate programs, right when I was standing up and saying ‘yes, this program works, I am an excellent example of exactly what this program is designed to do.’ But then, later I got to the point where, remember when one of Edde Warner’s posts back in early 2000 where he was like ‘UDL’s are plantations?’
Odekirk: I definitely remember that.
Dr. Reid-Brinkley: people freaked out about that! And I was right there with him. Because I understood that the UDL was a segregated space, and you don’t produce greatness through segregation. Separate is not ever equal. So, my UDL experience was getting to go to camp for free at Emory and Melissa occasionally sending some of the Emory coaches to come coach us at our high school. There were no separate debate tournaments. We started debating [white] people immediately. So, my rate of growth was quick. So by the time I was a senior, I was ready to go to anybody’s college. Good grades, good SAT scores. Got into Emory early decision, got into 22 other schools. I had over a ½ a million dollars in scholarship offers my senior year of high school. So all of that lead to Emory and the resources at Emory, and being who I was and being able to be competitive. I fundamentally realized I was in complete and distinct opposition compared to what the UDL students were experiencing when they entered into debate. And I had a problem with that. I didn’t have a problem with the program. I had a problem with the segregation. Segregation is never going to be equal and it didn’t make sense to me, and that was part of the problem, how are you going to talk about how we formed the program, and rather then people listening to one of the oldest of us that have come through this process and here me saying “no don’t end the program, but lets think about what we are doing, and for the response from the people who were in positions of power to be “Oh no! now you are out.” And, so I was out. Now that didn’t mean that there weren’t individual Urban Debate Leagues that I formed relationships with that were like “you were right about that” I had conversation with them and I continued to work with them, I worked for Seattle, I worked for the NY Urban Debate Leagues, and I worked for Baltimore. By that time they were developed enough that they weren’t under Melissa’s thumb or under NAUDL’s thumb enough that they wouldn’t refuse to hire me.
Odekirk: What do you think, if you had an idea, if you had one wish of what you could do with scholarship in debate rounds that could come to terms with these kind of like structural, the creation of scapegoats, the ostracization of structures, the symbolization of power, the reinforcement of power through different structural things. What can we do with our scholarship, or is there anything, maybe there’s not. What can we do in terms of our debating, to come to terms with this [ed]?
Dr. Reid-Brinkley: Well, step one is do some [ed] research. If your answers to Wilderson’s afro-pessimism argument is a Wilderson indict from somebodies book review, and that’s all you got to say to Wilderson you’re an [ed] idiot. You’re an idiot. You are an idiot. And so I’m astounded looking at debate coaches who I know who do nothing but cut cards who are refusing to do research! What the!? Where are we? I thought we were good at debate. I thought we are in debate. I thought we did research, I thought that’s what sort of defined our community. So you’re telling me you can’t go find the afro-optimists who answer the afro-pessimists? It astounds me. I don’t get it. So I think step one is; shut up about complaining about framework and do some [ed] research. There is black literature being produced every moment of every day. There is a whole area of the library, sections of the stacks, with relevant information that might be useful for you. Go read some African American history, go find the little out about Africa and Chattel Slavery and the slave trade. It is so simple to me that I don’t understand why the debate community is refusing to do research.
Odekirk: Yeah, fair.
Dr. Reid-Brinkley: So how about we just start there? Step 1: do some research.
Dr. Reid-Binkley: Now here is the fear. If that was the only answer, the debate community would do research, but it would be just to cut cards and nothing really would change. So it can’t stop at research, but that is literally step one: go do some reading. That would really help you have a language and a vocabulary for talking when you are engaging these teams that will produce very good debates. So when people say that they don’t think that what performance/movement teams are doing is intellectual, it’s because they have already decided that they are anti-intellectual. Whereas they are very much so intellectuals, as a matter of fact they are few of the debaters in our community producing scholarship rather than regurgitating it. Our very frame of reference on how to engage in debate is about the regurgitation of information, rather than the production of it. That is where I think we have gone wrong, which is also why we are not having good – we are not able to advertise to our administrations in a way that makes debate something that administrations really really want to support and fully fund. And the reason is because we made it such this isolated solipsistic game that people who are really interested in knowledge production don’t necessarily see their relationship to it. We are losing tenure stream jobs for debate directors in our community. The reason is because our community is becoming more and more disconnected from the academy. What we can do in terms of how we produce scholarship for debate, in debate rounds, is that we need to change our focus from the regurgitation of information that is already produced in the academy to an engagement with it so that we are producing new knowledge. So rather than saying the only way you can have a plan for what to do different with democracy assistance is to find what the USFG has already defined it as, and get authors who, you have to find a solvency advocate for whatever change you are going to make. So somebody has already produced that idea and gotten it into print. Stupid! Stupid. We are so smart, this community of people, I have never been around smarter people than the people in the debate community. That’s why I find it exciting. Because I’m really smart, so I enjoy talking to other smart people. And, we are just not making use of the intelligence, the intellectual power that is at a debate tournament, especially when you get to the top of the game, it is amazingly powerful. I have met graduate students and professors that are nowhere near as smart as some of our undergraduates their senior year at the height of their ability to compete. Just have not.
Dr. Reid-Brinkley: Given that this is the case, why are we not producing knew knowledge? Rather than coming at a plan as I have to have a solvency advocate who has already defined this, and I have to define this in the context of exactly how the USFG has previously defined it. I think we should be producing new arguments about what democracy assistance should look like and be like through the USFG. So rather than having a solvency advocate you would have evidentiary support to change parts of your argument. Just like writing an academic paper. If all academic papers were was regurgitation of someone else’s argument, it would never get published. The whole point of academic scholarship is for you to identify what’s being said in the field or around a particular issue and what’s missing from that, and then you do something to demonstrate why that thing that’s missing in that scholarship should be there, and you make an argument about how we need to expand our understanding of this situation. Does that make sense to you? So it doesn’t make sense that the ways we in which we engage in policy making is to simply chain it out to what something else someone has already thought of. When we have all this intellectual power, we should be producing new policy. That would be the change. That would change our very way of thinking about what the game is that we are playing, and what its potential connection is to both the academy but also politics. And that would create the space for teams who want to talk about anti-blackness or teams that want to talk about the defining nature of gender and how we engage in policy. It would allow all these different things because our very frame of reference for understanding what the game is that we are engaging in would change, it would open up fields of literature, it would make sense that people are saying we need a three tier methodology where we look at organic intellectuals we look at other scholars and we look at our personal experience, guess what, that’s how you write a [ed] academic paper now.
Dr. Reid-Brinkley: How about you just get with the program?
Odekirk: Its so obvious, but I’ve never seen it. You are so right, but I’m having a major ‘a-ha moment’ right now, to be honest. You are so [ed] right. Its also so been there my whole life, but I have literally never thought that, and.. duh.
Dr. Reid-Brinkley: Yeah, that’s how I feel about it, like duh! Know what I mean? Then we have a much better argument to make to our administrations about the significance of our programs, we can start connecting debate tournament final rounds to what’s going on in public policy research institutions. What we produce could literally provide an entrance for our arguments to actually affect public policy because of the intellectual power our community holds. Why are we not making use of the things that would get our programs support? It doesn’t make sense to me. That’s why debate is collapsing to this very small small small society. Once that collapse between the NDT and CEDA happened, have you watched the community shrink over time? It just has gotten smaller. And it will continue to get smaller, because we will continue to disconnect ourselves from the academy. But why are we not in conversations on a consistent basis with our authors? Duh!? This is why whats happening in black debate. Is more fascinating than what is happening anywhere else. I’m really interested in Spurlock interviewing Spanos about debate. Im interested in the fact that Damiyr & Miguel, members of the Towson squad, me and some other black debate people got invited by Dylan Rodriguez to appear at the American Studies Conference to talk about what’s happening in debate and activism and scholarship around blackness in issues like prison, etc. I’m interested in that, because these scholars are like ‘woah, yall are talking about this stuff here?’ and they are like watching video links of the students debating, and like they’re on our Resistance homepage. I have created a Facebook Resistance page that’s private that all of the movement and its coalition members are on. So, I get requests, I put you on if you are a coalition member, Wilderson is on there, Dylan Rodriguez is on there, Sexton is on there, you know what I mean? And, we just…that’s what debate should look like. Academics should be participating, they shouldn’t control it, but you should be able to come talk to us in our theories about the topic. How about that? You don’t need to write evidence for you about the Arab Spring for me to describe to you why my work on African American culture and hip hop are relevant to thinking about what’s going on in the Arab Spring. I simply am teaching you to chain my theory through another example. That’s how you write an academic paper. You take somebody else’s theory, and you don’t just map it exactly on to what it is that you are working on. You have to figure out what the relationship is between the two. That’s the kind of stuff we could produce as a community, every year, on topics. We just are not taking advantage of that. And, in that process, because of how we have defined debate, it is exclusionary. We do have these ideal debaters who look like white males, white straight men with money and class, and those white men who don’t fit that, are few and far between. They often get up there, but they still is sort of like a little weird, because you don’t perform white masculinity middle to upper class in an appropriate manner, so they are cool with you, but you’re still freaky. We make those kinds of judgments because we are just so insulated. Our thinking is so small. Smaller than it what we should and could be. And, that’s my debate future. That’s my vision of what it could look like, my dream that lets me walk around at tournaments and be okay with the fact that supposedly I’m despised by the elites, higher-ups in the community, and people that used to be my friends, and that would speak to me on a regular basis and that I would run up to and hug, avoid my eyes in the hallway. Or that I’m not qualified to write about debate, but neither is Spanos because he was an outsider, but I’m not qualified to write about it because I’m an insider. But, Casey Harrigan, and Jarrod Atchison, and Pannetta are…there is no question of their qualifications. I’m sorry, I thought I got a PhD from the number one program in rhetoric in the country. I’m sorry, I thought that was the case. I thought I was a national award winning scholar, for my writing, published writing. I thought that was the case, and that would make me somehow qualified to talk about debate a little bit… but, clearly not. But, once your black. Once you say your black, then your biased.
Odekirk: you’re biased.
Dr. Reid-Brinkley: You’re biased
Dr. Reid-Brinkley: Yup, your subjective, your opinion doesn’t matter.
Odekirk: not objective.
Dr. Reid-Brinkley: right, despite the fact that you are an award winning author and a scholar and you actually get published writing. Your opinion doesn’t matter.
Odekirk: OK, I just want to say thanks, obviously we couldn’t do this without talking to you. And, uh, you know, through out the course of these guys (LMU) run, and I’m just going to speak for myself, I just would like to talk to you more about all this [ed]. And uh… if something comes up, we may need to consult you.
Dr. Reid-Brinkley: You both should feel free to use me as a resource. I am a resource. The good thing the debate community has done in ostracizing me is to let me be available to coach the kids. I be with Towson, I be with West Georgia, I be chatting with Louisville, you know what I’m sayin’, I be down with Emporia. So it has let me be free to watch the movement teams. There is a synergistic relationship, I am the only coach that moves between those teams easily. Amongst on all their coaching staffs.
Odekirk: Feel free to move on to this [ed].
Dr. Reid-Brinkley: Of course, if that’s cool with you, I love what you do.