By Neha Malik
Despite shifting demographics and the rise of student activism, Willamette’s institutions remain stagnant and unequipped to provide support for students of color. This is overtly present within our student organizations. I am a member of Willamette’s Debate Union and over the last year or so, I have both experienced and have listened to countless stories regarding the ways in which people of color on the debate team have felt discriminated against, marginalized and uncomfortable to the point of quitting from an organization that has lauded itself as “inclusive” and “women-led.” Many of us have felt unable to speak up about the internal problems we have witnessed and I, myself, have considered simply scratching this piece. Yet, every time I do so, I am reminded of how many women of color I have talked to since being back on campus, how many of them have found themselves in similar situations, feeling similar frustrations and, like myself, feeling worn down into thinking it is not worth it to state their concerns, to lay themselves out, as it will not change anything in the end. As I finally sit down and take pen to paper, I am reminded that our very hesitation in doing so is indicative of the problems that I wish to address in the first place, namely that I still find myself facing again and again the hypocrisy and harms of white performative allyship on our campus.
I would like to begin by sharing a narrative that I was entrusted with and an experience that I had at the debate union’s biannual debate at the Oregon State Penitentiary in January. It is important not only for me to share J.K.’s story for what it is on its own, but also for what the experience put me through and taught me about the ways in which debate as a sport operates and the ways in which debaters, students, and allies, form your ideologies through a disconnect between the “marginalized bodies” you discuss in classrooms and the lives, like mine and J.K.’s, that continue to exist outside your textbooks and arguments. When you leave a debate round or classroom, you have the option of simply setting aside your notes and closing your books, removing yourself from the discourse while still preserving your identity. We do not get that choice. When we leave our classrooms, we still carry with us the traces of that discourse. My body is continuously raced, both through my own knowledge that as a brown woman in elite white spaces my existence is inherently political and through the imposition of that discourse onto my body by you when you look upon me and take note of my brown skin.
J.K.’s family applied to emigrate to the United States, but it comes to no surprise to those of us whose families have dealt with the legal immigration process that the financial drain of applying and waiting took its toll ,so much so that J. K’s family decided to enter the United States without paperwork. In Korea, J.K.’s parents held jobs that, at the very least, reflected their education and it was with great pride that J.K. told me that his mother had been a teacher. Once in the States, however, J.K.’s parents, like so many other immigrants, were forced to settle for jobs that ignored their credentials, working as bathroom janitors at Portland International Airport. I still remember the weariness in J.K.’s face as he paused for a moment before saying, “She hates dirty things, couldn’t stand it.” J.K. went on and explained that he eventually makes it to the University of Oregon and attends the college for one year before having to face the fact that he no longer has the funds to pay tuition. J.K. turns to selling what he termed “bottles of weed,” and ends up making a sale to an older man, specifying to me that the man was 25 years old. The older man ends up not paying J.K. for the weed, and the young J.K. decides to rob him for the $150 or so he is owed.
At 19 years old, J.K. is charged with robbery. His family, nearly bankrupt at this point, collects all their remaining funds, borrowing money from relatives and family friends. J.K. is bailed out and obtains a passport, making it to Korea where he spends the next 2 years serving in the military.
In this time, J.K.’s sister’s immigration papers finally get processed, after years of waiting. She is called in for the citizenship interview, a moment which inspires fear in so many immigrants as they wait to be grilled on every aspect of their application and lives. The authorities ask her whether or not she knows that her brother has a charge in the state of Oregon. Afraid of saying no and being denied for lying and afraid of speaking the truth and being denied anyways, his sister settles on “I do not know.”
Her citizenship gets denied.
At this point, J.K.’s family has been almost entirely deported to Korea. J.K., doing well in the military, hears of his sister’s rejection. He informs his military officer, makes it back to the United States and turns himself in to the Oregon State authorities.
I learned these details of J.K.’s life over a conversation in which he and I went back and forth, offering tidbits and questions here and there as we shared the stories of our families to each other, a conversation in which I found the narratives of my family and friends too closely mirroring the frustrations and pains and dehumanization caused by the United States’ immigration policies in his own account.
I do not know how to explain to you who has never lived with the threat of deportation of yourself or your loved ones, you who has never been forced through the trauma of attempting to navigate the legal processes of immigration, what it was like to be sat in that room at the Penitentiary and listen to this man tell me his story, at times with tears in both our eyes. But in order for me to even try to begin to explain that moment, you must understand the only reason he felt compelled to tell me his story, placing both himself and me into an emotional, politically charged and fragile space was directly due to a debate that implied that it was a valid and credible topic to argue whether or not our families and our lives had value. To argue the actual facts of our lives and of so many others as a sport.
The resolution for the round at the Penitentiary was essentially “This House Supports that dreamers and children of illegal immigrants should be deported back to their country of origin or parents’ countries of origin.” There has been some contention about the actual wording of the topic after the fact, but the general set-up for the round and the arguments that resulted, are still captured by the above statement. I do not remember much from the round itself, other than being infuriated that this was a debate that was actually happening and being treated like a legitimate topic by all involved. I do remember wanting to walk out of the room so that I would no longer have to listen to arguments that comprised of non-immigrant bodies debating the fates of my loved ones, but there was no real way for me to leave.
After a debate, there is a period of time in which the judges deliberate the rankings of the teams; during this time, students and inmates are encouraged to socialize and share their thoughts on the round. I was sitting by
myself as people began to mill around, trying to process the last hour when J.K. approached me. “Are you Indian?” He asked me right away, sparking a conversation in which he shared the above story, prefacing it by telling me that he was tired of hearing people debate and discuss experiences they simply do not understand and have no connection to. I wearily agreed.
J.K. never once let on that he was bitter about the circumstances of his life, only stating that he regrets the toll his actions took on his parents. Instead, he explained that he does not quite know what to make of the United States. On one hand, he said, he has spent nearly 15 years of his life, the entirety of his 20s and 30s in the Penitentiary, removed from his family and unable to start one of his own. Yet, he said, despite that, being at the Penitentiary did allow him to get educated. He said he became religious a few years back and that it has helped him greatly in coping with his situation and thinking of the future.
One of the most touching moments of the whole evening was when he shared these thoughts of his future, as he will soon fulfill his sentence and be deported back to Korea. The joy on his face when he told me that he would soon see his parents, now 65 and 64, was one of the purest things I have ever seen. He told me that his sister has children now, nieces and nephews he has never seen. His parents want him to get married and have children when he comes back to Korea, so that he can pass on the family name as he is the only son. J.K. is apprehensive about this, however, as he said he wants to focus on earning some money to pay his parents back for “all they had to go through.”
When we were forced to end our conversation, J.K. turned to me and told me that it was not often that he told people his story in this way, but he had hoped I would understand, and would have the opportunity to tell others.
The emotional weight of hearing him speak of what he and his parents went through was devastating and I could not, and cannot, shake the constant realization that his story could have easily been that of my own parents, my relatives, my friends’ families. I was left shaking as our time came to end and we said our goodbyes, but it was the moment that I turned to face members of Willamette’s debate team that brought me to tears. As our team asked me what was wrong and whether I was okay, I was left with the realization that I could not explain to most everyone in that group what I was experiencing. Words spilled out of me as I tried to tell them, but all I really wanted was to have someone there that would simply understand the weight of J.K.’s story, the consequences of having the debate we just did.
My anger and frustration came afterwards when I had calmed down enough to reflect on the fact that so many of those who would have understood in that moment had left the team or were thinking of leaving. The truth is that a disproportionate amount of women of color have left Willamette’s debate team in the last year, and many of those who are still a part of the team are planning to leave or are seriously considering it, myself included.
Not every person of color on the team has the same experiences of course, and there are multiple reasons why those that I have talked have been compelled to consider leaving. Each time I have shared my own frustrations regarding both Willamette’s team and debate as an organization, however, I keep hearing the same thing over and over again reflected back to me: “I don’t feel valued.”
It is worrisome for even one student of color to feel devalued on our campus, however, when two, three, five women of color in a highly regarded student organization experience the effect of elitism and white privilege to the extent that it forces them out of said organization, my silence on what I see happening becomes my complicity.
My critique is two-fold: firstly, a consideration of the ways in which debate specifically encourages a theoretical utilization of marginalized bodies to win trophies but is exclusory to those same bodies in its practice and secondly, of the ways in which the problem I identify is not exclusive to WU debate, but is instead a persistent part of campus that operates in subtle but toxic ways.
Debate is, at its core, a competition that forces us to think quickly and thus often superficially. It is commonly conceived as an artificial activity that asks us to put aside our own political views, favoring the act of arguing over the actual arguments themselves. I do understand the benefits of competitive debate as an activity, as I’ve been a part of it since high school and truly would defend that it has significantly encouraged the cultivation of my own political voice and speaking abilities. That said, however, because of the high-stakes nature of debate, when we get caught up in the end reward of a gavel and shiny trophy, we risk forsaking our very core values and ethics. You risk valuing a finalist plaque over the personhoods of those on your team.
You must, as both an intellectual and as simply human, as well as a community, reconsider how issues we debate do not exist in a vacuum, but rather affect each and everyone of us, even if you feel removed from them because you are not directly affected on a day-to-day basis. I urge you to restructure the ways in which you utilize your “marginalized bodies” in a round as an impact point to win over a judge and begin to to think of how, while discussing the effect the resolution has on marginalized groups is important, it is equally important to do your research and educate yourselves.
Moreover, you must reconsider the ways in which an undercurrent of white privilege devalues your own teammates. You must be conscious of the irony present when debate promotes itself on social media platforms as all-inclusive and feminist while in reality ignoring the disparities I have outlined here. This involves not only being actively willing to be criticized and begin dialogues, but more importantly, paying attention to the ways funds and resources are allocated to combat favoritism and elitism.
This experience is, again, not limited to debate, but rather can be found in every aspect of our campus, from its organizations to its administration. Too often, in our classrooms we get wrapped up in what we are discussing and forget that there is a world around us. We take one small step towards progress and then pat ourselves on the back and say that our work is done. I challenge all of you to push beyond this culture of self-congratulation and performative allyship so that we can work towards a campus that is no longer exhausting for its students of color. My oppression is not just a talking point.