An Indian-American student in the US has won this year’s National Speech and Debate Tournament, considered to be the most prestigious high school competition in the country. J J Kapur, a Sikh, composed his own persuasive speech titled ‘Let’s Dance’ addressing a social issue. His speech, which won the competition in the category of original oratory, started out with a lively Bollywood dance and focused on his experiences as a Sikh-American youth. He earned top rankings in the semifinal and final rounds of the tournament of champions before earning the championship trophy, the West Des Moines community schools reported. “I found that the story of Bollywood was just that, a story….And this disconnect between story and reality extends far beyond India’s borders. We are a story-telling society. We each seek to provide our scattered and confusing experiences with a sense of coherence, by arranging the episodes of our lives into stories. The problem arises when our complex realities does not match the narrative,” Kapur said in his speech.
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Kapur, who is a Valley High School junior in West Des Moines, Iowa, shared his experience to highlight the stereotyping of Sikh and Muslim identities post-9/11 attacks. He said he was two years old when the September 11, 2001, attacks happened. His family was watching the news when he thought he saw a picture of his father on the screen and pointed it out to his family. It was actually a picture of Al-Qaeda’s former leader Osama Bin Laden. “My father was afraid that Americans would see his beard and turban and think ‘terrorist,'” he said. The teen does not remember this incident, but it was a turning point for his father, who realised how he and his family might be perceived.
His interest in the topic was fuelled by an experience when a group of strangers mocked him at a restaurant, telling him to “Go home, Osama.” “I remember thinking, ‘I’m an American. I’ve lived here my whole life. This is my home,” he said. “As a Sikh minority, I want to use speech and debate to amplify the voice of Sikhs in my community. I want to use the platform I have for advocacy,” Kapur had said. He has participated in an interfaith panel on hate crimes, contributed a digital story to Drake University religion professor Timothy Knepper’s comparison project, and continues to share his story through speech and debate. Kapur’s victory caps off a string of high profile awards, including first-place finishes at the Emory University, Minneapple and Harvard University tournaments.
To qualify the tournament, the debaters have to receive two bids, earned by advancing to late elimination rounds at select individual tournaments. It is held annually at the University of Kentucky and provides the most successful debaters from individual tournaments with a chance to compete with each other.