Equity in Debate: Problems & Solutions | Champion Briefs
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February 2, 2023

Equity in Debate: Problems & Solutions

By Rhea Nandwani

We often hear the phrase: "debate is a microcosm of the real world." The more that I think about this, the more I realize the merit that this claim has. Debate is not a space that is isolated from worldly inequities. In fact, many of the issues that plague society at large continue into our community. With this in mind, it is critical to take the time to reflect on our own privileges and biases and discover ways we can use our power to create a more educational, inclusive community for everyone.

In this article, I hope to discuss some of the inclusivity issues that reflect in debate and the real world and suggest practical solutions to improve our community.

To begin this post, I ask that you spend time reflecting on the following questions about privilege and inequity in Public Forum debate:

  • When you attend a debate tournament, do you see other competitors that look like you?
  • Have you ever feared that you may be misgendered during debate rounds?
  • Has a judge ever commented that you are “too aggressive” when you are simply being assertive?
  • Do you have many teammates that you can work with to prepare for tournaments?

Below I have summarized some of the disparities that different groups and identities may experience in the debate space. This is not an exhaustive list by any means; instead, I hope that you and your teams can utilize the information below as a starting point for additional introspective reflection and subsequent action.

Women in PF Debate

  • There are vast discrepancies between the treatment of male and female debaters. Judges (lay and tech) are often more likely to comment on women’s debate style rather than the actual content. This can include tone of voice, volume in cross-ex, attire, hair, and other factors that do not adequately measure a debater's skills. For example, the sole comment on my partner’s ballot at a local tournament our novice year was, “young women should not wear sneakers in a professional setting.” I have also heard so many of my peers explain that judges have dropped them because they were “too emotional” or “too aggressive.” While male debaters are certainly not immune to unnecessary comments from judges or other competitors, stereotypes and implicit biases exacerbate the bigotry that women face.
  • Judges are not the only members of the community that treat women differently than men. Other competitors, teammates, and coaches can also consciously or unconsciously inflict pain and discomfort on female debaters. Whether it's commenting on attire, over-explaining answers to questions, talking over opponents, or making sarcastic remarks, we all must be intentional about how we treat women in debate.
  • The way female debaters are treated is directly reflected in retention rates. In “An Empirical Study of Gender Differences in Competitive High School Debate,” Yi and Nie report that female debaters are 30.34% more likely to quit than male debaters. In addition, gender norms expound effects on female success in debate. Yi and Nie continue that female-female teams are 17.1% less likely, and male-female teams are 10.0% less likely to win a debate round against male-male teams.

Resources and Action Steps:

  1. Recognize that women face unique challenges in debate. The first step to action is awareness. When we have an understanding of our privilege, we can be more conscious of our actions. Spend time reflecting on times when you may have excluded women from the debate space. Ask yourself questions like “was she “too much” or was she matching my energy?”
  2. Make an intentional effort to be respectful when you are debating, especially with female debaters. Women in the activity must rebel against gender norms that have been instilled in us from a very early age. With that in mind, limit talking over each other, respectfully listen to answers, and treat others the way they deserve to be treated. This should be the standard for all competitors, regardless of gender identity. I understand that debate can get competitive and heated at times; however, there is no excuse to treat people in an uncivil manner.
  3. Engage in dialogue. Talk to other people on the circuit at tournaments and offer support where necessary. In addition, it is critical to be discussing these issues on your own teams. Create a list of ways you can support female debaters at your school and cultivate respect and awareness in all members on your team.
  4. Elevate female voices on your team. Female leadership is critical to providing mentorship to novices and signal an accepting environment for women on the team.
  5. Check out these testimonials to learn more about female debate experiences and listen to the community these issues impact: https://girltalkfilm.com/resources/
  6. Financial Privilege in the Activity

    • During my time in debate, I existed in a bubble. I attended a high school with a very well-established debate team, an incredible coaching staff, and access to a plethora of resources, yet, I assumed that people had similar advantages as me. I now recognize that could not be further from the truth, so I want to spend some time highlighting the deeply exclusive and classist nature of the debate community as it exists now in an effort to broaden perspectives and spark critical conversations. First, national debate tournaments are an extreme financial burden. Traveling across the country, paying entry fees, and staying at hotels are all costs that many people simply cannot afford. In addition, debate summer camps are incredibly expensive. Students that attend camp can obtain prep, form connections with other debaters on the circuit, and have the opportunity to learn from very successful alumni. Debate camp is lauded as an important tool for developing skills as a debater; however, it is completely inaccessible to most people.
    • Second, preparation for competition looks entirely different when you have a large network of resources. When I was in high school, my team utilized our coaches, hired college students, and purchased resources to prepare. We also had laptops, access to high-quality wifi, and subscriptions to news outlets and published journals that allowed us to obtain useful research. Furthermore, there were over 10 teams that could split the prep burden and collaborate to produce blocks and cases. The resources that I had access to are completely different than some of my peers on the circuit. They had to compete with a shared laptop and research they found completely on their own, as they were the only team at their school. It is important to recognize that every tool we use in debate is not guaranteed or accessible for everyone in the community.
    • Third, the attire that the debate space promotes actively excludes many individuals. The NSDA recommends suits, dresses, dress shoes, and other professional and conservative clothing. Professional clothing is often very costly; requirements that are upheld by schools, tournaments, and judge-training programs can demand students pay hundreds of dollars a year for clothes to wear to tournaments. While some people do not have to worry about these extra charges, for others, professional wear for debate does not fit in the budget.

    Action Steps:

    1. Make an effort to connect with people on the circuit who may not have all the advantages that you have. Exchange numbers and offer to have practice rounds or discuss prep for tournaments.
    2. Engage in dialogue on your teams. Recognize some of the advantages you have and discuss ways you can make your local circuit more accessible.
    3. Be more lenient with your dress code requirements. Offer suggestions on places you can find appropriate clothing for an affordable price, like local thrift stores or department stores. If you ever judge a tournament, don’t factor clothing into your decision.
    4. If you have the financial capability, donate to local causes. You can cover a school’s judging obligation, donate to a local school’s program, or donate to debate causes on go fund me.

    Queer Debaters

    • Oftentimes we are programmed to utilize pronouns to refer to people. It is impossible to know, however, the pronouns a person uses just by looking at them. Our external appearance does not always match our internal identity. LGBTQIA+ debaters endure constant misgendering and questions about their pronouns on a daily basis.
    • Queer debaters often face unsolicited bigotry from coaches, judges, and competitors on the circuit. It is important to recognize that people are subject to discrimination and hate just by existing as a queer person in the debate space and life. With this in mind, we have to do our part to take the space we occupy and make it safer for people who are not a part of the accepted majority.

    Action Steps

    1. If you are comfortable, put your pronouns in Tabroom. When we all add our pronouns to tab, we ease some of the pressure that LGBTQIA+ individuals face and offer support through norm-setting.
    2. Avoid assuming pronouns; you can refer to them using gender-neutral language
    3. Do not get upset when other competitors express anger if you accidentally misgender them. Being referred to by the wrong pronouns can cause deep psychological trauma, even if it was unintentional. People have the right to feel however they need to when they are misgendered.
    4. Allyship is a constant process of learning and seeking improvement. Make an effort to learn more about homophobia, violence against transgender individuals, and other discrimination that hurts queer people in and out of debate. Read books, listen to podcasts, and listen to queer voices.
    5. Call out behavior from your peers that is harmful to members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
    6. Read this blog post about a debater who has spoken about experiences that LGBTQIA+ debaters face in the community: https://on-sean.com/2021/02/25/love-hate-and-dysphoria-my-relationship-to-public-forum-debate/

    BIPOC Individuals in the Debate Space

    • Representation matters. When we see people that look like us or identify like us, we feel seen and affirmed. Public Forum has a critical lack of representation for BIPOC debaters, especially individuals who identify as Black. Through my time in debate, I can count on two hands the number of times I have debated a Black competitor. I have also rarely seen Black representation at the debate camps I attended or on coaching staffs. It is a privilege to enter a debate round and see people that look like you. It is a privilege to be coached by people who understand your experiences.

    Action Steps:

    1. Call out moments of racism in the debate space. A partner is considered an ally when they recognize and address moments where their partner is being unfairly treated. The burden of calling out racism should not only be one that BIPOC individuals have to carry.
    2. Be more inclusive by creating a safe environment for BIPOC debaters. Include them in things like prep groups and friend groups on the circuit.
    3. Be intentional about the arguments you run. To run an argument that impacts to a marginalized community, you should:
      1. Cite authors from that identity
      2. Be very well-read on literature. To run arguments like this, you should prepare more than you would for other arguments.
      3. Be committed to losing every round. If you are running an argument about marginalized communities, you should do it because you are passionate about the issues and genuinely believe there is a connection between the resolution and your argument. Even if you lose rounds, you should still be passionate about the argument.
    4. Educate yourself on issues that affect BIPOC communities in and out of the activity.
    5. Amplify marginalized voices by reading and sharing their words: https://www.beyond-resolved.org/post/a-letter-to-debate-from-the-black-community

    Ableism in Debate

    • I am the first to admit that I have always internally sighed when people have asked me to send a case doc. I assumed it was because they wanted to steal cards. When people ask for speech docs in Public Forum; however, we do not know the reason. They could struggle with hearing or auditory processing. There may be an environmental issue that hinders their comprehension of your case. Regardless, if someone needs accommodations, we should all comply without asking questions.
    • Tournaments can be very over-stimulating for individuals. Tournaments are loud, filled with social interaction, and run on tight schedules. These conditions make it difficult for some individuals to learn and participate. To mitigate this, try to offer people on your team the option of a quiet room and check in with your teammates frequently.
    • Many judges evaluate speaker points based on enunciation and tone. For people with speech impediments, this is largely out of their control. Instead, of evaluating speaker points on how arguments are presented, I consider strategic decisions made in round. For example, if I like that a team collapsed on an argument, I reward them with higher speaker points. I will never take into account presentation or appearance in my evaluation of speaker points.

    A Few Final Words

    As debaters, we are developing our voices. Some of us are even interested in entering politics or law-related fields in the future. As we spend time in this activity and cultivate skills that will benefit us for the rest of our lives, there is no better time to practice our advocacy than the immediate present. By becoming aware of issues in the debate space and recognizing our privileges, we can begin to take steps to make the activity more equitable.