by Mariah Cady
It seems that, sometimes, no matter how fast I can speak, how much I can prep, how intricately I can build a case, how assertively I can cross, how well I can frontline, my identity in debate is often determined not from those characteristics that build a talented debater but from my slightly higher-pitched voice and my slightly shorter stature. In some way, we as a debate community have created an atmosphere in which sexism and discrimination often thrives – even without our explicit awareness.
It seems decades ago I walked into Room 314 for my first after school debate practice, where my first captain invited me to the front of the room and, of course, made me cry. Don’t worry, Drew never intended to do so, but, sometimes, the pressure of the debate world, or at first, public speaking and dead puppies, can get to all of us. In fact, I’ve cried quite a few times throughout my debating career, not just as the result of a speaking hurdle, but also as a result of sexist comments and attitudes that have permeated our debate sphere and perspectives. I just want to clarify, however, that while, in those moments, it doesn’t seem it, debate and the experiences and friendships we gain are most definitely worth it. For every minute I’ve spent upset in debate, there’s been a thousand hours I’ve spent cracking debate puns with my partner, singing Disney soundtracks on every never-ending road-trip, rapping Hamilton with my best friends, eating Cane’s and Chick Fil A, prepping after-school, brainstorming, watching PF videos, and holding late night talks in a hotel room in nearly every American city. And so, I can truly say, I wholeheartedly love this activity, regardless of its shortcomings. However,
Here’s the Truth:
If we are indeed so dedicated to this activity, we must recognize the fundamental flaws within its system and work tirelessly to correct the discrimination present within our community.
Sadly, this statement is not universally understood. As a formerly mis-informed member of my debate team once expressed, the belief that if women, racial minorities, or any other such group experience any worse performance in debate than the average white male, it is most likely not due to any prohibitive factors, but rather their work ethic, is commonplace. Accordingly, here is the most problematic mindset in the debate community that hinders the recognition of the issues so essential to progress: if acknowledgement is not befalling others, it’s their fault, not ours; if they just worked harder, they would achieve everything too. Why is this a sentiment we so often hear expressed at debate tournaments and in our educational and extracurricular spheres? I believe that privilege often shuts one’s eyes to the hardships experienced by others, whether in regards to socio-economic status or gender disparity; I believe platforms through which we can share our stories and address these issues inherent within our debate community are essential to the future progression and accessibility of Public Forum debate, because before we can work to fix these issues, they must first be recognized, not just in certain spheres, but rather on a universal scale within debate.
And so, today, I want to share my stories regarding instances and types of sexism I’ve experienced in debate. In doing so, I recognize that I have not experienced anywhere near some of the most horrific experiences regarding such injustice in our community and encourage those who have to speak out against such appalling rhetoric and behavior, especially under-represented communities whose realities are not generally acknowledged. However, I hope that, in some small way, my stories can encourage others to share their own and address the sexism rampant in the community we so wish to better.
The 2015 Peach State Invitational – my third tournament, my first taste of exclusivity. I walk past a fellow debater after our round as he not-so-subtly whispers to his partner, “I’d tap that.” Surprised, I don’t react. I look at my partner, who frowns back at me. I don’t address it; I move on, somehow believing that that was just ‘normal.’ (I recognize that this a universal problem, not confined to the realm of debate. However, I have noticed its extensive reach in the debate community, and thus find it essential to the discussion of sexist norms in this capacity).
Isidore Newman 2016 – My partner and I walk into round as our opponents remark to each other: “It’s the hot ones. We’re fine.” We sit down, ignoring the obvious inappropriate comment, and debate, pretending like it had never happened, pretending that it didn’t upset us, just as many debaters in my experience have similarly reacted. Somehow, instead of addressing this issue, we’ve been trained, ironically, to avoid the personal confrontation and simply continue with the deliberated confrontation, debating resolutional impacts that will never actually be influenced by our rebuttals while ignoring the very real implications of widespread sexism on debaters and the future of our society. I believe that we need to be confrontational in our approach to these problems; not confrontational in the sense of anger and aggression, but rather in the sense of questioning and explanation. If we are not, we may never reach those who continue with their sexist attitudes perhaps without even a conscious recognition that they are doing so.
Myers Park 2017 – My introductory junior debate round begins with a judge’s interruption of my constructive: “Pull your skirt down.” I remember the moment it happened, for a slight second the watering of my eyes, the next second the anger and frustration. In cross she would remind me, in speech she would signal to me, in prep she would glare at me – my skirt was too short for her liking. I glanced at the male-male team sitting to my right, frozen, embarrassed, knowing the length of my skirt in this round determined my success to a larger extent than our debate regarding the harms of THAAD missile defense systems. Through this and unfortunately similar experiences, I have come to the conclusion that the essential recognition of this fundamental sexism in debate is not confined to the debaters themselves, but also to the coaches and judges that shape our understandings of debate from our first round to our very last. Only when those who set expectations for us also acknowledge the flaws of our system will we able to address the very root of these problems.
And lastly, Carrollton 2017 – During my answering of a question in Grand, the guy debating me remarks to his partner, “Bitch.” The judge is shocked, my partner is glaring, my expression is one of confusion. After the round, the judge emphasizes to them the inappropriate nature of their comment, and my partner and I confront the guy afterwards, doing the same, and hoping doing so would allow him the recognition that such labeling is inexcusable, regardless of the target. However, the question remains: Why are women in debate so often painted as aggressive, not assertive, as ‘bitchy,’ not confident? While the reasoning for such conceptualizations may lie in misogynistic culture, I believe the ability to change this precedent lies within us debaters ourselves, in our recognition that these stereotypes are just that – stereotypes, generalizations, un-truths, concepts that can only be addressed through an emphasis on spreading that same recognition throughout our community.
I can’t say that I truly know how to solve any of these issues, and I doubt anyone can. However, I hope my experiences shed some light on sexism in the debate sphere and encourage others to do the same. Before we can properly address these issues, in my opinion, we need to first share our stories. Go on, do the same, confront the problem, and spread the word. You can do it, we can do it, let’s do it. Change the status quo, ensure progression in Public Forum. #ShareOurStory
Much love always,