The Gray Zone

by Grace Homan

Throughout my debate experience thus far, I have had eight different partners, some identifying as male and some identifying as femxle. Experiencing debate through the lens of so different partnerships has opened my eyes to how strikingly different teams are treated depending on the debaters’ perceived identities and the unfortunate biases that come alongside those assumptions. Importantly, I have learned that discrimination does not adhere to one particular type of debate team, but rather, it comes in different forms depending on each partnership dynamic, therefore requiring different measures to improve these actions. To improve the issue of sexism in debate, we must talk in terms of specific situations and solutions to more easily strive for improvement. It is for that reason that I will outline my experiences as on all-femxle teams and on male-femxle teams and what I believe is needed to improve sexism experienced in both situations. Sexism is not black and white, it has a large gray area that requires decoding the specific situation. 

All-Femxle Teams

One of the most negative consequences of debate on all-femxle comes from the normalization of sexism. I identify as femxle, as did my first major debate partner. In our rounds, I never noticed the sexism that I now know that we experienced in round for a couple of reasons. First, I had the conjecture in my mind that sexism always looks the same: extremely obvious and direct. I never noticed the passive sexism in round such as opponents blatantly ignoring my answers or questions during cross, mansplaining, or making remarks in speeches such as “she makes a terrible mistake when she does ‘x’.” By talking to younger debate femxles, I find that many of them have inherited the same conjecture. The issue is prevalent in judging too as often judges do not make eye contact with the femxle team, vote for the male team without truly evaluating the arguments made, allowing for sexist behavior by not calling debaters out, etc. The common definition of sexism being purely black and white needs to be debunked, as sexism does not only occur directly but also passive manners. Whenever a male opponent talked over me in crossfire or mansplained basic concepts to me, the thought that this was sexist behavior never occurred to me and I truly believed that I was wrong, even when I was in reality, totally correct. The second reason why sexism was not evident to me was that, in all-femxle teams, there is nothing to compare your treatment to. It was not until I debated with a male partner that I could see a different level of respect and a more knowledge-based ability to win rounds. It is this type of internalization that causes debate to be extremely unfair to femxles and other marginalized groups because it takes away the positive intellectual satisfaction from the activity which we all crave. When I partner with males, sexism is much more obvious as I can compare the way that opponents or judges treat him versus how they treat me. In femxle teams, this comparison does not exist, therefore, the sexist behavior must be denormalized and exposed for what it truly is. 

It is important to talk about not just the blatantly aggressive behavior onto femxles in round, but also the passive-aggressive behavior in unique situations that further entrench inequality. I was recently at the Milo Cup wherein I experienced rudeness throughout the entire round by my opponents. After the round was over, the judge called them out for their disrespect and noted that such behavior was not acceptable. Taking actions like this, even when it may feel uncomfortable or confrontational, is important to disincentivizing this behavior as well as teaching those who were not consciously aware of their behavior to make a change. Both judges and coaches hold a unique position of authority and respect over young debaters and this platform should be used to encourage equality in the debate sphere to maximize the quality of the activity and to morally improve its system. If you ever experience or witness sexist behavior, do not stand idle. Report it to tab, talk to a trusted adult or contact Beyond Resolved. Being proactive is paramount in maximizing our ability to debunk sexist behavior. 

Male-Femxle Teams

I have been a part of a few male-femxle teams and I am a part of one right now. The biggest change I see, moving from partnering with a femxle to a male, is a major shift in the power dynamic. This power dynamic is seen in recognition by judges, opponents and debate peers. When the judge gives the RFD, they often only look to my partner, rather than to me, despite giving us mutual feedback. Similarly, when we arrive at rounds, our opponents often look to him when introducing themselves or when instigating the coin flip.  In grand crossfire, his answers or questions are validated and responded to far more than my own. Another very prominent issue right now pertains to the concept of “debate clout” in that teams are often recognized by debate peers as the male partner’s name and the femxle as “her” or “his partner.” All of these issues are rooted in deeper, more ingrained beliefs that womxn’s presence is not as valuable as men’s. This is not only morally problematic, but it prohibits debate from reaching its full capacity as it silences many voices. 

Debate is a partner activity and two people per team are equal and deserve to be treated with the same respect. We have to remember that sexism is rooted inside of us and that to stop habitually displaying sexist behavior, we must be conscientious of our actions, thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes toward not just every debater, but every person in our daily lives. To bring healthy treatment into the debate sphere it must start with ourselves and establish good habits of practicing respect and acknowledgment of every human. Surely, there are systemic issues in the way that debate and other important discussions have had over many years, but systems are ultimately made of individuals who can dictate its impact onto others through their actions. 

It is important to create a safe space for marginalized people to express their own experiences of discrimmination since it opens the door for those who may feel silenced if they feel that their experience does not fit into the perfect stereotype. Marginalization has to become a more prominent and diversified discussion in our community in order for us better improve specific situations with specific solutions. This can be brought into our own teams by offering an avenue for open dialogue with a trusted person while including the option of anonymity. Moreover, educating debaters on discrimmination is key and one of the loudest ways that we can do this is through exposing inappropriate behavior, using potential platforms and or speaking out. Finally, we must remember that true change requires honesty with ourselves, and how we can improve the debate community to make it an enjoyable and safe space for everyone

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