The Importance of Representation

by Arya Mirza

After seeing no gender minorities in TOC quarterfinals for the second year in a row, I feel compelled to write about something that has been on my mind for a while.

This year, at a local, our only novice girl-girl team came up to me, and started telling me how “bad” they were at debate, and how they wanted to quit. I asked them what happened and they said they feel “out of place and stupid” when they don’t understand arguments. I sat down with them and walked them through their case, while reassuring them they are capable and intelligent. I made it my goal to help this team as much as I could throughout their novice season. Meanwhile, another novice guy-guy team spent every local trying to undermine my coaching and mansplain arguments to me. The most frustrating part was that I couldn’t even blame them for it. The whole year they had watched male debaters, coaches, and judges act like this, so they were simply modeling behavior they’d seen throughout the season.

By the end of the novice season, the girl-girl team was putting in less and less work, feeling unmotivated because they saw nothing in this activity that indicated they were welcome. I began to feel disappointed as I continued to try to help them, but their hearts were not in it. Meanwhile, the guy-guy team flourished at almost every tournament and felt very confident in their abilities to debate.

At their last tournament of the season, as I watched the girl-girl team dejected after not breaking at Novice State, the guy-guy team was thriving in outrounds, I realized something: why should I expect this girl-girl team to feel motivated to work hard in an activity that does nothing but reject their efforts? Why should I expect them to have confidence that they will succeed when they do not have an adequate amount of successful gender minority debaters to look up to? Rather than an exclusively “national circuit problem”, gender disparities begin to emerge even in our novice year. 

I joined debate because I saw my intelligent sister succeed in the activity and thought it was possible for me to achieve that same success. After my first year on the circuit in a girl-girl partnership with some success, I’ve noticed that I feel the same dejection the two novice girls felt. Why should I continue to put effort into this activity when I am not in an environment where teammates, judges, coaches, and prep groups include me? Why should I continue to put myself in an environment where I don’t feel adequately represented? Representation was the reason I joined this activity and the reason I almost quit it was due to a lack thereof. I felt so out of place on my own team, whether it be because of my gender or alternative reasons, it was enough to make me want to leave debate. 

We ultimately hired a femxle coach for next year who, without even having coached me yet, made me feel confidence in my abilities as a womxn in debate that I had never felt before. Her astronomical success, and pledge to include me in a team I felt so ostracized from, gave me hope to continue in debate. I was ready to quit an activity I had invested countless time and so much money into. Simply seeing such a successful womxn in debate, whether it be as a debater or coach, was compelling enough for me to stay.

We cannot wonder why we see such high quitting rates for gender minorities in this activity when we give them no hope of succeeding, and few role models. There is a stark difference in seeing Elisa, Rabhya, and Anika in 2018 TOC finals and witnessing a womxn champion the 2018 TOC, versus witnessing no representation from quarterfinals on these past 2 years. If we want to make this an environment that welcomes all genders, and if we want to decrease the gender disparities of this activity, it starts with giving minority debaters minority role models to look up to. 

We all know there are gender minority debaters who are just as capable as the 16 men in quarterfinals this year, and last year. This is not an attempt to invalidate their success, but the amount of male success this activity sees would not happen if gender discrimination was not so pervasive. If every round was truly “tabula rasa” as so many judges preach, gender minorities wouldn’t be called a bitch for matching their male counterparts’ aggressiveness, they wouldn’t receive comments about their clothes and voice, they wouldn’t have such low break rates (7% at Gold TOC this year), and they wouldn’t be so sexualized.

Evaluate rounds based on who truly won the debate, biases aside, because that’s the key to picking up more gender minorities, and seeing more representation in outrounds. Until we make this space more equitable, and see more gender minorities succeeding, they will not feel as compelled to join, nor will they want to stay involved past high school. More and more of us continue to quit debate because we feel as though there is no place for us. Sexist behavior has permeated throughout every aspect of this activity, and until people benefitting from these power structures do more than slapping a Beyond Resolved sticker onto their computer, change will not occur.

Please listen to and act on our experiences. Increasing representation and inclusivity is the very least this community needs to start doing. All of us – debaters, judges, coaches, program directors, board members, and others – have an obligation to be more inclusive and equitable if we ever want to see PF go in the right direction. Progress not regress.

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