Guest column: Debate suspension stifles critical thinking about discrimination

As a debater who is genderqueer, I found the suspension of the Debate Team devastating. Debate offered me a safe space where I could explore my identity. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the suspension is that the administration never bothered to learn about debate; they never came to a tournament, practice or our presentation at the Undergraduate Conference. If they had, I cannot imagine how they could indict the entirety of the team’s culture, especially since they did not meet with all the members of the policy team, or anyone on the parliamentary team.

The best thing about debate is that it is, by its nature, immensely self-reflective. Debate is a unique activity because it invites challenges to the typical norms of the activity, particularly surrounding accessibility for debaters of underprivileged identities, and constantly searches for methods to end exclusion. For example, the Whitman team has made arguments about how solely discussing issues along the public/private divide can lead to debates that focus only on macro effects of policy, which can reinforce sexist ideas about who counts as important. Through these self-reflective debates, the Whitman team gained skills and knowledge that we used during the Title IX process we went through last year, and then applied the Title IX training we received to workshops at the summer debate camp, the high school tournament and the team prep session. Both the administration and independent reviewers praised our progress.

This year we hired a coach who specialized in debating about how to make debate more inclusive for women. During her college career, Kendra read arguments about gendered language and how to combat sexism and sexual violence. Kevin (the debate director) hired Kendra largely because he knew there were members of our team who wanted to read similar arguments. Indeed, one debater spent the season making arguments about how to make debate a home for women. She had the whole team behind her –– she was paired with the most experienced debater on the team and consistently received extra coaching to ensure she had the support she needed. One of my fondest memories of this year was the first time she and her partner made it to an elimination round. The whole team was in the room, doing last-minute research, helping them prepare for the debate and cheering them along.

Two more women debaters joined the policy team in October and immediately traveled to the UPS tournament. They decided to take some time off from debate and came back again shortly before the Texas tournament. Because Texas does not offer a JV section and is known for being a challenging tournament, the coaches and Kevin decided to only send varsity debaters. However, both the coaches and Kevin wanted to make sure the two of them, as well as the two other JV debaters, got enough chances to debate, so they decided to send the four of them to the JV Championships at Sacramento State as an additional unscheduled tournament. In a further effort to support the three women on the team, the coaches started offering additional drills specifically for women. While the JV teams were at Sacramento State, the rest of the team was excitedly following their success, sending a barrage of emails offering help in research. Ultimately, the other JV team let the two newer women advance ahead of them despite being higher in the bracket, citing their support for the arguments the women were reading about disrupting phallocentrism.

I do not know what the specific allegations against the team are, but I find the administration’s assertion of a blanket sexist culture against every experience I have had in debate. I cannot help but conclude that the administration, in suspending the entire team, has thrown the baby out with the bath water and suspended participation in one of the most useful activities for challenging discrimination.

Emma Thompson ’16

Correction: This printing originally said Emma Thompson was in the class of 2015. They are graduating in 2016.