Numerous instances of sexism, misogyny, harassment and non-inclusivity have plagued the debate community for some time now, according to Caylie Ratzlaff, assistant debate coach at Emporia High and junior social sciences and English education major at Emporia State.
“In the Kansas debate community, and in the debate community as a whole, there’s a lot of inherent sexism and misogyny, just because it’s a very male dominated and elitist activity,” Ratzlaff said. “A lot of times that creates issues in rounds, especially when you have varying power dynamics.”
Those varying power dynamics combine to create a community that is not always welcoming to someone who isn’t the stereotypical white male debater, according to Ratzlaff.
To try and combat these power structures, and the inherent sexism and misogyny within the community, Ratzlaff had dedicated herself to focusing on inclusivity within her own team and promoting the achievements of debaters that would not typically be recognized.
During the summer Ratzlaff worked at WDI, a debate institute in Minnesota that focuses on including marginalized debaters and facilitating a gender-inclusive environment, and uses the techniques she learned there to help coach her debaters.
WDI offered sexual harassment training, and created a welcoming environment where campers could feel safe and able to learn, Ratzlaff said.
“A lot of the debaters, especially my girls who went, were talking to me about it and were saying ‘I’m not afraid to ask questions during lecture,’ (and) ‘I’m not going to get shunned for wearing too revealing of clothes,’” Ratzlaff said. “It’s definitely more of an inclusive environment.”
To bring that inclusive environment from WDI back to her Kansas high school debate team, Ratzlaff talks to the students about privilege and the importance of using gender neutral pronouns while debating.
“We talk about privileges in debate. All of my male debaters know that they’re going to be viewed differently,” Ratzlaff said. “So especially if they have a female or nonbinary partner, we talk about if you and your partner are going against an all male team, how can you
help support your partner.”
Although recognizing privilege and creating a space with inclusive pronouns is a start, the community needs more accountability and protocols if it’s going to become a safe space for everyone, according to Ratzlaff.
“In terms of debate as whole...one of the things that seems to bother me a lot is that when people are good at debate, even if they’ve had very problematic behavior in the past, they’re kind of sheltered from that and excused from that because they’ve seen success,” said Emma Persinger, assistant debate coach at Emporia High and freshman political science major at ESU.
Enforcing repercussions for behavior that makes students feel uncomfortable and punishment for harassment is an important start to creating a safer debate space, according to Lena Mose, senior debater at EHS, and Cat Rosa, sophomore debater at EHS.
“If you’re harassing someone or making someone feel unsafe in the debate space, then you shouldn’t be allowed to at least debate for a tournament or two,” Rosa said.
Currently there isn’t enough accountability, training, or protocols in place to deal with those issues, Ratzlaff said.
Having a policy detailing how harassment or other inappropriate behavior will be handled within the Kansas State High School Activities Association, which governs debate, and providing training to coaches would help move towards creating a safer community, according to Ratzlaff.
In addition to having protocols in place, effort needs to be made to recognize the achievements of all debaters, according to Mose and Rosa.
When they don’t get the same recognition as other debaters for the same accomplishments, it “makes me feel like my accomplishments aren’t that adequate and that the work I put into debate doesn’t mean as much,” Rosa said.
In an attempt to help lift up and promote the achievements of debaters categorized as “non-bros,” which is any debater who identifies as female or nonbinary, Rosa helps moderate the @ks_nonbro_db8 Twitter account.
“We try to give recognition to non-bros in debate, who maybe won’t get it as much as their ‘bro’ peers,” Rosa said. “It’s a lot about getting the non-bro community together and giving people the recognition they deserve. A lot of non-bros do great, but you only ever see their male partners or their male peers ever being recognized. That’s just unfair because they work just as hard, if not more than them, but never get rewarded for it.”
Through a combination of celebrating achievements of the debaters who are often overlooked, holding behaviors accountable and maintaining an inclusive environment, Ratzlaff hopes the debate community will continue to improve and become a safe space.
For debaters, a safe debate space is simply one where they will be respected, Rosa and Mose said.
“A safe debate space means that you know that your opponents will treat you with respect. That there will be an understanding that you will not mistreat each other, you will not talk down to each other and you will treat that person with respect, as you would any other person,” Mose said.
As a coach and a white woman, Ratzlaff plans to continue to use her privilege to promote the safe space, as well as keep teaching her debaters to foster an inclusive environment.
“Being accountable as a white woman in debate to be like ‘I have some privilege, I can do something about this,’” Ratzlaff said.