The race debate

The debating circuit is plagued by whiteness, writes Kevin Lee

The Worlds Universities Debating Championships, much like the name suggests, brings together debaters from all four corners of the globe. Yet somehow, in a tournament that prides itself on its span of diversity, the speakers who end up on stage winning awards as the best speakers in the world, always seem to look the same.

In last year’s Worlds held in December, more than half the speakers in the Open Grand Final were from non-white backgrounds. For a tournament whose historical omission of successful people of colour rivals the Oscars, this was positive news. Other signs, unfortunately, weren’t so promising.

Renowned English as a Foreign Language (EFL) and English as a Second Language (ESL) speakers consistently failed to receive speaker scores above 75, a result that would be almost unimaginable for many English-speaking teams. Neither speaker from Malaysia’s Universiti Teknologi MARA “A” team, ranked second at the end of the round robin stage and tipped by some to win the tournament, made the top ten speakers list.

Debating at Worlds is challenging even for the most experienced debaters. Four teams of two compete against one another after just fifteen minutes of preparation. Now imagine competing in your second language, or better yet, in a language that has been your primary language of instruction for no more than six months. That is precisely what ESL and EFL speakers must do.

If that wasn’t difficult enough, racism is another hurdle they are consistently hounded with. Accents and speaking styles play an enormous role in the adjudication of even the most respected judges. “When persuasion is conditioned to be a white man from Oxford,” says former University of Sydney debater Subeta Vimalarajah, “when someone doesn’t mimic that style…you should see it as not persuasive”. An accent is often the decisive factor in a closely fought debate.

Many adjudicators pay only cursory attention to or make little effort to understand speakers who “sound foreign”, despite the strength their material is. Conversely, poorly made or assertive arguments are far more commonly accepted if presented in an “authoritative” English, Australian or North American accent.

With the impetus on adjudicators to overcome their own unconscious biases, it’s all too easy for those who are complacent to dismiss an ESL, EFL or person of colour’s material, attributing the blame to messy or subaltern arguments. “Comments I’ve occasionally heard range from ‘they were quite good for a [insert non-western region] team’ to ‘they were impossible to understand,’” says former Australasian Intervarsity Debating Championships (“Australs”) Deputy Chief Adjudicator Steph D’Souza. “Comments like that belie a discrete form of condescension: ‘if you don’t express yourself in the way I’m used to, I’m doing you a favour by crediting your ideas.’”

The engrained presumption that people of colour, or those for whom English is not their native language, are inherently less competent consistently undermines their sense of legitimacy and belonging in debating. Lucian Tan, Equity Officer for last years Australs, recalls being shunted by a disappointed American team he adjudicated at his first Worlds. The team refused to hear his feedback, only seeking out his Caucasian panelists. “After the break [announcement],” he says, “they were all super nice and saying things like, ‘Oh I didn’t realise you went to Sydney.’’’ Tan was forced to rely on his western University to reestablish his legitimacy as an adjudicator, pressured to distinguish himself from ESL and EFL competitors in the process.

The pressure to prove your place in debating often means downplaying the importance of your cultural background in favour of black tie dinners and alcohol-fuelled socials. Vimalarajah notes debating success is often inherently connected with your social conformity, “if you do have that [cultural connection] it becomes really convenient to strip that away.” Often privileges such as a western private school education or simply speaking with an Australian accent can make the difference between acceptance as an Australian debater and relegation to the status of “just another ESL speaker”.

Admittedly, the debating community is not ignorant to the problem. Adjudicators are now warned against dismissing arguments because of the accent in which they are delivered. At this year’s Worlds software was used to ensure regional, gender and language status balance on adjudicator panels on each debate. Despite this progress, Deputy Chief Adjudicator Chris Bisset noted that “while representation helps development and builds experience, we shouldn’t be complacent about the structural forces that can marginalise individuals on panels or co-opt them to unfair ends.”

Yet those who seek progress must look further than the structure of debates, and look to the culture that surrounds them, where for example, an emphasis on drinking and drugs is often exclusionary at international events. When socialising is so frequently approached with an Anglo-centric skew, it is not hard to see why people of colour, particularly non-native English speakers, are still commonly treated as outsiders. They shouldn’t be. It is the Worlds Universities Debating Championships after all – and that should mean the whole world, not just the English-speaking one.