An Open Letter to The Self-Defense Community About Black Lives Mattering
Updated: Jun 10
The following was originally published as an Instagram post. I was asked by a few folks to make it more accessible and sharable so here you go. I've added a few extra bits for additional clarity from the original post.
I see you. And I hear your silence.
I had a recent conversation with someone I deeply respect who is a leader in the self-defense space. He is one of the few that I have seen talking about the impact of George Floyd’s murder. We have both been disappointed by the silence of an industry that is supposed to be about serving people vulnerable to violence. But I have to say, I am also not surprised.
The self-defense industry is steeped in, and framed by, unintentional systematic racism.
How do I know this? I've been involved in martial arts for over 30 years and began teaching self-defense more than 20 years ago. I'm embarrassed to say that it has taken me far too long to slowly notice that even when the audiences are people-of-color and/or women, the most prominent voices in self-defense tend to be white men, many with law enforcement or military backgrounds.
Personally, I've enjoyed the commando style training that I've gotten to do with those folks. I've had a ton of fun and understand that there is much from their expertise that is valuable. But I've also noticed that after a weekend of training, back in the "real world" I get to the edges of usefulness of that training pretty quickly. And further, quite often for many of the people most in need of self-defense, there can be physical or emotional barriers to this type of training. For many people of color there can also be a distrust of the law enforcement community that alienates them. These factors can inhibit training access to folks who do not fit in with with dominant self-defense culture.
But this is also about who gets to frame the conversation about what self-defense and personal safety are. When we look at the everyday reality of law enforcement - their goals, their risks, their assets - they look nothing like the everyday reality for people of color. Nor are law enforcement solutions practical for day-to-day "small" threats to the well-being of non-law enforcement folks. Sure, commando style training is fun, and the mental and physical toughness developed by high adrenaline drills are invaluable. But the reality is the goals, risks and assets for a person of color, a trans-person or a woman have little in common with those of the dominant voices in the self-defense industry. Cops kick in doors and serve warrants. The rest of us are just trying to go to work and get our kids to school without being victimized. By revering the voices of law enforcement in self-defense, the folks who are statistically most likely to face violence are left out of the conversation about their own well-being.
But the real kicker is that the current self-defense paradigm actively contributes to systemic racism.
Self-defense marketing is frequently geared towards assuaging the fears of and “empowering” middle-class, white women against the proverbial back alley rapist - which further enforces dangerous stereotypes against people of color. But the reality is that women are statistically more likely to be sexually assaulted by someone they know than a stranger. And that Black folks are at higher risk to violent crime than white folks. So let’s get real about how people can best protect themselves Hint: its rarely a physical self-defense response and has more to do with structural issues, for example, access to education and health care - access which is limited by systemic racism.
There is limited value to a self-defense culture where grizzled and war-weary white guys dominate the conversation about self-defense. You can’t protect yourself with the tools that cops use. The smartest, most streetwise people I’ve met aren’t cops who have guns, partners and a whole system to back them up. Nope. The smartest people are the ones you might least expect but have had the regular, if not daily, experience of dodging trouble. Even the cops I've partnered and trained with acknowledge this is true.
If you are in the self-defense space and you’ve been sitting on the sidelines during the George Floyd protests, its time to get off the bench, roll up your sleeves and get to work. It doesn’t matter how smart or experienced are. If you’ve taken on the mantel of “self-defense instructor”, now is your time to SHINE.
Your community needs you.
Your entire community.
It's time to speak up.
But it's mostly about listening to, learning from and supporting people who have to mitigate real violence on a daily basis. Below are resources to get you started. I also encourage you to seek out new communities to serve. Far too often the the instructors and students in a self-defense class are predominately white. To create more diversity to you will have to work for it. Black students won't just magically appear, you will have to seek those students and instructors out. This may mean re-thinking your marketing, your curriculum and your instructors.
I don't claim to have the answers here or to speak for any group. I've made plenty of mistakes as I've questioned, learned and sought to serve more diverse communities. I know I've probably looked pretty stupid on my own learning journey. But I am here to be of service and to be an ally in any small way I can. We can't claim to be a self-defense instructors and then look away as whole swaths of people are disregarded.
Because Black Lives Matter.
For more on getting out of your comfort zone and making self-defense more accessible:
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable by Luvvie Ajay
How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
How to deconstruct racism, one headline at a time by Baratunde Thurston
For more on self-defense and systemic racism and sexism I recommend Mary Anne Frank's work: