Thursday, October 29, 2015

..if it doesn't say Microaggression, it's not the real thing!

EDIT: I wrote this post a while back, but didn't publish it because it was cathartic enough just to put it all down on paper (so to speak). But after reading an email sent to an organization to which I belong—requesting the help of "strong men," to help with light physical labor—I felt I should publish it after all. Implicit validation of gender stereotypes is not cool in the dojo, social organizations, religious organizations, or anywhere else.   ~J.

When I started learning martial arts, it was fairly common to hear a variation of the following phrase: "if you want to learn ballet, go study at [a different dojo]."  I used to let it stand, maybe give a little nervous laugh and then go on with my learning. After a time, I would maybe say something like, "you guys wouldn't last ten minutes in a ballet class." Now, I get mad.

Because ballet is primarily the realm of the female, the speaker is usually comparing the other [team, sport, etc] to girls.

Further, as it is also assumed that males in ballet are (primarily) homosexual, there is a further implied lack of masculinity. By saying people at a different dojo are studying ballet, the speaker is implying that they are lacking in the "manliness" needed for the practice of martial arts—the realm of Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris. 
As a woman in martial arts I find this infuriating. Even the likes of Ronda Rousey has been told to her face by a male interviewer that they don't think she could compete with a man (with hilarious results), or asked sexist questions her male counterparts never have to deal with. In my personal experience, I honestly believe that women in martial arts need to work almost twice as hard to gain even half the recognition of their skill—and comments like the one above (called microaggressions) are quite common. It is assumed that a woman in martial arts is there to learn self-defense rather than learning martial arts for their own sake. A woman can't even let her fists do the talking because often the speakers "don't fight girls."

Microaggressions like "I don't fight girls," or "we're not here to do ballet," or "maybe you should go home and play with your Barbies," are ignorant at best and harmful at worst. These statements reinforce the idea that females are weaker, and are not equal to their male counterparts. Focusing on self-defense only instead of overall skill reinforces rape-culture and the idea that a woman is responsible for attacks on her person (particularly by focusing on how you walk, how you dress, etc).  Even worse, when these kinds of statements are made in front of adolescent girls, it can damage their sense of self-worth—often the very reason that they are in the classes in the first place.

Secondarily, dance as a sport and athletic pursuit, is being discounted. 

The idea here is that dance is not only a "girly" pursuit, it is also not something on par with martial arts. When discussing the intersection of martial arts and dance, it is important to note that there have been many crossovers from dance into martial arts--particularly the more traditional forms like Kung Fu and Wing Chun. Think of actors like Jackie Chan (who started in the Peking Circus) or Michelle Yeoh (who studied ballet and choreography). There are even entire styles of martial arts that are built around dance, like Capoeira or parts of systems that teach through dance-like moves like the Moro Moros (mock battles) in Escrima.  And yet... ballet... unmanly.

Look at pictures of male ballet dancers. Compare the physique of Carlos Acosta to Bruce Lee and tell me dancers guys don't WORK, often burning out well before they hit their 40's. 

Male dancers have to combine the flexibility of yoga with the strength of a body builder (or they can't lift their female counterparts). Besides gymnasts, the only other sports that require that combination are the martial arts. We have so much in common... why must we disparage?

So what is the answer?

If you are a student, and either another student or instructor makes a statement that makes you uncomfortable, ask to speak to your instructor in private and calmly explain why. Remember ... 
  1. Remain calm.
  2. Give them the benefit of the doubt. They probably didn't realize what they said could be offensive, or they would not have said it. 
  3. This is about the event, and not about the personPhrase your response in such a way that they understand you are not accusing them of being [racist, sexist, homophobic], but that they made a statement that is [racist, sexist, homophobic]. Be prepared to face push-back and be told they were "just joking." Often it is difficult for people to see outside of their privilege, and calling them on it will make them uncomfortable.
  4. If you cannot come to a resolution, be prepared to walk away. You may not be able to do anything about it right away, and that sucks. But if someone makes repeated statements, you may need to have a hard think on whether or not that person is someone you want as a teacher.
As an instructor, I ask that you think before you make any statements that might be perceived as disparaging to a particular group. If you see a student or fellow instructor make a statement that is offensive, take them aside and talk to them about it using the steps above. It is our job as instructors to make sure that everyone in class feels safe, especially those most at risk. Since many women initially take martial arts for self-defense, it is possible they are already coming from a place of trauma. We need to do all we can to make sure that they—and ALL our students—feel that they are learning in a safe and caring environment... well as safe as an environment as you can get in a class where there's a high possibility you'll be sparring.