Black Belts for Black Lives
Martial arts has been a significant part of my life for the last 15 years. It all started when a friend called to tell me his roommate's kung fu school had just moved to a new location and was having a grand opening celebration. There was going to be demonstrations and prizes and food. The prospect of free food was very appealing to me, so off we went. The demos were great, the food was tasty, and their screamin' sign-up deal of 3 months unlimited classes for $30 was an offer I couldn't pass-up. At some point during that 3 months I was hooked, and I've been training ever since.
One of my favorite things about martial arts is that every lesson I learn on the training floor also applies to the rest of my life. At work I have used the fighting principle of set-ups to establish expectations for team members on an important project. In school I used the fighting principle line of attack to consider alternate perspectives and solve problems. Lately I am using the fighting principle of positioning to recognize my privilege and use it to uplift voices of color.
In my personal quest to infuse anti-racist work into every part of my life, I have come to realize martial arts is the perfect medium for practicing all the skills and techniques needed to dismantle racism and other forms of systemic oppression. For example, situational awareness is the most important base skill for practical self-defense. It is also one of the most useful skills while attending a protest or giving public testimony on a piece of proposed legislation. And it is vital for dismantling systems of oppression within myself and in society because I have to be able to see what is really happening, I cannot just rely on the narrative offered by those currently in power.
A commitment to life-long learning is also a good example. I recently attended a de-escalation training with a specific focus on peacekeeping at protests. None of the workshop content was new to me, but I still came away with expanded perspective and some new ideas for how to practice the skills and techniques I already have. For me, the biggest take-away from the workshop was the extremely high value of practicing skills before you are in the heat of the moment and have to actually use them. Which is exactly what martial arts offers.
Partner work is another great example. This is important because none of us exist in a vacuum, even if we spend the majority of our time alone. The world is comprised of people interacting with other people to live out our daily lives and shape the world around us. Even in styles where most training is typically done solo, partner work allows the opportunity to try things, test theories, and see what works and what doesn’t. The feedback of my own experience with a partner enhances the guidance from my teachers who provide new theories to consider and new ways to practice.
Martial arts also holds a lot of the same systems of superiority and supremacy present in greater society. The belt ranking system has been used by some people at the top to oppress or bully people lower on down the line. Fortunately Martial arts is also primed to disrupt the status quo in favor of something more thoughtful and intentional. There has been significant progress made over the last several decades for women in martial arts, and I see work happening now to create safe training spaces for gender-fluid and non-binary humans.
We can teach our students in a way that eliminates supremacy. We can teach our students that a person’s value is not created by diminishing someone else, but through our individual actions, choices, and personal quest for greater understanding. We can recognize that I’ve got what I have grown to understand, and you’ve got what you have grown to understand, and we can share with each other. When we recognize everyone’s strengths and value everyone’s contributions regardless of rank, we all grow.
There are many styles of martial arts, and at their core they are all systems of learning, designed to bring a person from wherever they are to a greater understanding of their self and a greater connection to the world around them. In the world of martial arts, styles can be mapped onto a cross section where one axis is a continuum from hard to soft styles and the other axis is a continuum from internal to external styles.
Hard styles tend to focus on meeting and disrupting force with force. Soft styles tend to focus on redirection instead. Internal styles focus primarily on a practitioners internal world and their influence on it. External styles focus primarily on the effect of the external world on the practitioner and the effect of the practitioner on the external world. Karate is a classic example of a hard style and an external martial art. Tai chi is a classic example of a soft style and an internal martial art.
Each style has their own methods and philosophies for how to make the journey from beginner to black belt, but the end goal is still the same: know yourself more fully so you can know the world more fully. Martial arts is self-development, which is the same work we all need to do to take down the systems of oppression our society currently runs on. The greater martial arts community is perfectly situated to act as a leader in the quest for racial justice and other forms of equity.
There are even some schools and organizations that have already been doing this work for years. The Pacific Association of Women Martial Artists has created space for humans of color to gather and share with each other at the last few annual camps. I have seen more conversations happening in recent weeks between martial arts teachers about how to update curriculum and create an environment in our dojos that supports equity and inclusion. These efforts are exactly what the world needs from the martial arts community.
And I want to see even more. I want black belts everywhere to stand up for black lives. I want black belts to lead by example and do the challenging personal anti-racist work in their lives and in their dojos. I want black belts to bring all the brown belts and green belts and orange belts and white belts and belts of every color to stand up alongside them for black lives. Anti-oppression work is about continual life-long learning, just like martial arts. We know how to do it, so let's all get to work.
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Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.