"We are all here on the journey to self-improvement. You cannot leave philosophy to chance."
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
Diversity is often the "pink" elephant in the room, and this includes the dojo. We can be so tunnel-visioned in our individual pursuits; we may not realize social reality — separating the way it is from the idealized way we wish to see it. We often think of it as a brotherhood, but it can be exclusionary for those who don't fit that narrative. The default thinking then becomes: if they aren't here it must be their choice, it couldn't be anything we did.
English professor, cage fighter, and author of The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch, Jonathan Gottschall elaborates on this "fraternity" in an interview with fellow scholar and martial artist Sam Harris:
Under scrutiny, martial arts can be a sea of young male faces — sometimes with only one or two races represented. In a country with considerable diversity, the bar for what is considered "diverse" may be a low one. This is not a modern invention, but a legacy, when many fighting arts were not open to women, and teaching foreigners meant possibly teaching militaristic enemies.
Rather than speak for women, I decided to post an open request on Facebook for women to voice their experiences. What is enjoyable is universal, both sexes can understand it. Some of the most unpleasant experiences for women may not be so visible to men, but they are worth considering. Especially when the nature of the art dictates that we see what is invisible to most.
What Women Deal With
[*Note - All names have been changed.]
The need for self-defense is higher for women than men, yet the enrollment in self-defense and martial arts classes show the inverse. It may not be geared, and the culture not conducive, to the people who need it the most.
Violence is different for men and women. Violence for men will generally be with another man, in a fight. (Men have always engaged with other men in duels). For women, violence will also generally be from men, but rather than a fight, it will be an assault. It is the difference in using one's martial skills in a bar fight where you see your opponent vs. using it to defend sexual assault, where you may not initially see your assailant, nor be aware that it is about to happen. The tactics, techniques, and even the level of intensity will be different. Unprovoked attacks are more likely to happen to women. Real world statistics and data require special consideration for women.
The style of sparring in Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) happens on the ground, similar to wrestling, but may at times be even closer in proximity. Space is considered the enemy. (Something to consider in teaching, especially if the student is not used to having their personal space invaded. But the reality is, an attacker will not care about personal space.) Sparring is referred to as "rolling," since it can look like two tangled beetles rolling on the ground.
Trying and Sticking With It
Why Did You Start
The idea that the practitioner should focus on technique rather than strength is necessary to sharpen skills. But to believe power does not matter at all is when practical self-defense becomes magical thinking — it's irresponsible and dangerous.
Female athletes, from soccer to BJJ, represent their team and country against the world. Isn't it time we represent them back?
"Weight" is more complex and loaded for women than it is for men.
Considerations to Maximize Individual Learning
Female Instructors and Classes
The “Cool” Girl
It may be helpful at this point in the conversation to explore the social construct of the “Cool Girl.” Something men can expect of women and something women feel pressured to live up to. In Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn writes:
Training Partner or Father Figure: Ego, Patronizing Paternalism, and Sexism of Low-Expectations
According to Rener Gracie:
Becoming the De Facto Representative
In media, comedian Tina Fey has often been used to explain how she had to be twice as funny as her male peers just to be considered their equal.
Getting More Women Into the Art
Many men enter jiu-jitsu for the sportive, competitive aspect. It can become a continuation of a competitive life, or fulfill the type of competition they could not find elsewhere. For women, their initial draw may be from past trauma, or the fear of a possible future trauma. Context for the use of martial arts is critical to cultivate a lifelong practice.
Traditional images of male athletes may be a winning moment or a podium shot, the images of female athletes tend to focus less on their achievement or sport and more on their sex appeal. Consequently, this may discriminate against serious athletes who do not have the right "look."
There will always be a philosophy, if none is present, it will default into a cultish mentality based on the personality of the founder or head instructor — cult of personality. Or devolve into a might-is-right/ survival-of-fittest ideology. Yet the hypocrisy is, martial arts were created to give the weak an equalizer against the mighty.
We are able to speak freely with our families while maintaining some level of decency. Inappropriate behavior then is the opposite of family, it ruins families.
Treatment of female BJJ practitioners is something everyone seems to have an opinion on, although according to all participants, it's something they've never formally been asked. Market research, focus groups, and surveys are fairly standard practices in most businesses. The standard martial arts business model, however, is based on an ancient system that catered to a homogeneous group of boys all from the same place. (Typically similar in background, size, age, and race.) The evolution of martial arts is predicated on what works now. Learning to kick someone off of a horse may be less relevant today. Similarly, so is running a business pretending everyone is the same. Yet we still maintain these practices because that's how it's always been done.
Mark Cuban says of this business model:
Creating a culture for young homogenous male students out of legacy makes as much sense as learning to fight while wearing full medieval armor (which explains wrist throws because that's about as much mobility as you would have in armor). We make fun of antiquated techniques that have no application to the modern person, yet we don't do this for primitive thinking or practices. Adapt and make relevant, improve and make better; this is martial arts.
Some organizations are innovators in forward thinking. And some institutions are still stuck in the "stone ages": gauntlets, bullying, hazing, shaming, and dangerous training practices. (How many professional fighters lose out on money because their gym keeps hurting them.) The disparity in teaching is as vast as comparing old paper mills (an industry nearly destroyed by better technology) to Silicon Valley.
It was once revolutionary to allow anyone other than a young boy into a martial arts class. The student, in turn, adopted the qualities of a young boy to fit in and that's how they were treated. Times have changed.
On the Role of the Instructor
There is an assumption when there aren't female assistant instructors, it must be they are not interested. The truth is complicated, they may be overlooked, or intimidated by the underrepresentation. Men leading and women working administrative duties is not new, these are traditional employment roles and what some feel most comfortable with. Not only should this change for an egalitarian civilization but especially because the need for martial art is the opposite of what is represented. The raw data continually shows it is women who need self-defense more than men (and usually against men), yet the way it is targeted does not reflect this reality. Then what is a reality-based martial art? Why do we keep telling ourselves to challenge our comfort zone if we do not follow our own advice?
(One of the founders of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Helio Gracie's interview for Playboy.)
On Being Heard
As you go up the ranks, you have too much to lose when voicing yourself.
Things Men Should or Shouldn't Do
The "elephant in the room" is a metaphorical idiom for an obvious truth that is either being ignored or going unaddressed. This also applies to an obvious problem or risk no one wants to discuss. Whether in the workplace or media, gender is often that "pink" elephant in the room. Or in the case of the dojo, the "pink gi" waiting to be acknowledged.
The inconsistency in treating everyone the same is shown in the manufacturing of uniforms, where for women, the pervasive color is pink. This also comes with other stereotypes and expectations.
The thought I kept hearing repeated was, "I want to be treated the same — but not the same." A complex philosophical concept that requires unpacking.
What I have learned from this project is that women want to be treated as equals of men, without being treated like men. Treated with equal respect, equal value, equal recognition, and equal attention while being acknowledged for their individuality. (Implying they should identify as men or if they do identify as men, this would be a totally different article.) Not just women, I think this is what most of us want. We don't want cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all, blanket methods — nonconformists love jiu-jitsu.
This is the conceptually challenging part, sameness and equality are correlated, they overlap, but they are not identical. This not only applies to women but everyone who doesn't fit the prototypical age, size, or athletic ability of the model jiu-jitsu player. If everyone is treated the same as Tom, then Dick and Sally suffer. Let's say you own a shoe company, and to be fair, you gave everyone the same size shoe but is that fair? If the size you decided on was a men's size 10, it's only fair for men with size 10 feet and no one else. What you can do is make different sizes and shapes for men and women, but make them all equally comfortable and evenly priced.
In American society, the default method of equality often means treat everyone like a rich white male. In Brazilian jiu-jitsu, it can mean treat everyone like a strong, middleweight male. Many of us who do not fit into that mold can be convinced that's what we're supposed to strive for.
Equality does not mean everyone should be the same. That is the opposite of equality; the creation of a homogenized uniform people — that bypasses equality — there would be no need as everyone would be the same. History is riddled with these attempts, and it always leads to great suffering.
The challenge is, how do you promote equality in a naturally hierarchical system such as the martial arts? You do the best you can. But you must try and give it consideration.
To the instructors, you already do this, and probably do it well. Maybe not for sizes or genders, but you are able to figure this out for different belt colors, or perhaps a variation of a technique for someone who is injured or less flexible. School teachers don't treat all students the same, parents don't have the same relationship with all of their children, but they are (hopefully) given equal respect, love, and care.
In the educational system, this is known as equality vs. equity. Something all teachers no matter the subject, math to martial arts, should be aware of.
Sameness and equality are not contradictions, it's mostly the same but not exactly, and we need it to have that wiggle room for fairness sake. Some fear highlighting issues will only create more disparity, that pretending they do not exist will bring us quicker to an egalitarian utopia. Since the beginning of the human species, women and men have existed, and we have yet to reach an egalitarian utopia. Maturity isn't about a utopia, but as a black belt sharply pointed out, it's learning to adapt with what you have access to for best results. Psychologically that takes willful awareness. In the spiritual/ martial arts approach that takes mindfulness. Willful ignorance is neither. Listening to the concerns of your less represented classmates or students can only make you better as an instructor, as an entrepreneur, and as a teammate.
Just as instructors tell their students, "Stop thinking you know it all and listen," instructors, too, must listen to their students.
Useful Companions to This Article:
- The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch - Jonathan Gottschall
- "Do MMA Gyms Have A Sexual Harassment Problem?" - ESPN
- Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn
- "Amy Poehler Asks A Critic Of Women's Sports, 'Really!?!'" - NPR
- Amy Sun wrote a fantastic piece on equality vs. equity
- A high school teacher taught a lesson about privilege (equality vs. equity) using a trash can and scraps of paper
- "How Did Pink Become a Girly Color?" - Vox