When it come to self-defense as a practice, the uncomfortable fact is that it can inadvertently, or even explicitly, sanction racism as a means of ensuring safety. That should be deeply dissatisfying to both the experienced martial artist and the general reader. In this essay, I analyze this fundamental problem of self-defense and try to offer us some answers to it. Specifically, I offer two new ways of practicing self-defense, one that tries to mitigate racist assumptions, and one that tries to do away with them altogether. In an era of Henry Louis Gates and Trayvon Martin, this essay will let us reflect on profiling, racism, and the assumptions that we make in the name of "safety". It is also, in no small part, a personal reflection on my own struggle to reconcile the demands of self-defense with the path of a social worker.
Why is self-defense racist?
Self-defense, much like public housing, is not inherently racist by design or nature. But like public housing and other similar programs (e.g. welfare, food stamps, the justice system, etc.), self-defense is incidentally structured in such a way that it can easily become racist without explicit intention. As a bit of setup, we should understand "racism" to be simply the prejudicial treatment of others based on their perceived race and those assumptions associated with that race. Entire classes, books, and careers have been dedicated to the term, so for this essay's purposes, we will only use this more colloquially accepted definition. The operative word here is prejudicial in the literal sense, i.e. making an early judgment (premature-judgement). Returning to self-defense, the allegation is that self-defense conditions us to make such early judgments on a number of characteristics, the most notable of which is race.
Before we can discuss how to extricate ourselves from the potentially biased traps of self-defense, we must understand what those traps are and how they arise. Self-defense skills can generally be divided into three categories.
The most obvious when "self-defense" comes to mind - Using your physical techniques to subdue or escape from an attacker.
Defusing or talking-down a conflict as it threatens to grow into a violent encounter.
Averting conflicts before they start through awareness, avoidance, and rapid information gathering.
- Prevention techniques are low-risk
By keeping your phone in your pocket while walking, the only thing you risk is responding to a text two minutes later. By wrestling a mugger on a sidewalk, you risk everything from getting stabbed to getting sued.
- Prevention techniques have a high chance of success.
You will avoid 100% of confrontations on the street by turning around thirty seconds before they start. You will be very lucky to just get hospitalized if you try to win a brawl against two robbers.
- Prevention techniques are easy to learn
It takes ten seconds every day to remind yourself to keep your phone in your pocket. It takes hundreds or even thousands of hours to train a physical technique to the point where it can be reliably used under stress.
As you might imagine, the prevention process is much less straightforward than we initially believe. Although all humans are equipped to rapidly make judgments as part of self-defense, we rarely understand the structural processes underlying those judgments. It starts with gathering information about impending violence. Sometimes, the indications of present danger are obvious, such as an approaching man shouting at me to stop looking at him when I am clearly not. But in my experience, the clues are much less clear. A jacket in mid-summer. A shadow where it shouldn't be. A car driving too slowly. Because the indicators are so subtle, we need to take more time to gather, interpret, and process them. Therein lies the danger, because for every additional second we spend in this information-gathering process, we lose an additional second to act preemptively. This suggests a self-defense continuum, with "assessment time" on one end and "information quality" on the other. If I take 1 second to gather information, I have lots of time to act, but my information might be misleading or incomplete. If I take 20 seconds to assess, I have plenty of information to work with, but potentially little time to respond. Because personal safety is the primary aim of self-defense, we are encouraged to err on the side of worse information and more action time. If I am wrong and end up running away from a guy who wasn't actually a criminal, no one suffers any physical harm. If I take too much time assessing a suspicious character and get held up at gunpoint, prevention has failed and I need to deescalate or resolve. This demands rapid judgments, and with rapid judgments come assumptions.
This talk of assumptions returns us to the essay's fundamental question about race. In my Chicago experience, one variable stands before all others (e.g. clothing, time of day, age, etc.) as a quick way to make a judgment about others: Skin color. In Chicago, race and skin color are often understood indicators of criminal involvement. To some extent, there is some statistical backing to the association between race and crime. The overwhelming majority of arrested Chicago criminals are black males. This is especially true of perpetrators who commit the sort of street violence that self-defense is tasked with preventing, e.g. robbery, theft, battery, and stranger sexual assault. In 2010 alone, 88% of arrested robbers were black males, and although that number itself obscures the racialized policing of the CPD, it is nonetheless telling. We hear lurid tales of black criminals in local media. All of the most dangerous Chicago neighborhoods are overwhelmingly black and poor. Most of the apprehended robbers on Chicago's Magnificent Mile, the iPhone thieves and mob attacks, are also black. Although there are important nuances to these incidents and crime stats, it is tempting to ignore those nuances when you are walking to your apartment at 10:30 PM and just focus on the skin color of the alleged perpetrators.
Self-defense is structured to preference quick judgment that give you lots of time to act. Unfortunately, skin color is much easier to observe and "measure" than something like predatory disposition, criminal history, or whether or not a person is armed. If most criminals in Chicago are black, then an uncomfortable and tempting argument can be made that we should be more cautious around black Chicagoans. We can easily refute that in a classroom or essay, but it's harder to do at 2:00 AM on 61st and Kenwood. It's hard for me to tell an 18 year old freshman from Montana to ignore her gut feelings when walking home from a party. And because self-defense logic is structured to preference safety and time-saving mechanisms, all of us can easily ignore the inherent bias in this strategy and just excuse it in favor of our safety.
Two ways to escaping the profiling trap
Self-defense is structured to permit racism, and I am deeply unhappy with this line of thinking. My goal is to offer us some ways out of this, but not by using moral arguments - those arguments have already been made by thinkers much more familiar with their sociological and philosophical fields. Instead, my goal is to muse on martial strategies for eliminating self-defense racial profiling while not compromising your safety for a greater ethical good. Although I personally have no issue with pursuing an ethical principle at expense of my own safety, I cannot in good faith teach that to students. As such, our solutions must be as safe for students as they are sensitive to our city and its citizens. Here are the two that have worked for both me and my students/colleagues in the past:
- GATHER BETTER INFORMATION
No matter how we spin it, self-defense is always going to be an exercise in rapid information gathering and quick judgments. As such, profiling on quickly-assessed features is inevitable. The key is to profile not on skin color (a detail that is not itself indicative of criminality) and instead to profile on characteristics that are more consistent cues of danger. By profiling on these variables, you will not only enjoy greater personal safety, but you will also minimize your own bias and complicate your image of what makes an urban criminal.
When making rapid judgments in self-defense, we turn to skin color because it seems so easy to observe and appears so closely related to threat level. Perceived race, however, is just one of many variables that you can consider. We can also consider clothing, neighborhood, time of day, mannerisms, objects, etc. Whether or not we agree that race isn't the best indicator of criminality, we can certainly agree that there are better ones out there. I wrote an article discussing different tricks to identifying potential criminals, and those points deserve quick review in case you haven't read it. In summary, that post focused on eight different threat-level indicators that you could use in your daily self-defense routine. These included whether or not the suspect had a bag or backpack (criminals need to be quick and generally travel light), whether they were wearing unseasonably warm clothing (easier to conceal weapons and stolen items, as well as hiding facial features), the physicality of the person or group (rowdier groups can be more dangerous), and a variety of other factors. All of these details give you much more information than just race.
Still not convinced? Here's another one: Someone constantly looking over their shoulder as they approach you. How many times does the average person scan a sidewalk as they walk down it? If I am in Hyde Park, I might do it once or twice every block, just to be careful. And I'm probably on the more-paranoid side of the spectrum. So if someone is approaching me and doing it every 5 seconds, I can assume that this man is either more cautious than me (unlikely) or up to no good. Notice that this is especially true in a safe neighborhood where there isn't as much reason to scan the area for personal safety. There is, however, plenty of reason for a robber to scan for witnesses or police.
Your challenge is to select three or four characteristics, like those mentioned above, and learn to rapidly identify them when evaluating a suspected threat. In a sense, this admits that it is acceptable, even necessary, to profile in self-defense. The key is to profile on those characteristics that are more likely to suggest impending trouble (guys with heavy jackets in warm weather who scan the street as they approach you on a dark evening) than just skin color. This will take some practice, both in choosing which characteristics you want to quickly evaluate, and in incorporating the judgments into your self-defense routine. Ultimately, this approach complicates and refines our portrait of urban criminals. If our crime knowledge runs no deeper than "black Chicagoans commit crime", we are doing a grave disservice to ourselves, our peers, and our city as a whole. But if we can find more nuance in our definition of a threat, we go a long way towards repairing the racialized and biased view of Chicago crime (not to mention staying safe).
- MAKE PREVENTION ABOUT YOU, NOT ABOUT OTHERS
In the leadup to a violent encounter, we are not the only ones trying to gather information. Suspected threats and criminals are also evaluating potential victims. They are looking for clues that suggest an easy target and a lack of resistance, just as we are looking for clues that suggest an impending attack. One of the harder but most effective means of self-defense is by making yourself look like a more challenging target. In effect, by acting in a certain way you can prevent criminals from even considering you as a victim. This reduces the need for you to profile others based on snap judgments, and although you might still incorporate some quick evaluation in your routine, your mannerisms alone will be all the self-defense that you need.
Whether you notice them or not, criminals assess potential targets before making a move. Just as you might look for indicators that a pedestrian is suspicious, so too does a criminal look for indicators that you are an easy victim. Some of these indicators are obvious. If you are on your phone, you are both distracted and presenting a valuable object that is worth stealing. If you are wearing nice clothes, you are suggesting that you might have money.
But there are also indicators that are less easily identified. Confidence, body language, posture, tone of voice, and other mannerisms can all inform robbers that you are an easy or hard target. Indeed, many criminals are more focused on these intangible indicators than on the purely material ones. This is where you need to work to present yourself as a more challenging target. Make brief eye contact with pedestrians to acknowledge their presence. Give a friendly "How's it going?" or "What's up?" to show that you aren't afraid of interacting with strangers (and because it's friendly and Chicago is a friendly town!). Walk like you know your destination, but not in such a hurry that you can't observe potential threats or appear panicked. These are just examples and, ultimately, you will have to figure out what works best for you. In the end, your goal is to project confidence and courage so that any observers realize that it's better to ignore you and wait for an easier target.
Critical word of caution: There is a fine line between looking like a hard target and looking like an asshole. Puffing out your chest, flexing your arms as you walk, and glowering at bystanders looks cool on the big screen, but in the real world, it just instigates fights. Potential criminals might perceive that sort of aggressive posturing as disrespectful, which is itself license to engage. Alternately, your bellicose behavior might just piss off an otherwise levelheaded dude, starting a confrontation. As a general rule, you want to look like an average guy who knows how to carry himself, not a bad imitation of an action movie star.
So how does all this reduce your need for profiling? Proper self-defense mannerisms are not something you turn on or off as you move from one neighborhood to another, or from a predominantly black one to a predominantly white one. It's a constant state of casual vigilance and preparedness no matter where you are and no matter who you are with. It doesn't matter if you are walking downtown to grab a sandwich from Panera or if you are walking to an Englewood high school from the Ashland Green Line stop. In both cases, you would have the same demeanor and posture, and in both cases, you would give off the same confident and professional affect. There is no profiling involved because your behavior is not informed by a racialized interpretation of your surroundings. As with my previous piece of advice, making self-defense about you will help refine your understanding of criminality in the city. It gives you the tools you need to walk Chicago with greater freedom and relaxation, which in turn helps expand your mind regarding the city's complex crime and neighborhood narrative.
At the beginning of this article, I stated that our purpose was to reconcile the needs of self-defense with the problems of profiling. To that end, I offered two solutions that could help minimize, and eventually eliminate, the presence of profiling in your prevention techniques. But in doing so, these two solutions leaned towards a martial and interpersonal/social approach, not necessarily a racial one. This begs the question: Am I avoiding the fundamental issue(s) of racism in these solutions?
In a sense, the answer appears to be "yes; the discussion is not explicitly racial". After all, most of my points were more martial or psychological than racial or societal. But does this undermine our end goal? The aim of these solutions is to condition people into avoiding profiling by giving them alternatives. We arrived at those solutions after exposing the structures of self-defense that lead to racism. And as we know from countless historical examples, undoing structural racism in any system takes time, effort, and above all, knowledge of the structural flaws. In this case, we have identified where self-defense goes wrong and conflates safety with profiling. Having done that, we can turn away from the racist directives of self-defense (i.e. profile) and back towards the safety ones (i.e. stay safe), adopting techniques which promote safety while not also promoting profiling. And that is where we keep the discussion focused on race, because the objective is not just to promote safety alone. If so, that would definitely be avoiding race. The objective is also to refine our understanding of criminality and Chicago's citizens, a goal which absolutely centers around race.
Most students and colleagues of mine are hesitant to think about the lofty topics of race and society when walking alone on an evening sidewalk. There's a time and a place for everything, and those kinds of questions are elusive when you are followed by a group of strangers. By focusing on these two possible techniques, you can obtain peace of mind on your walk home without having to resort to potentially racist tactics. In turn, you can ponder the deeper issues of race, crime, and American society without compromising your ideology by talking with one set of values at home, and acting with another on the street. Although it is just an entry point to the wider issues of race in this country, it is an actionable entry point that everyone can start from the instant they step outside today. From a personal standpoint, this lets me reconcile my task as a self-defense instructor and practitioner with my mission as a social worker. And for my readers, especially Chicago readers, it will hopefully give you additional tools that you can use to both stay safe and work to understand those broader issues that underpin safety and our city at large.