Not Seeing Difference

One of my favourite parts of this year’s Swordsquatch was being on the Making HEMA Awesome for Everyone panel with my fantastic colleagues Isaiah Baden-Payne, Beth Hammer, and Shane Malone. The goal was to talk about diversity and inclusion in the HEMA community in concrete, actionable terms, and to share our success stories of building events and schools that welcome all students. I loved the focus on community-building experience and practical tools instead of emphasizing problems, as well as the openness with which people shared their own experiences in the HEMA community.

Over the same weekend, I caught snippets of an online conversation around the intersection between accessibility and diversity. One of the threads that came up was that some instructors are proud of not knowing which of their students are queer/trans/other not-immediately-visible minorities. They see this as proof of their neutrality and of the apolitical nature of their schools — as a positive and even essential feature of the spaces they’ve built.

The overlap between these two conversations clarified something that I’ve known for a bit, but haven’t been able to put into words: if you have no idea of the sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnic/religious background, or mental health status/neurodiversity of most of your students, it’s because the ones belonging to minority groups don’t trust you (assuming they’re there at all).

People who feel safe and comfortable in a community share parts of their lives with its other members. I’m not talking about waving flags and talking openly about politics (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it may not be part of the culture of every space). I’m talking about the little things: mentioning the name of a partner or spouse, or having them stop by after practice to pick you up; mentioning a religious holiday during a “What’d you do this weekend?” chat; wearing small tokens of a faith, culture, or social affiliation as part of street clothes.

These things are a natural part of social bonding and community building. They also often directly affect quality of training.

If you teach self-defense in any capacity, your students’ status as gender, sexual, ethnic, or religious minorities can have a huge impact on their risk/target profile, and you should be able to help them navigate that. Queer and trans people are targeted for violence that their straight and cis peers may never encounter, or may not encounter in the same context. Religious and ethnic minorities might have to consider hate crimes and targeted attacks on their places of worship or other community spaces that are usually considered safe locations where a person can let their guard down. Undocumented immigrants may not have the option of going to the police for help, and their follow-up plan after a violent incident may have to be dramatically different as a result.

If a student is neurodivergent in ways that affect how they process information or sensory input (e.g. if they have ADHD or are on the autism spectrum), or if they have an invisible disability that affects energy levels, motor function, or mobility (e.g. lupus, fibromyalgia, EDS), you need to know that in order to teach them effectively and safely. Students with a history of trauma — whether or not they’ve been diagnosed with PTSD or a related condition — may need additional support or extra information when participating in high-stress training in order to avoid harm.

Not knowing these things about your students makes you a less effective teacher. At best, they’ll learn less than their peers. At worst, they’ll get bad advice that actively puts them in danger.

If nobody or almost nobody comes to you about these issues, and if you rarely hear mention of something that might identify a student as a member of a minority group, you’ve got a culture problem. Not everyone is an open book, and some people will always choose to be private about their lives. But if nobody or almost nobody is openly different? That means you’ve got some work to do building trust.

That lack of trust also likely has a knock-on effect that impacts the visible minority students in your school.

Another colleague, Charles Lin, just wrote this excellent post about the ways a diverse community can improve our martial training and historical research. The responses to it in a few large forums have included a lot of push-back against public discussions of diversity, and the “I don’t know which of my students are minorities and I like it that way” line has surfaced again. A number of people making this argument have also acknowledged that their schools had far fewer women than men. That’s a pattern I’ve seen repeated elsewhere.

The same pressures that make members of invisible minorities stay hidden also tend to prevent their more visible peers from turning up in the first place, or drive them out over a period of months or years after the initial joy of a new activity has worn off.

This has been consistent enough in my experience, that a school with a very homogeneous student body automatically puts my guard up. If everyone looks, acts, talks, and moves the same, and fewer than 20% of the students fall outside of an average gender and body type, it’s not likely to be a good place to be different. Sometimes — rarely — there’s an explicit pressure to conform in the form of active discrimination. More often the pressure is implicit, and those who don’t fit in just kinda have a bad time of things and eventually leave, or spend their time in the training space hiding parts of themselves in order to fit in. These kinds of schools aren’t necessarily run by bad people, but they are often unhealthy or unproductive training environments for a significant portion of their students.

If you care about the well-being of minority students, then you cannot deliberately be ignorant of who they are or how their experiences affect their training. Most people don’t go stealth for fun. They do it because it’s less costly than the alternatives. If the majority of minority folks in your community are stealth, that’s a red flag, not a virtue.