Swords and Diversity

So, I attended the Diversity in LARP panel at Nine Worlds, and it was great.

After the panel I started thinking about diversity and inclusiveness in Western Martial Arts (cross-fertilisation of geek streams is one of many great things about Nine Worlds). How are we really doing in being inclusive, respectful and sensitive to students in WMA?

Maybe not so well. By coincidence, a discussion on the value of women-only tournaments in WMA (aka HEMA) has been doing the rounds recently. Guy Windsor’s post Swords do not discriminate. Neither should swordsmen. (sic) was written after one of his own students was denied entry to a women’s tournament in the USA. That incident was also covered by Devon Boorman of Academie Duello. Devon’s article runs through the arguments for and against women-only tournaments, but at the same time he’s also fully aware he’s a white dude with all the bias and blind spots that come along with that.

I should say at this point that my examples are about gender diversity. I am sure the same comments apply re: safe spaces for persons of colour, and particularly diversity of instructors as visible champions of HEMA.

The comments on Guy’s post from several women are essential reading here. Maura Hausfrau mentions physiological realities of being trans, Khalila Redbird talks about the effect of introducing women sabreurs into a male-only competition environment, and Kristen Argyle talks generally about the benefits of mixed vs female-only tournaments:

I don’t see it as a physiological needs kind of separation, which is why any sort of trans discrimination is ridiculous. It’s primarily cultural and psychological, and ultimately comes down to a quasi-marketing scheme to get more women invested and involved in these events.

There are opponents — like “Herbert” in this Schola Forum thread that responds to Devon’s article. Herbert’s position is that weapons are a great equaliser, women and men are treated with equal respect in training, and there is no imbalance between men and women in our community or in the west in general (because he hasn’t seen any evidence of it…).

I’m absolutely certain Herbert means well. But Herbert, like Devon, like Guy and like myself, is a white bloke. And it’s counter-intuitive to say that a segregated space can lead to better inclusion, because we don’t value those spaces in the same way.

There’s also the concern that segregation for one minority group would lead to a need to segregate others. I’m with Devon Boorman here:

“How about small men? Or gay men? Or any other group that feels they are affected by a social power imbalance? We can’t give everyone a special event!” Why not? If our goal is to be inclusive and expand the practice of our arts in the world (certainly my goal) any group that can support a tournament in numbers should certainly be welcome to have one if they feel it will better include that group. More groups and more people would only benefit all of us.

Principles

Being a cis-het-white-bloke I can’t claim much more than my good intentions — but I’ll state those anyway:

  1. The school is open to anyone who is serious about wanting to train.
  2. All students get the full support of the instructors and fellow students, with as much encouragement and time as they need to develop their skills.
  3. Students should feel safe and welcome in the training environment.

What is it to feel “safe and welcome”? I’m not sure, because I don’t think I know what it’s like to feel unwelcome. I fit the image of a martial artist pretty well (tall, strong, male — I even have a shaved head). I’ve never really been other in that environment.

I always hope that this is a non-issue for our schools — like Herbert, I imagine an ideal world where every student is treated equally, there is no gender imbalance, everyone is accepting of how a person identifies themselves, etc.

But I’m sad to say I have personally witnessed bias and even transphobia (and I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t call it out as vocally as I should have). And for me it’s only been a couple of times — so it’s highly likely that most of the cases of e.g. sexism are invisible to me, being in the majority.

“Shame”

This article by the Black Boar Swordsmanship School tackles “shame” in the fencing salle. Really it’s talking about feelings of self-worth, and how people react when their self-esteem is challenged by failure.

Of course this is a general case for all students; but building self-esteem and confidence is a big part of training. The low point of a student’s self-esteem will probably happen at the “conscious incompetence” phase of their training (discussed here). If they can’t get over that “difficult minimum” they may well quit.

Managing these negative feelings (I hesitate to call it “shame” in this context) requires the instructor to have a dialogue with the student — recognising the source of the issue, helping them accept it, and supporting their moments of self-doubt.

More Female Instructors

So, if there’s value in a female-only training space, it’s this: managing the early periods where a student is pushing through that early stage of learning where their self-esteem is so important. This is the main reason for a female-only “safe space”.

It goes without saying that to develop these spaces, the best way is to have more female instructors. We don’t have enough of those; but I’m sure we can do better by raising the profile of women by asking them to present classes and seminars, etc.

And I guess one reason we don’t have more female instructors is because training environments don’t support their development. If you’re a big strong bloke in a “sink or swim” type martial arts environment that doesn’t manage these crises of self-worth, you can build your self-esteem by winning fights because you’re strong. As a result you need less support when you hit that minimum, you can push through and maybe even become an instructor yourself (and you can visualise yourself as an instructor — because a lot of instructors look like you).

It’s possible this article will provoke a negative response from some male instructors. All I can say is… dude, it’s not about you. It doesn’t mean you’re not doing the best you can to be sensitive to your students’ needs. But sometimes, doing the best thing means stepping aside and letting someone else lead.

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