Racism in martial arts
Updated: Sep 16
In light of the recent death of George Floyd as a result of police brutality in the USA. The spotlight is now once again on racism. We should never deny the fact that racism exists and everybody should be mindful of the effects racism has on society. According to some, racism is something that only white people can direct to somebody who is not white (for a non-white to a white person, that is termed racial discrimination). And that to be racist, you need power. However, there is reverse racism where members of minority groups direct discrimination against white people. Confused? I bet you are. From the Daoist and Buddhist point of view, we should not discriminate. From a Chinese layman's perspective, discrimination is discrimination, regardless of who is directing at whom. Why define racism by shade, shape or angle? Does racism exist in Chinese martial arts? Of course it does.
Martial arts as depicted in the media
To a lot of people, exposure to martial arts largely comes from films. Bruce Lee made Chinese martial arts famous and helped carve out the genre to what it is today. Since then, successive actors and actresses have come through and left their mark, such as Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen and Michelle Yeoh. Whilst the media portrays Asians as being good at martial arts, they are often thought of as one dimensional characters. There's subtlety and substance, but these aren't always picked up or appreciated. The Karate Kid franchise helped broaden the appeal back in the 80's. If Asians aren't portrayed as nerdy, then they're martial arts experts, lacking in personality, but never gets the girl. What you are exposed to affects you more than you think.
The negative aspect is that people think that all Asians are like what they see on screen and that's where stereotyping comes in. In truth, not all Asians do martial arts (and nor are we all good at maths and computer science etc). But on encountering Asians, that's probably what's on people's minds. That cultural impression seems to be ingrained in many people. Over the years, I've had many people make Bruce Lee monkey sounds at me, believing it is funny. But sadly we live in a society where casual racism seems to be more acceptable. And following Brexit, Trump and the coronavirus, more blatant forms racism are more common. You do find there are those who like the idea of martial arts, but do away with the people who's culture it comes from and the culture altogether.
Martial arts films that were produced in Asia are generally made for the Asian market. They are often about folk heroes, social issues or adaptations from books or comics. The Western audience perceive things very differently. Bruce Lee was never about being macho, but in the West the good guy is usually big and muscular. So the Asian guy is small and weak. Furthermore, the taste for excessive violence is not what martial arts is about. Films like Kill Bill does the image of martial arts few favours.
Quite a few films over the years have touched on racism against Chinese people. Jet Li's Fearless covered the prowess of Chinese martial arts over Western forms. The historical background was that the Qing Dynasty was in decline and that the Chinese were weak. However, the Ip Man tetralogy with Donnie Yen deals with racism rather well. For example, the treatment of Chinese people during the Japanese occupation in the first film. The way a Western boxer treats Chinese martial arts in the second and the outright racism and disrespect against Chinese martial arts in the fourth film. These are issues that have always existed and the topic is still relevant today.
Racism in martial arts
Racism in general
Racism in martial arts is no different from racism in other aspects of life. You will know it if you can feel and experience it. Don't think that your classmates or other people in the lineage don't harbour certain views. Closet racist are very common and whilst there are laws regarding race and society may frown on such behaviour. The ugly nature of racism exists and is very real. Even amongst those whom you may know for a long time. For example, somebody I knew told me how a classmate told her to go back to Hong Kong after Brexit. Not pleasant and that was a shock, because the two know each other and trained with each other for a number of years.
Racial bias exists and favours certain groups. And if people were to be be given a choice, don't feel surprised that they did not to pick you, because you're not like them. People like familiarity of their own kind, because they feel they can identify and communicate better. I see where they're coming from, but that does not make it right. Ideally, if we're to make an informed decision based on quality, the outcome maybe somewhat different. As a result, you have to work much harder for the same results. The general public's view is no different and if you're seen, you may be a subject to racism. I can openly confirm that this is true as someone who has had the police called upon twice. There's always a less than convincing story reported to the police, but it's definitely racially motivated. If you thought racism is a working class thing. No, the middle class folks do racism too. So when I read about black people having the police called upon for simply being in a gym etc. I know the feeling well and I totally understand.
Racism from a different angle
Now let's look at racism in way and that is the view of teachers. There are some schools that are still clan based and don't accept outsiders. This doesn't mean that they are racist, but in reality such a school may not even accept for example Chinese people from a different area. It would be a shame, as outside blood might help broaden interest. Then there are teachers who don't accept students over race or accept you but treat you differently because of race. This is an unpleasant thing to experience. To pay your fees and work hard, but not given the support due. Attitudes do need to change. Some Chinese people are racist, but not all and some are just ignorant or shortsighted. Many years ago, my father helped a Shaolin master to set up classes. A local dojo was found with fee paying members. Sadly, it never took off because this master only wanted to teach Chinese students. But if we're wanting to be accepted, we really need to be accepting of others. If a lineage is to progress, then the teachings should be passed to the right people. The good thing is that there are more lineage holders that are not Chinese. In my lineage, my master and his Taiji brother are Scottish. My master has promoted and broadened the interest of Taiji in the West. So what matters most is who is willing to learn and take the art further.
Education is essential to progress
Not everyone is racist and it is important that we uphold fairness to all. We do need to look at where racism comes from. Such as how parents and siblings behave at home and this rubs off on children. Then they go to school, clubs or work and meet people who are similar and they swap experiences. So racism becomes common and the norm in certain groups. You can never underestimate the influence of what you watch on TV and material on the Internet. Because society generally frowns on racist behaviour, it doesn't mean it is not there. So we have closet racists who think, but cannot act. Political correctness hasn't helped either. Whilst it was once used to protect certain groups. It has in reverse been used as a way to leverage benefit and prevent voices from being heard. So where is the fairness in that? I think society has a lot of room for improvement. Education is needed to help correct this and prove that positive action is key. So maybe more class time could be found to discuss history and social issues. If you are looking at martial arts clubs for yourself or for children, be mindful of any unsavoury cultures that may exist.
In my class, I welcome people from all walks of life. If you're in my class, if you like what we do and honour our lineage, then we're family.
Thank you for reading my blog.
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