Monday, August 27, 2018

Beyond Protection: Perceived Threat, Criminalization, and Self-Defense


Jay O'Shea
photo credit: Calvin Alagot
It seemed innocent enough. My daughter and I were stopping by the credit union on our way home from the pool. It was after closing but a few employees remained in the parking lot. 

As I approached the cash machine, another person walked up from the opposite side, a few paces before us. A slim, white woman whose expensive casual wear and designer sunglasses marked her as one of our Westside neighborhood’s more affluent residents, she turned and looked at me instead of giving her attention to the ATM. I offered a smile, acknowledging that she had reached the cash machine first and had dibs on it. When she returned my smile with a scowl, I expected the snappish disdain that well-off women in West LA so commonly project toward other women, but not the question she asked.

“Can you come back?” she said.

“Excuse me?” I asked, assuming she meant “Can you step back?” That seemed peculiar since I stood a good six feet away from her but I would have been willing to accommodate the request.

“I need to make a deposit,” she said.

“Go ahead,” I said. “You were here first.”

“I said I need to make a deposit. So you need to go and come back later.”

“What?” Incredulous, I struggled for words. Finally, it kicked in and I understood what she was asking, or rather demanding, of me.

“No,” I added.

“You know what?” she said. “Forget about it. OK, just forget it. I guess I’ll have to wait.”

She stormed past.

Grateful for my IMPACT (and other empowerment self-defense training), I turned to my eight-year-old daughter and said loudly, “OK, so this woman is looking for a confrontation and wants it to be someone else’s fault. She may be dangerous and we need to be prepared.” I knew that wasn’t it, not exactly, but I wanted to deflect her implied accusation and make sure any bystanders knew she was the threat, not I.

Huffing, crossing and uncrossing her arms, and making a show of endorsing her check at distance of twenty yards from me, she pulled out her phone and stood watching as I deposited my own check.

Perhaps my tank top and skate shorts marked me, in her eyes, as poor. Maybe my baseball cap and visible deltoids read as masculine. Or my dark hair, short, muscular stature, and my daughter’s brown skin rendered us ethnically ambiguous in a city whose largest “minority” is multi-racial. Whatever it was, it suggested to her that I was a self-evident threat. In a weird leap of logic, my position as threatening and socially inferior meant that it was my obligation to defer my errand in order to protect her safety. Anything less than complete capitulation confirmed my status as dangerous.

I had recently attended a women’s self-defense conference where speakers pointed out that white women’s ostensible right to protection exposes others, usually men of color, to violence. People of various backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses (people of color, working class people, the poor) have historically been seen as a self-evident threat to elite white women. In the interest of protecting these women, white men inflict violence on marginalized people, who are rendered vulnerable precisely because they are seen as dangerous. Fear and entitlement come together to create violence.

Middle- and upper-class white women play into this system when they come to expect protection, and come to associate people who seem different with threat. Someone who lives at the intersection of different identities from my own (in terms of race, immigration status, or gender expression) could have faced far graver consequences than the social aggression I encountered at the ATM. The criminalization of the poor, people of color, and those whose appearance or behavior seems non-normative ultimately serves the needs not of women, white or otherwise, but of a racist patriarchal system. Criminalization endangers the lives and the safety of ordinary people and deprives the innocent of their freedom. Criminalization is as much a threat to justice and equality as other forms of violence.  

This woman’s actions can’t be, of course, considered effective self-defense. She missed clues that might have signaled my true intentions: do muggers often bring their children with them to an attack? Do they usually have their wallets out and checks in hand? She was responding to a narrative she created – that the person behind her in line showed up just to attack her – rather than the actual circumstances: that more than one person had a check to deposit at an ATM in a major city just after the close of business hours. Worse, in her suspicion, she provoked a confrontation where none needed to happen.

Even so, the flip side of acknowledging that we are responsible for our own safety is realizing that we are responsible for how we interact with others. Just as women need to let go of a desire to displace responsibility onto someone else, we also are accountable to how we demand safety. We are accountable to the social violence that continues in the associations of criminality with difference. We do not have the right to criminalize the ordinary actions of those who appear different from us in the interest of safety.


As self-defense practitioners and advocates we need to make explicit the difference between safety and protection, between boundary setting and criminalization, between intuition and stereotyping. We need to remind ourselves, our students, and others that we are responsible for the conclusions we come to, for the narratives we create in our minds, and the actions we take in response.

Jay O'Shea
Author, martial artist, and empowerment self-defense instructor, Jay (Janet) O’Shea is the author of Risk, Failure, Play: What Dance Reveals about Martial Arts TrainingRecipient of a UCLA Transdisciplinary Seed Grant to study the cognitive benefits of Filipino Martial Arts training, she gave a TEDx Talk on competitive play. She is Professor of World Arts and Cultures/Dance at UCLA.

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