I felt conflicting urges. Part of me, an indignant and incredulous part, wanted to argue, to draw attention to all the riches the South Side has to offer that she was missing. I had done this a thousand times before in similar conversations. On the other hand, I was also weary of this kind of casual racism. I wanted to simply shake her by the shoulders and make her see that the invisible walls that divide our city, one of the most segregated in the country, shouldn’t be respected. Those walls have been built, year after dreary year, by racist policies and appalling structural violence, and they have been fortified by the city’s residents. I wanted to upend her fortress mentality—one that separates “good” neighborhoods from “bad” neighborhoods—and all the fears that come with it. In the end, I didn’t do any of these things. Now I can’t even remember how the conversation ended, but it did, and quickly. It was not a learning moment for either of us; we both simply moved on, choosing to put our respective energies into a better interaction.
It is not uncommon in self-defense classes to encounter a version of the question: “what should I do if I end up in the wrong neighborhood?” The student’s feeling about what is “wrong”--about places and, inevitably, the people in them--reflects the same atmosphere of racialized fear that created our cities. Biased “commonsense,” in this case, may come to feel like intuition. What’s more, this kind of question is an anxious one. It seeks the false stability of a rule: “don’t be out after dark in X neighborhood, city, or country;” “don’t take public transportation;” or, incredibly, “don’t stop at red lights at night.” So, on one hand, the premise is not something that people committed to creating a better urban future would want to endorse by not refuting. And, on the other hand, the answer that it seeks—a rule of behavior based on fear—is both ineffective and antithetical to the broader goals of empowerment self-defense. What is an instructor to do?
One way to reorient the student, to begin from a different starting point, is simply not to repeat the language of “bad” and “good” neighborhoods. The goal of empowerment self-defense is to encourage people to participate in their own lives to the fullest and to expand their horizons. That, by definition, always involves embracing unfamiliar experiences. Language that recreates an atmosphere of fear curtails all of that rich possibility. Moreover, fear of what’s “out there” shouldn’t obscure what is closer to home. We know that gender-based violence most often happens in quotidian settings with people who are known to the target. Quickly shifting the starting point with both language and information can lay the groundwork for a deeper discussion.
For over 30 years, IMPACT Chicago has grappled with how to communicate that stereotypes make people less safe while also adding to students’ self-defense toolkits. In the early days, lead instructors addressed the issue when setting up verbal scenarios for the first time or when students asked questions about “bad” neighborhoods. To minimize shaming students who said "wrong" or "bad" neighborhoods and to stress its importance, about 15 years ago lead instructors began to integrate their comments into the course introduction. I asked Chicago IMPACT instructor Rachel Marro to share how this is addressed in programs: "When teaching how to assess potential risk and danger, we emphasize that we get the most accurate information from someone's behavior and their response to our boundaries. Indicators like someone's clothing, language, or which neighborhood they're from do not give us information about their intentions. Reorienting ourselves to pay attention to behavioral red flags can help reduce fear about circumstances that may not actually be threatening, allowing us to engage in the world more freely. Simultaneously, it can help us pay attention to dynamics that may be unhealthy or threatening in circumstances where we've been taught to ignore those red flags-- in particular, with people who are familiar or similar to us."
This commitment to focusing on behavior and not stereotypes is reflected in IMPACT Chicago policy about suited instructor characters. It has long been the policy of IMPACT Chicago that suited instructors do not play characters outside of their own racial/ethnic affiliation.
Empowerment self-defense is a powerful method of individual transformation. Participants can begin to relax their grip on patterns of fear that they have learned over the years as they gain confidence in their bodies and in their voices. They can reenter the world each day with a greater sense of power and purpose. But empowerment self-defense also entails a commitment to creating networks of support among all people who are at risk for or have experienced gender-based violence. It is a social affirmation, one that recognizes that the problem itself does not discriminate and that the best response will crisscross the borders that otherwise divide us.
IMPACT Chicago Volunteer and Workshop Leader