Monday, September 28, 2020

The Power of NO


A common experience in an IMPACT Chicago program is participants gathering in a circle and uniting their voices with a loud NO.  What is it about that circle that unleashes such powerful energy? On the surface it seems like a simple exercise, however, the underlying assumptions and principles are complex.  Key assumptions are that experiencing and/or witnessing violence affect the total person, disrupting our sense of wholeness and creating individual isolation and feelings of helplessness and powerlessness; and that we have the capacity to turn feelings of helplessness and powerlessness into empowerment.  

Empowerment occurs when we claim or reclaim our body, mind, and spirit and experience our connection to others. In a NO circle:

  • We are in community with others.
  • We practice our right to say NO.
  • We engage our whole selves.
  • We experience the power of a collective voice.

Martha Thompson

IMPACT Chicago

Lead Instructor and Admin Team Co-Leader

Drawn from Martha Thompson."The Power of NO." First published 1990 in Feminist Teacher 5(1):24-25. Republished in 1998 in The Feminist Teacher Anthology: Pedagogies and Classroom Strategies. Teachers College, Columbia University.

Monday, September 21, 2020

"Five Fingers" of Being An Ally

Think ♦ Listen ♦ Connect ♦ Check ♦ Reflect


  • What are the most relevant positions of privilege and oppression in this situation?

  • What is your combination of privilege and oppression? 

  • What are the combinations of privilege and oppression of others?

  • What are possible communication dynamics with these combinations of privilege and oppression and how might they affect communication.


  • Open your mind and your ears to hear words and feelings

  • Release judgment

  • Make no comparisons

  • Try imagining the world or situation through others’ points-of-view

  • What might your challenges be in listening?


  • Give your full attention to the person speaking

  • Make “soft” eye contact 

  • Use open body language

  • Project warmth and empathy

  • Be or stay open to learning from those you wish to support as an ally

  • Note your feelings, including any discomfort but set that aside for the moment. 

  • What challenges might you face in connecting?


  • Say in your own words what you have heard/witnessed

  • Ask what might you offer or do in the way of personal or organizational support

  • Check that what you can offer is helpful 

  • What challenges might you face in checking in with others?


  • What have you learned about the issue, yourself, your beliefs, your behavior? 

  • What steps can you take to make your beliefs and behavior more consistent (not perfection)?

  • What challenges might you face as you reflect on your own beliefs and actions (or lack of action)? 

Developed by Pamela Robert and Martha Thompson, 2014 Thousand Waves Martial Arts and Self-Defense Center Meditations on Activism: On Being an Ally (updated 2020). Adapted from “Five Fingers of Self-Defense,”an approach to teaching self-defense to women and girls created by women martial artists in the 1970s: Think, Yell, Run, Fight, Tell.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Microaggressions and Self-Defense Training: Revisited

In 2010, I was asked to give a presentation at the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation/Self Defense Instructor’s Conference. This was the first time that I formally made the connection between self-defense training and microaggressions.The conference organizers indicated that I could speak about anything that I wanted to. The topic was open.  They told me that I was recommended.  My friend and mentor Linda Ramzy (a central figure in the Empowerment Self Defense Movement) had given my name to the coordinators as someone that they should ask to speak.  I think that one goal was to add more diverse voices. I was not sure what I wanted to present.  At that time many things were going in my personal and professional life and I believe that made me think about microaggressions. In 2010. the concept was not part of common social discourse like it is now.  In fact, no one really referred to the concept except people in my field (psychology). When I told people in my dojo what I was going to talk about they said “what’s that?” I got the same reaction when I submitted my title to the conference coordinators.Now it is part of the common lexicon. (Some years ago, it even came in one of my favorite shows “Grey’s Anatomy.”)  This morning one of my neighbors used the term during a conversation in our building’s laundry room!

As many of you are aware, “microaggressions” was a concept first developed in the early 1970’s. Chester Pierce (1927-2016) an African American psychiatrist and Professor at the Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Graduate School of Education created it “to describe modern-day racism in the U.S.” Since that time, Derald Wing Sue (Professor of Counseling Psychology at Columbia University) and his colleagues have made it a central psychological concept.  First aimed at the discrimination which is targeted at people because of race and then expanded to include other identities.  Their definition:

Microaggressions are the everyday slights, indignities, put-downs, and insults that people of color, women, LGBT, or those who are marginalized experience in their day to day interactions with people. Micro aggressions often times appear to be a compliment but contain a meta communication or a hidden insult to the target groups in which it is delivered. People who engage in microaggressions are ordinary folks who experience themselves as good moral decent individuals. Microaggressions occur because they are outside the level of conscious awareness of the perpetrator. (Sue 2010) 
My goal in developing the initial presentation was to push the feminist self-defense community to think of violence and feminist self-defense in new ways. In that context to highlight that people are defending themselves against many forms of violence. This violence can be explicit or subtle. What training do they need to defend against the subtle forms of violence? Secondary goals were for instructors to examine their practices as self-defense instructors. In what ways have self-defense instructors embedded microaggressions into their courses without realizing it? How was the “one-size fits all” view of SD harming their students?

 In addition, I wanted the organization (NWMAF) to examine the ways in which it could be strengthened by attending to this issue.  Were particular groups being driven away because of subtle forms of bigotry?

I was prompted to finally write about this history because over the last several years my work on microaggressions has been used and continues to be used by ESD instructors and their students without giving me credit. While I am flattered and pleased that the self-defense community has taken up the concept and incorporated into their work I nevertheless would like to remind empowerment self-defense instructors that I have been contributing to the framing of empowerment self-defense and microaggressions for a decade (full citations below) and that it is important to use these citations in their presentations and publications

2010 Applied microaggressions defense.NWMAF. 
2011 Did that really happen? Taking a look at racial microaggressions.NWMAF. 
2012 Uh, what do you say now? Microaggressions and intersection oppressions (Parts 1 &     2) NWMAF (with Sally Van Wright). 
2015 But I didn’t mean it! Microaggressions from Perpetrators and bystander perspectives.     NWMAF.
2017 The neurobiology of bravery: How teaching people to manage their stress response         can create more effective bystanders. NSAC (with Patti Giggins and Meg Stone). 
2017 The neurobiology of bravery: How teaching people to manage their stress response        can create more effective bystanders. The ESD Global Movement Conference (with            Meg Stone).
2018 Intersectionality and Empowerment self-defense. NWMAF (With Amelia
    Jones, Nadia Telsey, and Martha Thompson).
2019 Coping with microaggressions: Self-defense strategies. Hindsight Conference.


I started writing this piece several weeks ago. So much has happened from June to September. It appears that the world has been spinning on its head. We have seen great highs and great lows. I have at times gotten caught up in the eddy of despair, fighting to keep from being pulled under. Microaggressions are so embedded in our society, that they are thought by some to be the norm.

Some of the highs. We are in a crucial historical moment. Some places are coming out of Covid -19 quarantine; while we are seeing spikes in other places.  This has highlighted inequities.  We are watching protests in the US and across the world against racial injustice. We witnessed two ground breaking Supreme Court decisions and saw Juneteenth be recognized (in some states and cities as a holiday.) After years of pressure, a national football team removed their logo and started the process of changing its name. This is after years of protests that the image is insulting and damaging to indigenous people (“microinvalidations”/”environmental microaggressions”).  For many these events demonstrated the restoration and recognition of their experiences.

 At the same time there have been great lows for example, watching peaceful protesters shot, gassed, and called “thugs” and “un-American.”  While counter protestors are called adherers to American values and patriots. Most recently having the current administration state that anti-racism training and critical race theory are “divisive anti-American propaganda that increase hate. In addition, urging federal agencies to cancel contracts for these programs.

Why does this backdrop matter to empowerment self-defense instructors?   As a psychologist, African-American woman, and self-defense instructor who has not only studied but also been a recipient of microaggressions here are five things I believe need to be considered:

  1. Think about trauma broadly. Trauma may not all be physical violence or sexual assaults.  Experiences with microaggressions can be forms of trauma.
  2. Utilize trauma-informed training. Even though their experience may not fit standard criteria for diagnoses, people coming to classes may be dealing with PTSD.  Being bombarded with degrading images, stopped in your own neighborhood, having competency questioned on a daily basis takes its toll.
  3. Stay humble and open.  Even though you may be an experienced instructor it is not possible to know everything about every group.  What you knew from the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s or even last year may not hold now. In addition, even if you are seemingly from the same group, generational factors may apply
  4. Involve students. For example, as some of you already are already doing, let students tell you what experiences are challenging for them that they need assistance with. Have them help construct scenarios.  You might ask about “everyday” experiences that they have which they want help with defending against. 
  5. Breathe and listen.  If you make a mistake and commit a microaggression, take a deep breath.  Resist the urge to become defensive.  This could be a learning experience for you and members of your class.

 Microaggressions continue to be with us. They are potential threats to physical and mental health.  As empowerment self-defense instructors, we have a role to play in both their eradication and assisting people with handling them “in the meantime.”

 “The struggle continues.”

Darlene DeFour, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Hunter College
Empowerment Self-Defense Alliance 
NWMAF Award of Excellence


DeFour, D. C. (2010, July) Applied micro-aggressions defense.  Presented at the National Women’s Marital Arts Federation, Self Defense Instructors Conference. Swarthmore College,   Swarthmore, PA.

DeFour, D. C. (2011, July).  Did that really just happen? Taking a look at racial micro-aggressions. Presented at the National Women’s Marital Arts Federation, Self Defense Instructors Conference/Special Training. The College at Brockport -SUNY, Brockport, NY.

DeFour, D.C. (2015, July).  But I didn’t mean it! Microaggressions from Perpetrators and bystander Perspectives. Presented at the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation/Self-Defense Instructors Conference/Special Training, Lansing, MI.

DeFour, D. C. (2019, December).Coping with microaggressions: Self-defense strategies.Paper presented at the 3rd Annual Hindsight Conference – Erasure, Remembrance and Healing, New York, NY.

DeFour, D. C. & VanWright Johnson, S.  (2012, July).  Uh What do you say now?  Micro-aggressions and intersecting oppressions. Parts 1 and 2.  Presented at the National Women’s Marital Arts Federation, Self Defense Instructors’ Conference/Special Training. Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH.

Giggans, P., DeFour, D.C. & Stone, M. (2017, June). The neurobiology of bravery: How teaching people to manage their stress response can create more effective bystanders.  Presented at the National Sexual Assault Conference, Dallas, TX.

Stone, M. & DeFour, D. C. (2017, July). The neurobiology of bravery: How teaching people to manage their stress response can create more effective bystanders.  Empowerment Self Defense – The Global Movement conference sponsored by El HaLev,   Broadcast from New Paltz, New York.

Thompson, M., DeFour, D.C., Telsey, N., and Jones, A. (2018, July). Intersectionality & Empowerment Self-Defense. Presented at the National Women’s Marital Arts Federation, Self Defense Instructors Conference. North Central College, Naperville IL