We live in a diverse world. For decades, many Americans have been laboring at the arduous task of shifting our culture towards inclusion. What does this mean for Karate? We’ve made a lot of progress – just look at how many women are top athletes and instructors in an art that has, historically, been reserved for men. One of Karate’s best achievements is inclusion in the 2020 Olympic Games – obviously we’ve embraced the world and reached many different cultures. These fantastic developments are readily apparent, but there are some other people groups that I’d like to highlight. These groups may not get as much attention but they are, nonetheless, included in the Karate world. This is all from my experience, and I’m amazed that I’ve already had this much exposure to the world that Karate has become. I do admit that my perspective is limited to only not quite four years of study and to my own cultural biases. I’m hoping to spark constructive dialogues and ideas.

Gender has always been a hot-button issue. Like it or not there are many physical differences between men and women – and I’m not talking about “equipment,” I’m talking about structure, which muscle groups tend to be stronger, and how the body develops athletic abilities. To be perfectly honest, I think there are advantages and disadvantages either way. Now – what about an issue that has hit me square in the face at the Karate program at the college? Yep – transgender individuals. At the level of the dojo, this is easy. We wear the same clothes, we sweat together, we respect each other. It should be a non-issue. But what about tournaments? Are we willing to let people register as male or female without a murmur of protest? I have mixed feelings about doing away with male/female tournament divisions. On the one hand, we train together, so why not? But would competing together cause more problems than it would solve? Quite possibly. In some societies there are taboos centered around gender, and competing together would exclude some people groups.

I work and help with the Karate program at one of the most diverse college campuses in the nation. I’ve helped teach male students who, due to culture, do not want me touching them. A shinai might be appropriate for me to use when working with these young men, but so far I’ve been able to work around their restrictions. I’m just happy they respect me and follow my instructions. I also know there are women-only Karate classes. No men are allowed inside the dojo and the windows are covered. According to the WKF rules, women may wear approved hijabs.  We have yet to see a similar concession for men who must cover their heads.  For some women, though, a hijab alone is not enough so they refrain from competing.  It’s already a huge cultural shift for these women to be training at all!

What is also a huge cultural shift is the notion that we can accommodate the various challenges, both mental and physical, that are out there. I’m particularly sensitive to this because I am the parent of an autistic adult. I’ve also trained with and helped teach students who brought various physical and/or mental things to the table. Any group learning situation that has deadlines for students to meet is going to automatically make life difficult for both the “out of the box” student and their instructor. One-on-one, student-paced instruction is ideal for anyone, actually, but especially for those who need a little more help.  But even just having an assistant instructor available during class plus investing time before and after class helps a lot. Still, realistically, there’s only so much an instructor and their assistant can do. Just like everyone else, these differently-abled students must own their own growth. But we who teach or help teach can point the way.  We can come up with ideas and we can offer our support, respect, insight, and ingenuity.

What does all this mean? It’s on me to adjust because I am able to adjust. Some students are limited in how much they can adjust, therefore I’m the one who should meet them where they are.  I am from a flexible, innovative society. I have knowledge of how people learn. I am sensitive to gender and culture. I have ingenuity and a willingness to experiment. Why do we expect those who are different from us to become “more normal” when we ourselves are the ones who have the ability to change? Obviously if Karate doesn’t click for someone, it’s not meant to be. But as long as someone is respectful and is making progress towards their next belt rank, does it really matter if they are trans, have cultural taboos, are autistic, or a dwarf ? I don’t think so. I’ve seen how people make Karate work for them, and I myself have flexed to accommodate. Accommodation without sacrificing quality is just one more challenge for us as students and instructors to embrace. And meeting a challenge is what all martial arts are about, right?

Author: Joelle White

I began training in Karate in June of 2014 after a 27 year hiatus.

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