Self-Defense in a Racist World

“There is an African-American man recording me and threatening myself and my dog,” Amy Cooper said on the phone with the police. She was unhappy that a Black man, Christian Cooper wanted her to leash her dog, so she called the police. Her words sounded eerily similar to something we teach in our self-defense classes.

When we teach students to use their voice in a self-defense situation, we often suggest saying something along the lines of “the man in the red shirt is attacking me.” It’s a handy phrase that can give information about your attacker to potential helpers and give pause to an attacker wanting to remain anonymous. But like any tool, it can be misused in the wrong hands. In Amy Cooper’s case, the language of self-defense was deliberately and diabolically co-opted and weaponized in service of white supremacy. 

Amy Cooper’s race-baiting language was not self-defense. But is it possible that we, too, could unintentionally cause this kind of harm in a real self-defense situation?

Here are some steps we can take to avoid that:

Step 1: Listen to Your Intuition

The first skill we teach in our self-defense classes is listening to your intuition. Intuition feelings are warning signals from our unconscious mind that a possible threat may be present. Intuition is a vital survival tool. And our unconscious mind is also where our implicit biases live (we all have them). So we could be getting messages from the unconscious mind that are conveying, for example, some version of, “Beware! Black man!” These signals can be further complicated by past trauma. 

Step 2: Manage Your Adrenaline

In order to decipher all these signals in a rapidly developing and potentially dangerous situation, we must practice adrenaline management. The easiest way to do this? Take a breath, give your conscious brain a second to kick in. 

Step 3: Practice Awareness & Threat Assessment

The next step is to practice some situational awareness. Feel unsafe? Look around for safety. Are there helpers around? Are there exits or other things you see that represent safety?

If another person is the source of those intuition feelings, start paying attention to their behavior. Do you notice threats or coercion in their words and actions? Threats can be very obvious: a person moving toward you aggressively, waving a fist or weapon, or other body language or verbal indications of imminent physical harm. Coercion sounds like persuasion using threats, intimidation, or manipulation. Sometimes this looks like Amy Cooper’s threats and subsequent call to the police. Coercion can also appear charming and kind, like a stranger saying “let me help you bring those groceries inside your house.”

If neither threats or coercion are present, it may be time to direct that awareness internally and ask: are implicit biases at play? Which brings me to Step 0.

Step 0: Examine and Work to Unlearn Implicit Biases

Learning self-defense is about preparing in advance for a worst-case scenario before you are in it. Working on understanding our own implicit or unconscious biases in advance is equally important so we aren’t caught fumbling with biases in a high adrenaline moment. 

From an anti-racism perspective, it’s important and necessary work we all need to do; from a self-defense perspective, biases are simply not accurate predictors of threat. In a situation where an attack may be imminent, acting quickly on intuition could save your life - there isn’t time to do the hard life-long work of dismantling biases so we don’t inadvertently act upon them. I invite you to join me in doing this work now,  here are some excellent resources that may help.


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