Gatekeeping in Martial Arts

Originally written in 2016 when I was the admin on the Ryukyu Martial Arts (Research and Discussion) group page as well as the Okinawan, Japanese, and Korean Karate (History, Research, and Discussion) group page on FaceBook.

gate·keep·ing
/ˈɡātˌkēpiNG/
noun

  1. 1. the activity of controlling, and usually limiting, general access to something.

gate·keep·er
/ˈɡātˌkēpər/
noun

  1. an attendant at a gate who is employed to control who goes through it.
    • a person or thing that controls access to something.

gate·crash
/ˈɡātˌkraSH/
verb
gerund or present participle: gate-crashing

  1. enter (a party or other gathering) without an invitation or ticket.

In the martial arts, people often boast, quite pridefully, that you can find people from all walks of life. We try to give a general sense of inclusiveness for the public to see. Many noted martial arts authors have gone into great depth on why what they teach is great for women as well as men, children as well as adults. So much so that the common view is often, “Karate? That’s just for kids though, right?” But that’s a topic for another day. Today I want to address how even though we advertise about the inclusiveness of martial arts, we actually do quite a bit of gatekeeping some of which is even done purposefully.

This starts the moment a potential new student walks through the door. How quickly are they greeted? What kinds of questions are they asked? Does the instructor interview (formally or informally) the potential student? How much do they charge for tuition? Testings? How much paperwork is there to fill out? Etc. All of these are gatekeeping measures.

Instructors often want to know the potential students measure of patience. Will they sit through a class or wait till break before they are addressed? Often judge how the student talks will be noted early on. Are they a casual cusser? Do they use polite speech already? What’s their confidence level? Do they keep good eye contact? Etc. Noting these things lets the instructor know how much work he has cut out for themselves, if this potential student will mesh well with the group of current students, and if the student should be turned away.

Instructors often ask if the potential student has previous training. If so: How long did they train? How long ago was that? What belt/ rank did they make it to? What style was it? Who was their instructor? The list of potential questions go on. Again this is partially to see how the potential student will mesh with the current student base, as well as to see what the potential student may already know and if they should be put into a white belt or something else.

Tuition… oh tuition… such a touchy subject for some people. Should we charge? What should we charge? How much is too much? Should we give discounts for certain things, such as government workers, families, etc? Is your school a co-op where tuition is based on the number of current students?Most of these are questions I have absolutely no desire to discuss at the moment, as this is a write up about gatekeeping. Despite some instructors intention tuition is one of the only “on pager” gatekeeping systems in place. The long and short of this being those of a low Socioeconomic background simply can’t afford this type of hobby/ lifestyle. If they can afford lessons, sometimes they can’t afford gear. …or promotion. …or certification. …or seminars. …or tournaments. …or travel. You get the point. Are there workarounds to all of these? Absolutely, but they will not be addressed in this write up.

So, you waited to talk with the instructor, you satisfactorily completed the interview (formal or informal), you filled out all necessary paperwork, and your check cleared the bank, congratulations, you are now a student. So that’s where the gatekeeping stops, right? Nope! That was just the beginning.

Throughout the rest of your martial arts journey you will continue to be monitored by gatekeepers. They may be your fellow students, parents of other students, assistant instructors, instructors, associational administrators, social media administrators (such as myself), ect. Recently a friend of mine was removed and blocked from a page and that inspired this write up. For the most part he hasn’t had to deal with a lot of martial arts politics (or he doesn’t lead on that he has), but while we’re brainstorming on why he may have been blocked I figured I would address this more fully.

On the page I manage (and act as gatekeeper on) I have systems in place to ensure gatekeeping while I also have systems in place to mitigate “bad” gatekeeping. For example, when someone requests to join the page, or they are invited by another member, they are given a one week period to answer two screening questions. With this system in place, over 50% of requests are denied. This is relatively similar to what happens when someone is looking to join a dojo, dojang, school, gym, etc, except of course that we have a higher turn away due to fake accounts, inactive accounts, bots, hackers, language barriers, etc.

How do we mitigate “bad” gatekeeping on said page? We have a policy where admins and moderators do not handle page business privately. In most schools (martial arts or otherwise) students are often encouraged to privately seek help from someone of authority, if they are having an issue. That could be talking to the instructor after class, discussing the issue with the parent, seeing if any other students have experienced this same issue, etc. While this is somewhat of a decent tactic, most martial artist and martial arts instructors have ZERO training in social conflict resolution and mediating, thus it often devolves into gossip, manipulation, unfair actions, etc. We call this “backdoor dealing” in martial arts, and it is something that should be mitigated and nipped in the bud.

Foo Dogs or Shisha are often used as Gatekeepers.

So why spend so much time discussing these sorts of negative gatekeeping? Because it happens. Coming up through the ranks I alwayso wondered why certain people “quit.” Then later I was asked by the president of my association to become a record keeper and historian for the association. Being somewhat thorough I interviewed many of the “quitters” and I found most of them shared a common denominator, they all had negative interactions with the same individual.

This individual viewed himself as a gatekeeper, and despite not having any authority over those that left he would often do everything in his power to make people he didn’t like miserable. Those who are not happy or who feel unappreciated often leave in order to find greener pastures. So by using social connections and back door dealings, this person would drive people to the point they no longer cared about the association, then after they cut their losses and left he would label them a “quitter.” This is a bully tactic by the way, which is why it is considered “bad” gatekeeping.

Anyways, I have rambled on quite long enough. I honestly view gatekeeping as something that is important and should be taken seriously. And obviously it goes without saying, that I could have been much more brief and much more detailed about this topic.

Published by mattskaratecorner

A martial arts student and instructor. A school teacher and researcher. A curmudgeon with a lot on his mind.

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