For many of us, the mats are a safe space to be even among the chaos going on in the rest of the world, whatever that constitutes for us. Generally, jiu-jitsu tends to fulfill this need — we can train with people we otherwise wouldn’t interact with outside of the gym, creating bonds between people often seen as opposites or even enemies in the media and society.
I understand when people see posts or stories that combine social issues with jiu-jitsu and complain. “Don’t bring politics into jiu-jitsu,” the plea often goes. And believe me, I get it. The news is a constant barrage of horror and divisiveness, and we want our sport to be free of that. For just an hour or two, one to seven days a week, we want to escape all of that and just lose ourselves in a physical and mental workout with people we care about, regardless of what their political beliefs are.
The problem, though, is that politics don’t exist in a vacuum. They affect real people — the same people who come to jiu-jitsu. So many people pride themselves on being part of such a diverse community in the gym, but don’t take their teammates’ diverse needs into consideration. In a martial art that depends on consent and trust to be safe (let alone legal), we have to ask ourselves: are we acting in a way that makes our teammates feel safe rolling with us?
This question feels especially relevant as we head into Pride month in the midst of chaos in the United States over police brutality, specifically toward Black people. How would you feel about someone having their arm around your throat if they insisted on their right to use slurs that had been used throughout history to make people like you feel less human? If they shared memes or posts trivializing a major part of your identity or supporting a politician who worked to oppress people like you? If they were openly hostile to people like you? If they said people like you didn’t belong in the sport? If they started any sentence with the always foreboding, “I don’t hate ____ people, but…”?
Again, we like to think this stuff disappears when we step foot on the mats. But it doesn’t, and it’s indeed a part of why many people started jiu-jitsu in the first place — to defend themselves, to feel empowered, to find a safe haven. And we cannot stand by and claim that the gym is a politics-free sanctuary unless we’re making it a sanctuary for the people who need it most.
I’ve thought about this a lot as calls for more BJJ training in law enforcement have been raised in light of the death of George Floyd. In a jiu-jitsu utopia free from politics, this might be the answer. There are good human beings working in law enforcement who could benefit from what jiu-jitsu offers. I’ve trained with a few of them. There are others that have no place being handed a gun and badge. I’ve trained with a few of them, too. They knew the difference between blood chokes and air chokes and how to restrain a suspect without harming anyone involved. It didn’t stop them from comfortably making comments that were just racist enough to warrant being preceded with “I’m not racist, but…” right in front of their coach. I don’t think jiu-jitsu would have stopped Derek Chauvin from kneeling on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.
It’s your right to angrily leave a comment on this article about “SJWs” and “freedom of speech” and pondering when it was on the cosmic timeline that jiu-jitsu became “full of wimps.” I’m sure some of you will enthusiastically take that opportunity. If your experience in jiu-jitsu has been purely positive, though, ask yourself if you believe it’s the same for other members (or potential members) of your gym who have fewer advantages in life than you do. If not, then it only benefits your own community to try to make it better.
Showing up as an ally for your teammates doesn’t mean being nice to them and calling it a day. It means having uncomfortable conversations with your coach about the slurs you keep hearing in the gym. It means discussing how to make the gym more accessible for adaptive grapplers, insisting that trans practitioners are referred to by the name and gender that they wish to use, ensuring that athletes in same-sex relationships can comfortably introduce their significant other to teammates, and educating yourself on the specific struggles that people of color have faced throughout history. Better yet, ask your teammates who belong to marginalized communities if there are any measures of improvement they’d like to see the jiu-jitsu community take, even if you yourself belong to one of these groups. They may feel perfectly happy and safe, or they may have been waiting for someone to ask that question so they could have an honest conversation about it.
Ask yourself (and your coaches and gym owners) how jiu-jitsu could better serve single parents or people who live in low-income neighborhoods. Things that may not be barriers for you — the purchase of a gi, for example — may be stopping other people from signing up. Unfortunately, they’re quite often the people who could benefit most from jiu-jitsu. Is there anyone who could give a teammate a ride if public transportation near your gym is lackluster? Are there loaner gis available, or can you or your teammates donate any of your old ones? Are there any spaces in the gym that could be converted into a safe play area for children while their parents train?
These measures won’t change the world, and for many people, they’re small potatoes in comparison to the substantiative, systemic change that needs to take place. But if jiu-jitsu is to be our escape from the world, the very least we can do is try to change our gyms for the better.