Can martial arts help to dissolve racial tension?

posted in: Culture, Inclusion | 8

This article was written jointly with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) practitioner and blogger Carl Mallett

Karate test – kumite. By Dave & Margie Hill / Kleerup. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

Some of the terrible things happening right now in the name of racial tension and hatred can make us feel utter despair.

But this article will propose that martial artists can and do make a difference in their own community – by creating safe, inclusive spaces where people from all ethnic backgrounds can come together with a shared purpose.

Is this idealistic? Perhaps it is – but if the choice is about something small and modest that we can achieve – as opposed to feeling paralysed by our lack of power to change the wider world, I know what I would choose.

This is the idea of everyday activism – that we do what we can to change our own corner of the world, regardless of how overwhelming the bigger picture seems . . .

Racial tension is an incredibly complex and emotive topic, and there are obviously no easy answers. For this article therefore, I’ve teamed up with academic and fellow blogger Carl Mallett, a PhD student at the University of Warwick. Carl is currently researching the ways that people of different cultural backgrounds negotiate and possibly overcome ‘difference’. And he’s focusing his research on the world of martial arts – specifically Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ).

As part of his research, Carl is exploring Elijah Anderson’s idea of the ‘Cosmopolitan Canopy’ (2011) and asking whether a martial arts dojo / dojang / gym / school can be one. This is one of the most intriguing ideas I’ve come across in a while; and so we’ve put our heads together and come up with the following.

This article is in three parts. The first part briefly explains what a Cosmopolitan Canopy is.

The second part gives nine ways that a martial arts club can offer a beautiful, safe Canopy for its members and visitors.

The third section is more challenging. It looks at the limitations of a cosmopolitan canopy – and some implications for martial artists  . . .

What is a cosmopolitan canopy?

Professor Elijah Anderson‘s idea of the Cosmopolitan Canopy is a safe, neutral space, where people of all ethnicities are welcome and interact well – despite whatever might be going on in the outside world. He calls it a canopy because it’s like a protective umbrella. Anderson says: These are islands of civility in a sea of segregated living.

Anderson gives real-life examples from his own city (Philadelphia). These include the Reading Terminal Market – an indoor market full of diverse, independent food stalls and other shops – and Rittenhouse Square – a public park in a wealthy area. In both places, everyone is safe and welcome regardless of background – the only condition for inclusion is that you’re polite and civil to others.

Karate blogger Joelle White (centre) and some of her dojo colleagues training together

Anderson also explains that many other places can become Cosmopolitan canopies – including leisure centres and sporting venues. As martial arts practitioners, this of course invites us to make links to our own training worlds.

So here are some reasons why martial arts schools may have a special role to play in providing a cosmopolitan canopy within your own community . . .

Of course it would be wrong to over-idealise the potential of martial arts to create this safe, harmonious space. There are surely clubs that aren’t inclusive; and there’s said to be institutional racism at the higher levels of the martial arts world, for example in terms of media coverage of big events.

And the Cosmopolitan Canopy has its own vulnerabilities and fault lines. We’ll cover this in the last part of this article.

But for now, let’s explore the good that martial arts can achieve, in a best case scenario . . .



Here are nine ways in which martial arts can function as a “cosmopolitan canopy”

1. Martial arts can be windows onto other cultures

A weapon used in Angampora – a Sri Lankan War Art. By Nelliwinne (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

One major reason martial arts have the potential to break down barriers between individuals from different ethnic or ‘racial’ groups – and can be viewed as ‘cosmopolitan canopies’ – is because they often draw upon the teachings and art forms of specific cultures (mainly Eastern).

Different dojos, clubs or arts may choose to either ignore or highlight such relationships, but in any case the foundation for a ‘cosmo canopy’ is already there. Martial Arts are cosmopolitan by their very nature.

At the same time, it’s important to do this in a respectful way, and avoid tacky cultural appropriation. An obvious example of this mistake in the Japanese martial arts  would be to glorify the Samurai and/or NInja without really understanding who they were. 

2. Martial arts training can transcend prejudice and labels

Alex Channon writes about how men and women being exposed to each other through mixed-sex martial arts training can be incredibly powerful in breaking down assumptions about what “men” and “women” can and can’t do.

There’s something very powerful about the way we stop labelling each other as “male” and “female” after a while, and simply label each other as “martial artists”. As Becca Borowski (BJJ) writes:

I could be strong. I could be intellectual. I could be plain or pretty. I was not good “for a girl.” I was not expected to be man or woman, or compared to archetypes of such.

After a point, I too sometimes forgot I was the girl in the room. I forgot that there was even “boy” and “girl.” I was free. I was free to be the essence of me.

And this point can apply to “race” as well as to gender. Indeed, Kai was discussing this article with a Karate colleague last week, who said: do you know, our dojo is probably the only place in my life where I never actually think about being Indian.

He then outlined other examples of where he feels his ethnicity does become relevant in his daily life, and the way people relate to him. So this was an incredibly powerful statement to make.

3. Martial artists are more interested in competence and dedication than skin colour

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu by Peter Gordon. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

This relates to the point above. Sociologist Lois Wacquant was the only white boxer in a gym located in a black ghetto in Chicago – and his experience was profoundly welcoming and positive. Wacquant explains that one key reason for his integration was:

the egalitarian ethos and pronounced colour-blindness of pugilistic culture […] such that everyone is fully accepted into it so long as he submits to the common discipline and “pays his dues” in the ring. 

And this is true of all good martial arts clubs, not just boxing gyms. We are far more impressed by someone’s ability to punch well, than the colour of her skin.

Admittedly, we do sometimes have a tendency to idealise people from the country that developed a martial art. For example, many people believe that those from East Asian countries have some innate, almost magical ability to be good at martial arts, or that a Brazilian person must be the best BJJ teacher. 

4. The dojo can be a refuge from the harsh outside world

Wacquant describes the boxing gym as a refuge from the tough ghetto area outside:

Above all, the gym protects one from the street and acts as a buffer against the insecurity of the neighborhood and the pressures of everyday life. In the manner of a sanctuary it offers a cosseted space, closed and reserved, where one can, among like-minded others, shelter oneself.

This mirrors Anderson’s description of the Cosmopolitan Canopy:

In many impersonal spaces, social distance and tension as expressed by a wariness of strangers appear to be the order of the day. But the cosmopolitan canopy offers a respite […] opportunities for diverse strangers to encounter one another in a relaxed context are created.

(nb: he is not just talking about ethnicity here, but about “difference” in general)

In everyday life we can’t escape the pain of racial tension, either directly and/or through what we see on the news. But inside the Cosmopolitan Canopy, Anderson writes:

Though racial and ethnic identities are never “forgotten,” there seem to be places where such particularities can be put on the back burner. And this amounts to a high level of civility and even […] caring. 

At its best, the dojo can be a great example of this.

5. People under the cosmopolitan canopy often come together in goodwill over a shared objective

Anderson writes:

Reading Terminal Market by Christopher Thompson. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

The Terminal has always been known as a place where anyone could expect civility. In the days when blacks never knew what treatment they would be given in public, they could come to the Terminal and know they would not be hassled. The ambiance has always been comfortable and inviting.

Perhaps the focus on food is a reason for this, suggesting a kind of multi-ethnic festival. On any given day, one might see a Chinese woman eating pizza, a white business man enjoying collard greens and fried chicken, or an Italian family lunching on sushi. When diverse people are eating one another’s food, a social good is performed for those observing. As people become intimate through such shared experiences, some barriers can be broken.

One reason the dojo can foster such warm relationships, is because we spend so much time in pairs, working on some challenging technique in intense collaboration. In addition, we spend time as a whole group, during the warm-up and other parts of the lesson such as drills.

Eating each other’s food and working out how to dislocate each other’s joints may sound like entirely different activities; but perhaps the harmonious end result can actually be quite similar 🙂


6. Martial arts training pushes us into physical and emotional intimacy, which can break down barriers

Anderson writes of the Reading Market:

Few public places have an ambiance that generates such closeness and allows people to express themselves so openly. This ambiance is engendered at least in part by the physical closeness patrons experience in this space. The aisles are narrow and crowded; the dining tables are close to one another, creating a cafeteria feel, reminiscent of hundreds of high school students packed into a lunchroom.

People literally rub elbows, overhear each other’s conversations, and make eye contact despite any attempts at avoidance. Such physical proximity naturally yields a familiarity, an increased comfort level, and often direct engagement

It’s an interesting point – and training in martial arts together takes these notions of “physical proximity” and sensitivity to others, to the next level. The physical (and often emotional) intimacy of martial arts practice can work at best as a fast track way to breaking down barriers between different people.

As Maurice Stevens puts it:

Somewhere beyond these socially constructed chasms called difference, there is a mat, a field of contact, where we call one another brother and sister, and occasionally talk politics and family and injuries. But above all, we talk about “the roll,” and the humans we’ve encountered there, and our love for it all, and there develops among us a tissue of relation and care that mends the past and offers a pathway for imagining the future anew.


7. Etiquette and courtesy are at the heart of everything we do

Andrea Harkins expresses this beautifully:

Respect and courtesy play a huge role in martial arts […] I wish respect and courtesy in life were as prevalent and strong as they are in martial arts.

Robert – Icon Sports MMA by Johnny Silvercloud. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

[…] When you apply respect and courtesy to your actions and reactions, you make small strides toward peace in our world; peace that is currently fractured. The martial arts culture is one that clearly combines these two traits in conjunction with tradition and the result is exemplary. Respect and courtesy on a small-scale, beginning with you, can help to curb violence and increase peace. You must think about others and see the big picture in order to make strides in that direction.

This links back again to the idea of everyday activism.

My former sensei used to say that bowing to each other was a symbolic way of saying: I entrust you with my body so that you can practise this art; and I assure you that you can trust me with your own body in the same way. This is a profound illustration of just how deeply our practice of courtesy and civility runs through what we do.

8. The cosmopolitan canopy is a training ground for the Art of becoming more Cosmopolitan

This is a most interesting point for people who love martial arts.

Wacquant writes on boxing:

The gym is also a school of morality […] a machinery designed to fabricate the spirit of discipline, group attachment, respect for others as self.

So the dojo is a school, where we train in more than just martial techniques – we train also in the art of becoming good human beings. As Gichin Funakoshi (the founder of Shotokan Karate) said:

The ultimate aim of Karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of character of its participants.

Anderson brings out this training function of the Cosmopolitan Canopy strongly. He explains that all people (black, white, or any other group) will tend to sit somewhere along a continuum from Ethnocentric to Cosmopolitan.

At one end, ethnocentric people will tend to emphasise loyalty to their own group. Skin colour is typically very important to ethnocentric people, and they will often assume the worst about people from a different ethnic group. This kind of worldview is often associated with people who feel socially isolated and/or have grown up in highly segregated places. It’s often based on fear of the other group(s).

Cosmopolitan people however are less concerned with skin colour when they meet someone else. They are more interested in the person themselves. When meeting someone from a different ethnic group, they may sometimes have reservations, but they are more prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. They enjoy meeting diverse people. This worldview is more associated with those who have already enjoyed positive exposure to people of other cultures.

Anderson argues that these are not fixed positions. Most people will switch between them, depending on the situation, and whether they feel threatened or not. But inside a Cosmopolitan Canopy, we’re effectively being “trained” in the Cosmopolitan worldview. Anderson explains:

People are repeatedly exposed to the unfamiliar and thus have the opportunity to stretch themselves mentally, emotionally, and socially […] And often, though certainly not always, the end result is a growing social sophistication that allows diverse urban people to get along.

9. Martial arts can transform our understanding of and relationship with violence

Bruce Lee destroys a racist sign in “Fist of Fury”

As part of his research, Carl is also exploring Norbert Elias’ idea of the ‘Civilising Process’. This is a theory that Western culture has become more and more structured and restrained over the centuries, with regard to violence, sexual behaviour, bodily functions, table manners and so on.

This theory can be applied to sports and especially martial arts – as they provide a disciplined and structured way of confronting, using and dealing with violence.

As Toby Threadgill explains:

This is the true purpose of budo. To allow one to acknowledge the reality of violence in our world, to properly address it, temper one’s spirit against abusing its powers and then transform the associated power of violence into a force for good.

When this focus on respect and control meets the cosmopolitanism that martial arts already embody, we have a strong base to break down barriers – and forge robust and positive relationships between individuals.

Limitations of the cosmopolitan canopy

As mentioned above, the Cosmopolitan Canopy is a beautiful, civil place – but like anything, it has its vulnerabilities and fault lines. We also spoke above about not idealising the potential for martial arts to create a perfect, safe, harmonious space.

As Sun Tzu says: Know your enemy and know yourself and you can win a hundred battles.

So it’s important to understand the weak points of the Cosmo Canopy, if we want to be skilled at creating genuine inclusion in our own dojo.

Here are the main issues Anderson identifies, and some implications for martial artists.

1. The Cosmopolitan Canopy can be superficial

Anderson argues that Cosmopolitan Canopies can be quite superficial. Often, people interact nicely in that space, but don’t really know or care about the other person’s life outside. So when people leave a Canopy, they often just return to a more segregated everyday social world.

Implications for martial artists: Our training connection generally runs far deeper than strangers interacting in a food hall or public park. We’re also likely to socialise outside training, and just be “there” for each other if needed. So we’re hopefully less likely to simply “not care” about our dojo colleagues’ everyday lives, or live in a generally unkind or uncaring everyday way ourselves. 

A common thread in our training is the importance of taking our practice of courtesy and care out of the dojo and into our everyday lives.

However, it’s never good to be complacent. Even if we’re confident of being on track ourselves in terms of self-development, there is always scope for more – including in our interactions with younger students, who may be in the process of forming their views about the world.

2. The appearance of diversity in the Cosmopolitan Canopy can sometimes be an illusion

This is linked to the point above.

With regard to gender equality in the dojo, numerous studies showing that just having women in a “macho” dojo doesn’t necessarily do anything to challenge the status quo. In fact, Alex Channon explains that:

integrated training can actually help to reinforce sexist notions of male superiority by providing less demanding training and encouraging lower aspirations for women.

Even having women who are strong and competent won’t necessarily influence students’ and teachers’ views of women in general – the whole culture of the dojo needs to change over time.

Similarly with race, Anderson writes in The Iconic Ghetto of: token blacks who contribute to the appearance of inclusiveness in the workplace and other areas of American life.

He explains that their presence may create an illusion that an environment is more inclusive than it really is.

Implications for martial artists: So just having a diverse membership is probably not enough in itself. This applies to all protected characteristics (ethnicity, disability, gender, age and so on).

If a true cosmopolitan canopy is to flourish, we need to take a proactive, positive approach and sometimes challenge and change our thinking and assumptions in profound ways.

3. The Cosmopolitan Canopy often contains ethno people “pretending” to be cosmo, to fit in with political correctness

Aikido Seminar by Darij and Ana. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

The Cosmopolitan Canopy includes people who are very cosmo – and can also include people who are very ethno, and even outright racist. However, the latter group knows that they can’t express their views openly, because they won’t be accepted in this inclusive environment. So they can become very skilled at hiding their true feelings, and fitting in.

This gives the Cosmopolitan Canopy a smooth, “glossy” appearance on the surface.

But at times their real feelings and attitudes will “leak” out, threatening the harmony of the canopy.

This is an uncomfortable thread running through Anderson’s writing. He explains that even in a very civil environment, someone may suddenly lash out and badly hurt someone else who has “provisional” status. The victim could be someone from an ethnic minority, but it could also be someone who is “marginal” in another way due to age, gender, disability, sexual preference and so on.

Anderson tells the upsetting story of a young black law student, whose neighbours reported him to the police after a local shooting because they feared he might be the perpetrator – despite his having lived alongside them peacefully in that affluent neighbourhood for three years.

Such moments are often triggered by ethnocentric fear and a feeling of being threatened:

Strikingly, the white people who respond this way are most frequently insecure about their own social positions […] being “above blacks” is key to their sense of status.

But remember that all people contain some “ethno” qualities. So even the most “cosmo” people can also lash out if they feel sufficiently threatened, or have reached the limit of their tolerance.

Anderson explains that these moments can be incredibly hurtful and distressing – especially if they happen within the cosmopolitan canopy, which is supposed to be a safe, trusted place.

Implications for martial artists: There is no one-size-fits-all way to respond to eruptions of “ethno” speech or behaviour. Sometimes, a kind, almost parental conversation will be appropriate to help someone understand that their behaviour isn’t acceptable. Other times, you’ll want to take a harder approach, with sanctions if appropriate.

Professor Anderson’s personal belief, based on decades of studying race relations, is that even the most ethno person can become more cosmo, if the others around them are consistently modelling cosmopolitan attitudes and behaviour.

4. Even the most cosmo person can unintentionally hurt someone else, through making unthinking assumptions 

Photo by Gary Smith – public domain

While insecure “ethno” people may be the worst offenders, any of us can thoughtlessly hurt another through making quick assumptions, even if we don’t intend any harm.

Anderson cites black managers being mistaken for workers of lower rank – or people showing obvious fear or aversion to a large black man in the street – as common, upsetting examples. He quotes a young man called Derrick:

I’m a six-foot-one-inch black guy, dark-skinned, about two hundred pounds. I always joke that I fit the description of about every young black male criminal you see on TV. So I understand that people aren’t always comfortable talking to me. I’ve learned to smile a lot. If I’m thinking hard, I might have a look on my face that appears angry, but if you talk with me, you’ll see that it’s the opposite. It’s just that most [white] people don’t get that far.

Another example of mistaken assumptions could be a black person who’s been hurt by racism before, now assuming bad intent from every white person, even where there is none.

Implications for martial artists: It’s often argued nowadays that everyone is at least a little racist by default, no matter how we prefer not to believe it. For example, many neuroscientific studies have shown a definite empathy gap – illustrated by the fact that all of us see other races as less sensitive to pain than ourselves. But typically, we don’t acknowledge this tendency in ourselves, and like to see ourselves as fair and impartial.

But there’s nothing like martial arts training to glare a flashlight on our own weaknesses and blind spots. For example, as mature and even-tempered as we try to be, we’re probably all accustomed to that sudden flash of raw anger erupting, when someone hurts us too much through lack of care or control, or does something else annoying on the mat. The important thing is to learn to manage these emotions.

Joe Hyams recalls being told by Jim Lau:

It’s not bad to have aggressive or hostile thoughts and feelings towards others. When you acknowledge these feelings you no longer have to pretend to be that which you are not […] What is bad, however, is letting them dictate your nature […] How can you expect to control someone else if you cannot control yourself? – (From Zen in the Martial Arts)

So if it is indeed true that “everyone is a little bit racist”, then the dojo could be a critical place to admit, explore and come to terms with this, as our self-awareness develops.


This is just a starter for ten really, on a broad and very complex topic.

Sure, there are faultlines in the Cosmopolitan Canopy, and things can go wrong inside it at times. But in Professor Anderson’s view, the Canopy is a beautiful, positive institution, which heals and renews itself after a tear, and continues to provide harmony and respite for its members and visitors.

The key message is that however bad things might seem in the wider world, we do have an opportunity to make a difference within our own community; and martial arts training might be an outstanding way to help us achieve this.

Related article: Do Japanese people and Westerners experience Aikido the same way?

Sincere thanks to Professor Anderson for providing constructive and helpful challenge on the first draft of this article. 

Thank you also to Joelle White for reviewing the draft article, as a blogger with experience of working in a college, and training in Karate, within highly ethnically diverse neighbourhoods in the US. Also for permission to use her dojo’s photo. 

Carl Mallett is a 4th year part-time Doctoral Researcher in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick. 

His research focuses on the ways that people of differing backgrounds negotiate and possibly overcome ‘difference’. Furthermore, it is also interested in exploring the intersection of structure and agency in the everyday lives of individuals. The ethnography is contextualised within the field of martial arts, specifically Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) and draws upon Bourdieu’s (1977) concept of ‘habitus’ and Anderson’s (2011) ‘cosmopolitan canopy’.

His research interests include but are not limited to: ‘race’, ethnicity, gender, research methods, social justice and Jungle/DnB music. Carl also blogs at

You can download Carl’s recent paper: ‘Exploring Habitus Through Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ): Ethnographic Reflections’ at:


Professor Elijah Anderson
 is an American sociologist. He holds the William K. Lanman, Jr. Professorship in Sociology at Yale University, where he teaches and directs the Urban Ethnography Project. Anderson is one of the US’s leading urban ethnographers and cultural theorists.

Anderson has written and edited numerous books, book chapters, articles, and scholarly reports on race in American cities. His most recent work is The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life.

In addition, Anderson has served on the Board of Directors of the American Academy of Political and Social Science and as vice-president of the American Sociological Association. He has also served as a consultant to a variety of government agencies, including the White House, the United States Congress, the National Academy of Science, and the National Science Foundation. Additionally, he was a member of the National Research Council’s Panel on the Understanding and Control of Violent Behavior.

Further reading:

8 Responses

  1. Joelle White

    You’ve hit one out of the ballpark, Kai and Carl! I like it that you painted a realistic picture of the cosmopolitan canopy and it strengths and weaknesses. Well done relating it to martial arts! And you’re welcome – I was glad to help 🙂

  2. Gunther

    To me, martial arts is like religion. It is no guarantee that someone will treat you with respect as a human being nor will it make the person an upstanding, good person. I knew a Taekwondo dojo instructor who kept hitting on women at his workplace even though he was married. Another time this same person lost his temper and then want to apologize to the staff including to me for what he had done. I asked him if he was willing to sign a letter of apology and he stated yes. When I gave him the apology letter to sign, he couldn’t believe it that I had written one up for him to sign. He refused to sign it and then complain to my boss stating that I was having a personal vendetta against him.

    The only thing I had against him was he was so anti-union considering the fact how he had benefitted from having a union in terms of better pay and a better retirement system compare to the rest of government workforce. Of course, I didn’t like him losing his temper either.

    • Kai Morgan

      Hi Gunther, yes you are right, all the conditions should be in place for a safe, positive environment, but there is no guarantee. Professor Anderson makes a related point in his book, that sometimes people will hide their true feelings, and become skilled at apparently blending into an inclusive “cosmo” setting. I’m sorry to hear that you had such a negative experience at your old dojo and hope you were able to move on without too much pain . . .

  3. Ando Mierzwa

    Great article. Good job, team! 🙂

    It seems that we often form opinions based on our personal interactions. Which means if there is only one white guy in class, and he’s a jerk, it becomes tempting to conclude that ALL white people are jerks. But if that same guy is respectful and hard-working, he has the potential to foster good impressions. Or even change someone’s preexisting BAD impressions!

    The same is true for martial artists in general. If you’re the only martial artist in your social circle, and you’re a whack job, then your associates might think ALL martial artists are whack jobs. But if you deal with people honorably, you have the potential to shape a positive image for ALL martial artists.

    The point is, whoever you are, you represent more than just yourself. That may not be fair, or ideal, but it seems to be the way it is. Which means, to erase stereotypes and minimize bigotry, we should all carry ourselves with dignity and treat others with respect and compassion. Setting a good example is the only way to challenge negative images and construct positive images.

    Thanks for raising the issue! 🙂

    • Kai Morgan

      Hi there Sensei Ando, feels like you almost have a new post for your own blog emerging here 😉 . . . you are so right that people will base their opinions on all kinds of connections and fragmented experiences. For example, we might take a view on someone we don’t know, based on our experience of other members of that person’s family.

      Agree with you that it’s right for us to strive to be the best we can be; and I would say that it’s also a two-way thing – we need to be aware of when we’re drawing unreasonable conclusions from a little bit of incomplete experience or other data, and challenge our mind’s tendency to do this . . . take care and thanks for commenting . . .

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