Perceptions of Size and Racism
In a recent conversation with my Black martial arts comrades, we talked about how in a white settler society, Black men are perceived as being larger and stronger than they actually are. As an Asian man, on the other hand, I'm often perceived as being smaller and weaker than I am. Just as material conditions shape our actions, perception holds an equally powerful sway. However, our material world may not align with how it is perceived.
Within American martial arts, my Black martial arts friends have expressed frustrations with the consistent misperceptions they encounter. Regardless of the minimal strength they employ or their technical prowess during sparring, non-Black counterparts often attribute their success solely to their perceived physical advantages.
As my friend Alex put it:
"I'm six-foot, so I might as well be Shaq."
On the other hand, no matter how much strength I exert, even when I physically outmatch someone, I am predominantly viewed as technical.
Alex pointed out:
"You could be jacked like Brock Lesnar and they'd be calling you a technical wizard. I could literally be Marcelo Garcia, and they'd say I was a powerhouse or a 'beast.'"
In a white settler society, the perception of size is often racialized, just as the perception of performance is racialized because perception is racialized. With anti-fatness, size itself is racialized. Not only does anti-fatness make someone larger than they are, but it also projects or worsens racist stereotypes. Our perceptions are distorted by white supremacist patriarchal hierarchy, resulting in deep-rooted biases that shape our judgments. For women, when they perform tasks as well as men, they are frequently perceived as performing worse. For Black women, this distortion is even more amplified. Worse still if they don't conform to Western beauty standards.
For Black children, they're often perceived as being older than they are, which denies them the same grace and understanding typically afforded to white children. In stark contrast, when a young white man commits an act of hate, his age and youth are swiftly brought up to justify his actions and to urge for leniency: "He's only 24 and served our country!"
As my friend Ron shared:
"I was always viewed as older and bigger even though I've been 5'7" and 140 pounds since high school."
"Oh, don't even get me started on the perceived age of Black people."
We're reminded of these racialized perceptions with the public lynching of Jordan Neely. For Neely, he's perceived as a grown man who only has himself to blame for being in his situation, and suffered the consequences for it.
Jordan Neely loomed so large and powerful in the minds of some of his fellow subway riders that several of them held him down long after he was already killed. The unfounded threat associated with his blackness transcended their reason.
Imagine how this plays out for Black people when it comes to healthcare or policing, where they're often perceived as not only powerful but feeling less pain. It's either willful neglect or violence.
Reflecting on my own childhood, I recall constantly being targeted for fights despite my extensive martial arts training. The perception of me being smaller and weaker than I truly am only fueled the desire of some boys to fight me. Even as an adult within martial arts spaces, I constantly found myself being approached for sparring. Though I am perceived as technical, without strength, my intelligence is perceived as feminine and thus can be overcome with a little effort.
For my Black friends, they consistently face the stereotype of being more threatening than they actually are, with their actions often distorted and interpreted as warranting immediate police intervention. Within the martial arts community, they encounter difficulties finding willing sparring partners, or, sparring with them is seen as a trial to (conquer) prove supremacy: "They're a beast, but I can still beat them."
Perception holds immense power, and just as history has a standpoint, so does perception. Our perception is malleable; it is not material reality, but instead, it is shaped by the conditions we live in. Just as seeing is believing, believing is seeing. And what we see isn't always reliable or uniform. Harmful perceptions, whether stereotypes or prejudice, can belittle or exaggerate based on race, gender, or other dimensions of identity. It can be orientalism, anti-Blackness, misogyny, or other forms of bigotry. Just as perception is adaptive, so too is harm. It adapts based on the context and goal. Yet regardless of the differences, these harmful perceptions consistently place rich white men at the top of the hierarchy. This is not objectivity, this is not even undefined racism: it's white supremacy.
Our conditions shape our views, and our views shape our actions. For lasting change, it is not enough to change individual hearts and minds but also to transform the conditions that pervade our hearts and minds.
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