Featured From the Archives: The Definition of Black Belt

It feels like I’ve done so many of these lately, but this will only be the fourth one ever. Still, I know you come here for new material, and I promise, I am working on that. (In fact, some of the observant out there may notice a new addition to the menu — Book Reviews. Check it out if you’re curious what I’ve got happening behind the scenes. 😉 ) But there’s a reason I decided to feature this post today. Tonight (right now, actually) is the annual WTSDA Region One Black Belt Test. And though I’m not there, I still want to acknowledge it. So this is my way of honoring those testing, of imparting the lessons I learned in my own journey. Yes, it is specifically geared toward martial artists, but give it a glance anyway — I think you might be surprised to find many of things apply to you whether or not you have ever trained.


The Definition of Black Belt

By Kisa Whipkey

(Originally Posted on 5/25/12)


I promised there would be posts about martial arts. And so far, I haven’t delivered. **2014 Note: Technically not true anymore. Disregard. There’s a whole slew of them in the index if you’re interested.** So, in honor of the annual WTSDA Region 1 Championship, (which I’m not attending for the first time in, well, ever! **2014 Note: Also untrue. I’ve now missed like three. And yes, that does make me a slacker. Thank you for noticing.**),  I present my first post dedicated to the martial arts. But be warned, my opinions on this topic can be either melodramatic and preachy, or poetically accurate, depending on whether or not you agree with me.

Regardless of which side of the fence you land on after reading this, here’s my interpretation of . . .

What it means to be a black belt

A black belt is more than the strip of fabric around your waist.

It’s helping those close to you because they need it,
not because it boosts your ego.

It’s knowing when to pick your battles and when to walk away.

It’s the dignity you have in the face of adversity,
and the grace with which you take criticism.

It’s the humility you show others,
and the respect you give to the people and
places that offered you this gift.

It’s the wisdom to realize that it’s better to be selfless,
but the strength to stand up for your convictions.

It’s the integrity you put behind your promises,
and the obligation to teach those that follow in
your footsteps these same lessons.

It is an achievement to be worn proudly,
but it’s not the color of the fabric that makes you a black belt;
it’s the attitude you present to the world.

–Kisa Whipkey
(Originally Posted to Facebook on May 17, 2011)

Shame so many forget that, or never bothered to learn it at all. So often, you’ll run into martial artists whose sole reason for training seems to be bragging rights; they’ve taken all these different styles (and mastered none of them); they’ve beaten X number of opponents to a bloody pulp in cage fights (proving their ability to brawl like a school-yard bully); they’ve won X amount of awards and trophies (Fantastic! So they’re basically a mockingbird attracted by shinies?); and they’ve done absolutely nothing of value to anyone but themselves.

Does the definition of black belt really have to be limited to the physical ability to kick ass? I don’t think so. True, you should be able to defend yourself effectively — why else did you learn to fight? But that’s not the main definition of the rank. You don’t need skill to be a good fighter. Luck, maybe, but not skill. Some people are simply born with natural ability, and the advent of technology has ensured that the rest of us can survive with little to no physical skill involved. So why go through the process of earning a black belt? Investing 2-4 years of your life, sweating and screaming in some archaic form of military practice? Because there’s more to it than that.

Being a black belt is a lifestyle choice, like choosing to eat healthy and exercise, or choosing to believe in the power of religious faith. It’s not about bragging at all. It’s about honor, dignity, respect, discipline, and integrity. No one said that being a black belt was easy. In fact, it’s usually the opposite. The martial arts were originally intended for the elite, for the warriors who protected their country (like our soldiers today), and was not offered to anyone and everyone. Attaining black belt was a grueling process that required dedication, physical prowess, and spiritual development. Something that’s been sadly watered down over the centuries. But that doesn’t mean we have to let it slip away into the forgotten realms of ancient history. We can still embody everything the martial arts was supposed to represent, whether we’re training or not.

I’ve learned that people who take the philosophical meaning behind the martial arts seriously, exhibit subtle traits you learn to notice — it’s the way they walk or stand, the way they present themselves to the world, the way they interact with others. Allthose things are the marks of a true black belt. And they are only gained if  the student is willing to pay attention. Each belt color represents a new set of techniques to be memorized, yes, but it also represents a new challenge that will refine their character if they let it. There are so many out there who only care about the fighting portion and completely look past the rest of it; becoming the black belts who puff themselves up with glorified victories, leaving nothing but an impression of arrogance and brutality as their legacy. Personally, I prefer meeting martial artists who are quietly proud and let their actions speak for themselves. Poise, respectfulness, and integrity are always more pleasant to encounter than arrogance, inflated egos, and superiority complexes. Don’t you think?

Simply put, the goal of the martial arts was (and is) to be the best person you could (can) be. Which is why the black belt spirit can be found even in those who have never trained. It’s in those who volunteer to help the homeless/disabled/elderly/anyone-who-needs-help. It’s in those that donate their fortunes to charities, enriching the lives of others while living modestly themselves. It’s in the teacher that goes above and beyond to help a troubled student reach graduation. And it’s in you whenever you choose to do the right thing instead of the easy one. Being a black belt is a commitment to values, whether you gained them from religion, martial arts, or simply had them imparted to you by your parents. You don’t have to wear a strip of fabric around your waist to be a black belt, you just have to be a good person who cares more for their family, community, or world than themselves. In my eyes, anyone fighting for a noble cause, who earns accolades with dignity and humility, or who presents themselves to their daily tasks of school, work, and socialization with integrity and respect is a black belt. An honorary one, anyway.

So the next time you run into a black belt/instructor who seems intent only on wowing you with their peacock display of achievements, smile and respectfully give them the ego boost they’re really seeking. Then walk away, safe in the comfort of knowing something they missed. That respect is never taken, it’s earned. And that strip of fabric around their waste doesn’t entitle them to it anymore than if they didn’t have it.

And to my fellow martial artists, please remember that being a black belt doesn’t end when you walk out the door of the studio. It’s a commitment that should reflect in every aspect of your life. Decide for yourself what black belt means and then embody that to the best of your ability. If you want respect, earn it. Don’t just do things to bask in the glory of a good deed.

That’s what it really means to be a black belt.


2 thoughts on “Featured From the Archives: The Definition of Black Belt

  1. I love your interpretation and the thought of the black belt being a lifestyle choice. As a kid, I wanted to take martial arts (of course, for bragging rights lol), but it really is more than that. When you reach a certain skill level, there is a greater responsibility to practice self control and reach out to help those around you. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks for commenting! 🙂

      I fully believe that my martial arts training makes me the person I am today. I see a lot of parallels between the way I approach editing and the way my mom runs her studio. (Yes, I said my mom. She’s a 4th degree master and quite an impressive woman.)At some point, those philosophies just become ingrained, and you don’t even really think about them anymore. They’re just part of you. Because of that, I fully intend to enroll my kids (if or when I have any)in the martial arts.

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