When I go to my dojo to train, I can’t wait to put on my gi and tie my belt proudly around me. Here, with fellow students, we are people who are dedicating themselves to karate. In this way I know we are all the same. While I celebrate our commonality, my aim here is to highlight a difference between us.
As of the time of this writing, I am the only African-America student practicing at an adult level in our dojo. I tend to compartmentalize this as it doesn’t play a critical role in my training- It is simply a fact. I am black. I train in Goju-Ryu. What is interesting to me is how these two thoughts don’t cross over very often, and from my limited view, seems to happen with other martial arts as well. When you look at the population of martial artists, the presence is quite limited.
I believe that limitation stems from multiple places. The first of these being the lack of prolific African-American instructors or higher profile students. Let me clarify that by saying not all persons who train are looking for notoriety. It is quite the opposite. If there is a lack of inspirational figures, who do we expect to follow in the same traditions?
In my own personal journey, I don’t think it has hurt me to not see fellow black students, or to not have trained with any black instructors, but it loops me back around to asking the same questions that started this article. Why is the presence not there?
I believe that a large portion of this is attributed to the focus of African-Americans. While generalizations are certainly frowned upon, I don’t have to search very hard for those who want to play basketball like Lebron James, play golf the way Tiger Woods used to, or rack up championships like Serena and Vanessa Williams. I can throw a stone and sooner hit someone who’s focus is on the NCAA football or the NFL. Those inspirations for sports are there, but it doesn’t seem to be for karate or the myriad of other martial arts. That isn’t to say the inspiration isn’t around, but infrequent.
According to Simmons Market Research, 18.1 million Americans participated in some form of martial arts back in 2010. Of the roughly 18 million, 9.4 million were adults, and surprisingly to me, 7% of the 9.4 million reported as Black. Compare this to the 5% for both Asian and White adults, and it appears that I may need to get a new eye glasses prescription. I would take the stats with a grain of salt as plenty can change in the martial arts community over 5 years.
So where are the seven percent? Well, hopefully they are off training, but this brings me to what I think could be the major factor in why there isn’t a great population of African-Americans in martial arts: Mentality.
The subject of one’s mentality in martial arts is the subject of many an article and book, so I don’t want to delve into the topic too deeply here. For many artists, the goal of martial arts is beyond the black belt or rank of a master. It is the continual quest to better themselves. It is a quest that takes your lifetime. That is a very hard mindset to instill in anyone who begins training. It’s something that not everyone willingly chooses to do. There is a reason why only 9.4 million participated, and that isn’t even telling us if they stuck with their chosen art. So what about the seven percent and those who don’t make up that percentile?
A portion of this has to dive into black culture. I don’t believe African-Americans in the US have geared themselves in a way to culturally accept martial arts. When I work my way backwards towards the 70’s, America is improving for black people. It certainly wasn’t perfect. It’s not perfect now, but let me be clear. This is not an excuse for anything. I can imagine that embracing martial arts in a time when you face oppression is a channel for anger, depression, and a lot of energies that have the potential for destruction of individuals and the world around them.
So, my question remains. Where are the black martial artists? To find my answer, I must dive into a little history on the emergence of martial arts in the United States.