I can clearly remember my first martial art class. The mirrors along the walls, the rack of exotic and seemingly deadly weapons, and most of all, the instructor. The crisp white uniform, the intricate design of the patches, and the jet black, black belt. Her moves were perfect, as though I’d stepped into one of the movies I additively watched on Saturday mornings. Even though she was 5’4″ and 110Lbs. soaking wet, everyone in the class gave her the respect she demanded. At age 13, I knew I wanted a black belt, I wanted people to look up to me the way I looked up to her. The black belt, became, for me, a symbol of respect and admiration.

Over the years (I am now 34) I’ve moved around a lot, and the “distraction” of college, and life in general continued to keep me from attaining my black belt. I always continued my training, but never stuck with one style long enough. In those 21 years, when I tell people I practice martial arts, the first question is usually “Do you have a black belt?”, my answer had always been no.

Recently I hear martial artists, and the community in general, talking about what it means to have a black belt, and it’s meaning being diluted by schools that are too willing to hand them out. Schools that are more worried about making money then teaching good martial arts. $2,000 and 2 years of your life get you a black belt, regardless of effort and ability. They go home proud of the accomplishment, others are embarrassed by their school.

This is not to say we need to train like Kurt Sloane, with bloody shins and mangled fists. But I’ve seen black belts that are unable to perform the basic techniques of their art. How many of your fellow students do you see simply going through the motions, or “phoning it in” as I heard it called recently. Don’t get me wrong, students should be able to chose their level of commitment and dedication, but if you’re teaching others, or even being looked up to as an example, you should have a solid foundation. Part of being a black belt, is that you are an example, for other students, or anyone else for that matter.

So what has happened to my childhood symbol of respect and admiration? Two weeks ago I tested for, and received, my Black Belt. It was the most physically demanding event of my life, three and a half hours of intense physical exertion. Since then, my I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to have a black belt, and what it’s dilution means to me.

While not a majority, there are people that, simply put, do not deserve the black belt they wear. But what criteria do I use to judge them? Do I compare their entire martial art career to mine? Do we, as a culture, form some sort of committee to over-see all the schools? Do we allow the government to regulate black belts? The obvious answer is no. So can I, or anyone, determine if someone deserves a black belt? Unless my signature is on their certificate who am I to say, one person is more deserving then another.

The general public still has a certain respect for anyone with a black belt, even though most have never witnessed a test, or been involved in the martial arts. Their knowledge is derived from mass media and popular culture and are, for the most part, unaware of any developments in the martial art community. Most martial artists become less and less concerned about how the general public views them as the years of training pass. Their ego is less effected by the perception of others, outside the martial arts community.

It’s the opinion of other martial artists which are most influenced by the “dilution effect”. Telling another martial artists that you have a black belt in Tae Kwon Do means little if anything (I believe this effect has most damaged Tae Kwon Do). This, of course, is not limited to Tae Kwon Do, but applies, to some degree, to all styles and schools. The people that truly know what your black belt is worth, is your fellow students, and your instructor. Finally, you are the only person in the entire world that understands what your black belt means.