Martial Arts and Cultural Appropriation

Culture- The integrated pattern of beliefs, patterns, and norms endemic of a particular group originating from similar characteristics such as religion, ethnicity, and geographic location. 

Definitions of culture abound. However, this one has stood the test of academic scrutiny in the halls of academia and the rigors of doctoral level training. The author? Me, the author of this blog. This definition of culture was taken directly from my doctoral dissertation entitled Perceptions of the Felony Stigma Through the Looking Glass: An Autoethnography, defended in 2010.

We are witnessing turmoil in many countries around the world based on a phenomenon known as cultural appropriation. While there are no universally agreed upon definitions of cultural appropriation, much like the umbrella term of culture, there are a few key themes that resonate with this peculiar oddity of logic that bear mentioning. You will also see in the forthcoming discussion how this translates into the world of martial arts. 

Cultural appropriation is loosely defined as a “particular power dynamic” whereby members of a “dominant” culture usurp characteristics of an “oppressed” culture and take them on as their own. For reference:

Three characteristics of this bizarre cultural wrestling match become immediately apparent. For starters, we focus on a power dynamic coupled with the idea of a dominant culture. If taken at face value, then the casual, yet astute, observer must draw the conclusion that dominant cultures exist. The question then becomes in what context this domination occurs. If a power dynamic exists that outlines the parameters of the cultural (mis)appropriation, then it must be based on who holds political or social power. In the United States at present moment, it would be extraordinarily difficult to identify a dominant culture. Why? Anything that has historically been deemed to be born of a particular “dominant” culture is now the target of this very concept. In other words, statistics relating to demographics in modern America no longer state who the dominant culture happens to be. It is based on political and social leverage. 

Second, logical schizophrenia has taken root in this argument. It seems strange that an alleged dominant power group would desire to appropriate characteristics from a group that it deems to be inferior. If diversity is a righteous trait in a heterogeneous society such as America, then this is a curious argument to be having. It seems as if the intermingling of cultures in a society that has been described as a melting pot would be inevitable. With the number of cultures that make up the American populace, it seems that two concepts would define American culture that on their face would render the idea of cultural appropriation moot. Primarily, culture in a diverse society would be in a constant state of flux. Alongside this idea would be the recognition that if American society truly is a diverse melting pot of ideas and cultures, E Pluribus Unum– Out of Many, One- would relegate the idea of cultural appropriation to the level of intellectual infantilism. 

The most uncomfortable aspect of cultural appropriation that has to be dealt with is the idea that it is a one-way street. The purveyors of this argument have placed themselves in a position that is admirably advantageous. By describing cultural appropriation as a power dynamic based on cultural dominance, oppressed groups are free to appropriate whatever they wish from the defined dominant group. It has thus become impossible for anyone to know when the blurry line between cultural appreciation and appropriation has been crossed, as the singer Adele recently discovered while attending a function in which she donned a bikini top reflecting the image of the Jamaican flag.

The message here to anyone is confusing, unclear, and so intellectually challenging that it leaves anyone with a clear train of thought scurrying for the tall grass. Are we, as members of dominant culture wherever that may be, facing a no trespassing order when it comes to cultural traits and practices other than our own that we find admirable? Enter the world of martial arts. 

By this standard, I am unclear whether I am guilty of cultural misappropriation as a karate teacher and practitioner. To whom should the moniker dominant culture be ascribed? Karate, after all, is a Japanese martial art. Practitioners of karate wear clothing and attributes that are uniquely Japanese. Practitioners may even learn elements of the Japanese language. To whom is the power dynamic ascribed? If it is based on geography and demographics, then within the confines of the United States cultural appropriation has occurred, and I assume that I both stand charged, convicted, and sentenced to the social gallows. If I happen to be learning and practicing the art in Okinawa as a gaijin- a foreigner- then this definition makes no sense whatsoever because in that context, I have no power whatsoever. 

Gaijin. Foreigner. This is a word that the Japanese have for those that are not like them. That should make some heads explode, but I digress.

If cultural appropriation is real, then those who espouse the evils of this phenomenon would have a field day with the karate masters of yesteryear. Karate, when tracing its origins, emanates from Chinese roots after early masters traveled to China. They learned what Chinese masters had to teach them and in many cases adapted it to what they already knew. The art evolved and flourished, and I dare say it may have been the result of cultural appropriation, depending upon who would be described as the dominant Asian culture around those times. 

Our BJJ friends? You’re not blameless either. When Maeda was teaching in Brazil, there can be no doubt that he suffered from the same variables that describe cultural appropriation at present moment in the United States. He was a stranger in a strange land. Arguably, he had no cultural or political power. He was a Japanese man in Brazil. Yet, he conveyed his knowledge to his Brazilian students, the art has evolved, and it has become a staple in the world of martial arts. 

The real issue here? In whatever geographic, social or political context, what we have here are the workings of a legion of busybodies that see within themselves a deficit. They see trouble where none exists. They see evil intent when none exists. They take offense when none is intended. 

I would wager that the Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, or the Brazilians would not teach their arts that are deeply entwined in their culture to outsiders if they saw evil intent on behalf of those to whom they taught. I cannot speak for other arts such as BJJ, but from a historical perspective many Japanese arts were family traditions that were handed down within the family in close secrecy. As time has passed, these traditions have gone by the wayside and the Japanese have passed on their arts to those they deem fit to carry on their legacy. 

I have had the distinct pleasure and honor to learn under Japanese instructors on a few occasions. They treated me with kindness and respect. They provided me with instruction and guidance just like every other student despite our cultural and racial differences. If this is cultural appropriation, I am a serial offender. I am proud of my heritage, but I also see the beauty in other cultures and I appreciate them. 

It would be interesting to see how many of those lecturing the rest of us about cultural appropriation are guilty of the same acts as us barbarians. I would suspect that many of the screeching Caucasian feminists that castigate people like martial artists are all too happy to enjoy a delicious Mexican meal. They think nothing of listening to music that is not of their own culture.

If you are one of those enlightened females that lectures those of us that are hairy, aggressive Neanderthals about cultural appropriation, please refrain from indulging in a Brazilian wax. Instead, be an American, and use a belt sander. 

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