I want to tell you about a couple of tattoos I almost got but am really, really glad I didn’t.
The first was, to put it colloquially, the skeleton of a gypsy woman, sitting in a crescent moon and playing the guitar. I wanted to have a few bars of a Romani folk song underneath. Merely talking about aesthetics, it was a bit tacky, and I knew it: I was kind of into the idea of having something ugly permanently on my skin, but mostly I just had romantic notions of myself as a nomad, a wanderer, a ~free spirit~. It never crossed my white girl mind that maybe claiming a group of people who have been persecuted over and over throughout history to which I have no known ancestral ties wasn’t my place, but, fortunately, another concept took its place.
The second was a dream catcher. I got the idea from CocoRosie (love their music
but they’ve got some serious, unchecked Native American appropriation issues turns out they’re Native! My bad!). I had just spent a magical (and stoned) summer Greyhounding the East Coast and my mind felt very open and lush and prone to lucid or near-lucid dreaming. Again fortunately, my funds were insufficient to make this a reality, and over time I felt more and more uneasy with the design, although I wasn’t totally sure why.
I wasn’t able to put words to my unease for years, and when I finally did, they conveyed ideas that I had learned from others—primarily people of color. These histories—that Romani song, this Ojibwe charm, the cultures of these people—are not mine to use. And unless you are a part of the tribe, the race, or the people, they don’t belong to you, either. I know that you have probably heard this from people of color, and they have a lot more important, complex, and interesting things to say about it than I do. I just wanted to come at it from the perspective of a white girl who almost permanently inked some offensive shit on her body and say: hey, ya’ll, be humble. We live in a white, Western world that values reason and individualism and intention over almost everything, but guess what? No matter your rhetoric, this isn’t something you can justify, and the fact that that war bonnet or dream catcher or gypsy costume or sari might hold a lot of personal significance to you doesn’t matter, and neither does your intention to “honor” other cultures. Get radical, and honor them by listening to their people, apologizing when you fuck up, and trying again from the good places in your heart called I Don’t Know Jack Shit and Not Everything Is Mine to Take.
Bethany, who is always learning