Later that day, I sat on my porch drinking cider and sweating, while some white guy taught me Chinese history. And I was thinking how this would be funny from an essentialist perspective, because he was trying to teach me about my people. Except, while he may not be an expert, he does know more than I do, because I don't know shit about Chinese history.
He had a tattoo that I couldn't quite see, on his inner arm, immediately above or below his elbow. It looked like Chinese characters, although I couldn't get a good enough view to say, and it might have been some other non-Roman language. Which is what I actually wanted to talk about.
I feel as if a lot of the tattoo discussion has been about having or not having a right to use a set of symbols, about whether it is or isn't appropriation. And I don't think those are the right questions to ask. I don't think that appropriation is bad. I think that thoughtless appropriation is bad. I think that using another culture's traditions because of a superficial attraction, because they seem exotic, is shallow and disrespectful. I think that when it's a conquering culture, a privileged culture, thoughtlessly appropriating a conquered, non-privileged, culture, it is especially harmful, because the appropriation becomes One More Thing that is taken away. The problem is the unconscious expression of privilege, and the reasons behind the appropriation, not the appropriation itself.
I took an art history class in American Indian art for four weeks over the summer, because I needed three more credits, and if you take art history as a four week class you don't have to write a term paper. Four weeks, four tests, and it's over. No surprise: I didn't retain much information after that summer. What I do remember is this: Navajo blankets, the famous kind that you can find for sale every five miles along the freeway across Arizona, they aren't entirely Navajo. The Navajo were weaving blankets for a few hundred years, but they were made with muted colors, mostly gray and black and white. The bright reds and blues and oranges that these blankets are known for didn't become part of the Navajo tradition until they lived with Mexicans in Spanish camps and assimilated Mexican colors into their own art. In this case, only the traditional colors were used, not symbols, but those colors were not Navajo colors, they were not Navajo tradition, until they were. People change each other. Sometimes what is meaningful to one culture also resonates with another, and to claim sole ownership of an idea or symbol is to cripple it.
This guy on my porch with his Asian language tattoo and his recitation of the Boxer Rebellion, he found something meaningful to him. He learned more about it. He traveled, over and over, to the place where the idea first took hold, and spoke with the people who carry on the tradition. He meditates. He learns. He cares. And the symbols of the culture, for him, are symbols of the ideas he found there and I'm not going to tell him that he doesn't have a right to wear them. It's not about having the right. We all have the right. I only ask that we use it carefully and thoughtfully, that we treat other people with dignity and respect.