Inappropriation behavior

March 26, 2014

A few weeks ago, there was quite a hullaballoo on the internets because a woman of Middle Eastern descent posted an article on entitled “Why I Can’t Stand White Belly Dancers.” A piece of obviously incendiary journalism that was meant to foment controversy more than to facilitate dialogue or understanding, the article hinged its high-kick directly into the balls of cultural appropriation. Earlier in the fall, Katy Perry was also at the center of a media shitstorm (is there really any other kind?) because she performed at the AMA’s dressed as a geisha (the performance was a mish-mash of nods to Japonisme, Chinoiserie, and Orientalism).  Detractors and Katy-haters cried foul, citing among other things, cultural appropriation. 

Here’s the wikipedia definition of cultural appropriation:

Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It describes acculturation or assimilation, but can imply a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture.

There’s a long and great article about it here.  The short version is, I suppose, when do people of dominant culture (read white and/or male) get to use/take things from marginalized culture for entertainment and gain? Never?  Sometimes?  All the time?  Does personal adornment and beautification fall into that category?

It’s a sticky subject for sure, and while there may not be a clear line (the delineations in these sorts of issues are zig-zaggy and blurred for sure – just ask Robin Thicke), it’s important to discuss.  I’m not a fan of pointing out every little micro-agression or insensitive remark. It’s exhausting, and frankly, it doesn’t usually lead to better communication – just to hurt feelings and deeper, cultural Maginot trenches.  Let’s drive the tanks of understanding around these fortifications, right?  (WWII is so yesterday.) 

Let me also say that this crappy blog entry is, by no means, the final word on this topic. I’m sure lots of ivory tower eggheads have poured hard-earned printer cartridge ink over this topic in their various dissertations.

So this got me thinking: is there cultural appropriation in tattooing?  Is there a dominant culture that is taking from a marginalized culture?  Let me put it another way:  if you’re not Japanese/Polynesian/Native American, can you wear Japanese/Polynesian/Native American tattoos?  Does one need to be part of a particular culture to partake in it? 

Why is this even an important conversation for us to have?  For me, I think the question of appropriation is pinned on respect and authenticity, in particular the latter.  Am I really who I am presenting myself to be, and are you? Can I trust that you are who you say you are?  In the same way that temporary tattoos make me cringe (because of their inherently inauthentic nature), I think that we can still appropriate/adopt cultural posturings that align ourselves instantly with one group or another.  To put it another way, the appropriation conversation is in the same continuum with the conversation about being a poser or being a real part of a scene or subgroup.  If you buy a leather jacket and  a pair of Doc Marten’s (no, not THAT Doc Martin), are you all of a sudden a punk rocker ?  If you get tattoos, are you suddenly a tough guy/gal?  If you own a motorcycle, are you suddenly a biker? I know some burly bikers who would strongly disabuse you of those Harley d(avidson)elusions.

My friend Autumn (who is a “white belly dancer”) wrote a passionate, thoughtful response to the initial Salon article.  It was easy enough to find fault with the article, and there are so many other things that need addressing in that article (body image issues, assumptions about class, assumptions about the reality of Middle Eastern dancing in the Middle East, etc.).

So back to the first question:  Do you need to be Japanese to have Japanese tattoos?  I’m going to say no.  BUT, there is a spirit of respect and education that I think you should undertake if you’re going to wear Japanese tattoos (or tattoos that have a strong or significant cultural tie).  You should have some understanding of what it means, even if it means that you’re choosing to counter the original intent of the tattoo or design.  I usually call upon the Hegelian dialectic as my defense for such decisions. You Kant win them all, amiright? If you belong to dominant culture and you’re getting a koi or a dragon or a peony but you have no idea of or interest in its meaning, I think you’ll be opening yourself up to a lot of criticism.  Does this mean that you need to subscribe to all the connotations that your tattoos might have? No (see my old blog about aesthetic versus semantic tattoos), but at least have your decision come from a place of information and not ignorance.

21st century America means, for better or worse, that we have access to too much design aesthetic and information.  The beauty of this is that we can present our beauty as whatever authentic vision we believe it to be, from things as simple as facial hair to things as complicated as gender.

More than ever before, we can become who we really are. I hope we can have that be a thoughtful, beautiful choice. 


A message from Amie…

March 6, 2014

It has taken me some time to write this note because I have struggled to find the adequate words to express my gratitude for all of you. You wonderful, generous humans who participated in the Tsunami Tattoo “Buffy Milo: Cancer Slayer” fund raiser, truly blow my mind. Do you have any idea what you have done for me and my family? You have helped to make it possible for my husband to stay home and take care of me and our son during the toughest parts of my treatment and recovery. That makes us a very lucky family. You have lifted me up and assured me that I am not alone in this. You have shown me the depths of human connection without reservation. Many of you, I don’t even know, and you came through for me. Do you know how amazing you are? Your kindness feels like magic, to me. It is spectacular.

My friends, my incredible homies, you always come through. Somehow, I have been fortunate enough to make bonds with some of the most wonderful, generous, loyal, genuine, talented, loving humans on this planet, and I want you to all know how very much I love you. May I never take my huge family of friends for granted. What Phuc, Sue, Cyndi, Mike, Chris, and Hannah created is love in it’s purest form. Totally selfless generosity. Friends from near and far, lifelong and new, thank you for loving me and making it clear that I will never have to face life’s challenges alone.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.