I didn’t want to lie about who I was anymore, but I’d learn people wouldn’t accept a simple one- or two-word answer about who I was, either. Not talking about race isn’t an option any person of color in this country has ever had, in particular if it’s not clear what race you are. If it’s clear what race you are, you just get skipped an interrogation level. It’s always your responsibility to address your race’s stereotypes to ensure whoever’s asking that you aren’t like what they’ve heard. Be assured whatever they’ve heard is bad and you’ll be asked to answer for it. Political correctness? Not in my reality. Political correctness never kept a racist from calling me a racist name. It’s never kept anyone at a bar from dehumanizing me because I’m not their nostalgic ideal of an “American.” It’s never saved me from being reminded I’m an “Other.” Political correctness isn’t about depriving someone of their freedom. It’s about giving someone the same inalienable rights that all “real Americans” have—the right to not be hassled, insulted, or assaulted because someone thinks they’re different. In other words, it’s about protecting an American’s most cherished freedom: the right to be left alone.
Drink more than two beers in a bar and you’ll hear PC sound its bugle retreat: I don’t mean to be racist, but . . .
…If it’s unclear to someone what race I am, I’m treated to a series of interrogative questions, each more invasive, until it’s clear what stereotype best suits them. Every month or so, when I don’t immediately explain my name and reveal my ethnic background—the POC version of name, rank, serial number—I have some version of this conversation. Here’s this month’s latest variation:
“So, where are you from?” he asks.
“I live here in town.”
“No, I mean, where are you from before here?”
“Vermont? No, where are your parents from?”
“I mean, before Los Angeles?”
“They always lived there.”
“Why are you being so difficult? What are you?!?”
I was standing in the driveway, casually discussing the possibility of renting part of a house. The prospect of entering into a situation with roommates wasn’t particularly appealing, simply because I’d had my own space for many years and I prefer to live with that level of control, specifically: I make the decisions, period.
As the conversation progressed, my potential roommate/landlord brought it around to the other, long-standing roommate. The one not present. The one with…and she paused while making the pained expression people have when they fear a particularly bad response to what they are about to say…dreadlocks and tattoos.
I paused a moment, wondering when, exactly, I had physically transformed into the middle-aged, suburban, ignorant-about-everything woman people kept (incorrectly) assuming I was.
“I have tattoos,” was my only response.
She clearly did not expect that.
I got my first tattoo right before the beginning of my divorce when I knew something was going to have to change or I was going to have to leave. As it turned out, lots of things needed to change and we both needed to go our separate ways (the details are another story for another day).
It’s the lion from the strength card in a tarot deck I owned at the time. I chose that image because I liked both the symbolism and the artwork. It translated into a beautiful tattoo. The symbolism behind the card and the lion (outside of the tarot deck’s interpretation), combined with the circumstances surrounding the act of being tattooed, couldn’t have been more perfect.
My second tattoo occurred during the height of the legal process of that same divorce. It’s a stylized hawk in similar colors and artistic design to the lion. It was designed by a friend with Native American lineage (and a grandmother actively involved with that community), so it includes a balance symbol from her own traditions. At the time, I suspected that particular element was included because the artist thought I needed to find balance in my life; which was true enough, so I went with the design. However, for me, the hawk has always symbolized freedom from entrapment (another long story for another time). Yet, freedom and balance can easily intersect with one another – particularly when necessary changes happen to include the end of a relationship.
The third tattoo was acquired at the very end of my divorce, during the absolute worst period of social and relationship drama. It’s a snake around my ankle. It’s the most visible tattoo I have. It’s a stylized blue tattoo, whereas the other two are red. It’s not scary and the symbolism behind it is not what you think – which is kinda the point. (And, yes, that is also a long story for another time.)
I like my tattoos. They are both symbolic and earned. I wish more people understood both of those concepts.
This story is not in the book Chic Ink, but a complete version of all details (including those not provided here) could be pulled from this book.
Chic Ink is a collection of experiences, explanations, deep thoughts and memories. Reading it is like sitting down for coffee with a random collection of women and listening to every one of them answer this question: “What’s your tattoo and why did you get it?”
If you’re looking for a good read this holiday vacation, consider picking up Chick ink. The stories behind the tattoos are positively fascinating.
–Chick Ink: 40 Stories of Tattoos–And the Women Who Wear Them
Quotes from the book can be found HERE.