Archives For Just Because

I now have three tattoos.

I refer to my tattoo #1 as my “college-age cultural appropriation tattoo.”

Yes, I’m one of the hordes of Americans to get foreign-language characters permanently inked on their bodies. In my case, Chinese.

I am not Chinese nor is anyone in my immediately family. I didn’t study Chinese, and I don’t speak Chinese. I was not, nor am not emotionally or intellectually attached to Chinese culture. While I asked a Chinese professor at college to write out the phrase I wanted tattooed on me, I couldn’t properly say it and didn’t know why the professor chose the two hanzi he did. Essentially: my 21-year old self treated Chinese characters as exotic symbols there for the ripping off.

Also, the tattoo wasn’t particularly good. The tattoo guy, without asking, didn’t copy the Chinese professor’s writing but instead created a boxy, angular interpretation. (In all seriousness, “Aztec-style” is how he described it. smh)  The work was patchy and low quality.

Tattoo One

Close up of tattoo #1, photo taken in 2015, 17years after “the crime.”


Fairly soon after graduating college, I was first exposed to concepts of anti-racism/anti-oppression. I quickly understood the mistake I made, permanently, on my body.

It took fifteen years to journey from hang-up to hostility. Over that time, my “college-age cultural appropriation tattoo” came to represent everything I hated about who I was that I couldn’t change—my Whiteness, my American-ness, my cultural ignorance, my impulsiveness, my desire for recognition (that supposedly wasn’t being met), my imposter syndrome, my lack of feeling smart, competent. I longed to rip the tattoo from my body.

So I decided cover it up. The artist who did tattoo #2 couldn’t be located. I sought recommendations of tattoo artists, but no one suggested was available for a consult (if they even returned my message). When I planning to travel for work, I asked friends and colleagues for away-from-home suggestions; still nothing panned out. After two years, I gave up with tremendous sulking.

People make mistakes. Most mistakes are ephemeral or repairable; they’re forgivable. Over the course of my life I’ve made some bad calls and definitive fuck-ups. None of these instances caused loss of life, limb, job, property, savings, or anything of devastating permanence. Were feelings injured? Were time or resources wasted? Sure. For how long should I, should anyone, be branded as untrustworthy, incompetent, or unworthy of mercy or reprieve? For some people the answer is been: forever. For some people, there is no moving on, even when fault isn’t as clear as a permanent black drawing on your back. My reset button for everyone else has always been accessible. I wish the same could be said of a reset button for myself.

Since 1997, my need to pick up slack, to practice-for-perfect, to make it work, and, in the end, to carry on with my mistakes did me no favors. This attitude, this drive, was practically knitted into my first tattoo. Which of course is why, despite seeming ready to cover up my “college-age cultural appropriation tattoo,” I couldn’t get myself together to have it done. I blamed outside circumstances, but let’s be real—it was all me. I hadn’t forgiven myself for the original act.

Like all the things about myself that I can’t change but can control, I needed to genuinely contextualize my first tattoo experience for what it was. Tattoo #1 was part of me, but didn’t need to define me. The practice-for-perfect principle that dominated me didn’t need to; I could calm and manage it. That principle doesn’t allow me to practice-for-practice sake, fail forward, or, say, work to bring down White supremacy, Patriarchy, Cis-sexism, Able-ism, and oppression writ large in this country.

But I digress.

Twenty years after tattoo #1 was inked, I connected with the warm, talented Fernando ( or #BlackMothCollective) and on November 15, 2017 got tattoo #3. I love it. It’s bigger and more intricate that #1 or #2 (which meant time and patience, honesty about discomfort levels, and exercising breath work). Tattoo #3 captures core aspects of my identity in the waning days of my forty-first year. It almost entirely covers up #1—only a microscopic line can be detected, if you know what to look for. Most important and symbolically for me, #3 begins, is rooted, where #1 lies but extends upward; toward what’s next, toward what’s possible, toward the future.

A privilege is an advantage, or right, or opportunity, or pleasure, or immunity granted to a particular person or group of people. “Privilege” is the holding of a set of advantages, rights, opportunities, pleasures, and/or immunities as a person or group of people. By definition it means there are others who do are disadvantaged, left out and behind, uncomfortable, pained. By definition it means there is imbalance and inequality (according to yesterday’s post, does it imply those who are “unlucky” according to “the system’s standards”).

Another definition of privilege I’ve encountered, from Facebook of all places, is this: “Privilege is when you think something is not a problem because it is not a problem to you personally.”
Privilege is when.png

Phoenix Calida defined and broke-down “privilege” thusly:

Privilege simply means that under the exact same set of circumstances your in, life would be harder without your privilege.
Being poor is hard. Being poor and disabled is harder.
Being a woman is hard. Being a trans woman is harder.
Being a white woman is hard, being a woman of color is harder.
Being a black man is hard, being a gay black man is harder.

This does not mean that having privilege, unearned advantages, in any area automatically makes life “better.” But it does mean “all things being equal” doesn’t exist. The starting line will always be ahead. Less metaphorically, it means that anyone holding privilege is more likely to have power or being in positions of power. They are more likely to share this power with people “like them.” And power-sharing, whether it’s investment tips, a role in a play, or the benefit of the doubt when stopped by the police for a minor traffic violation, increases the “betterment” for only some.

Are there definitions of privilege you’ve found useful? Please share. In this case: sharing knowledge to all –> empowering all to affect positive change.

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Seems par for the course that I would start out 2015 blogging about the use of jargon-y words and then jump right in the following week using words like “meme-ification” and “authenticity” and referencing “Walter Benjamin” (pronounced Ben-ya-mean because, of course, Germany,) but here goes nothing.

I had never heard of #BlackBrunch until someone brought it up in the office the other day. This particular form of protest is simple, non-violent, and (I think) packs a punch. A group of African American protesters walk into a restaurant during peak brunch hours and read off the names of victims of police brutality, those we’ve heard of before and those we haven’t. In between each name, the group will say “ashe” (ah-SHAY), a Yoruba term that translates loosely as “amen” or “so be it.” They then called on patrons to stand in solidarity (to varying degrees of success, I imagine). This ritual from start to finish takes four-and-a-half minutes; this time is specific to reflect that Michael Brown’s body was left on the street for four-and-a-half hours in Ferguson, MI.*

This phenomenon appears to have started in either Oakland, CA or New York City, NY — which came first is unclear and probably not important. What is of note is that due to Twitter presence, this #BlackBrunch protest/ritual has been copied, even “gone viral” (the byline that the LA Times wants you to tweet out) and has already been seen in DC, as my friend was explaining.

The conversation that ensued in the office became one about authenticity. When an act of protest like that is replicated so many times, does it reach the intent of the proto-action, the very first time it was enacted? Does it echo it? Does it honor it?

One hand of the argument would say it doesn’t, and with each imitation it loses a level of sophistication, the complexity involved with the action itself. Like taking a picture of the Mona Lisa, which will not, and never be, the real live Mona Lisa with its two-hundred-plus year old paint on canvas and dust and all of that.

The other hand of the argument would say it does and it can.

I managed to catch the end of a morning program on NPR, listening to some folks talk about Hashtag Activism, which I feel like is coming up more and more in conversation as of late with #JeSuisCharlie — the women on this program were speaking specifically on the tag #BringBackOurGirls. “What is hashtag activism really doing?” the host inquires. It is no surprise that a hashtag won’t make the Boko Haram return kidnapped young girls, but it will, one expert mentioned, “make (Boko Haram) a name that can be said in households.” It raises consciousness.

Meme-ification has its perks. It means that the thing (the idea, behavior, or style [x]) being replicated or imitated can easily be replicated, and therefore has a shot at becoming a widely adopted belief.

This idea of meme-ification got me thinking on the subject of authenticity and art, which I explored a lot in a Visual Anthropology course in undergrad. We read “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin (remember: Ben-yah-mean) which you are welcome to read all of here if you have an afternoon.

So, following the logic that ritual is the root of performance, which would then make the #BlackBrunch protest a kind of art…. what would our BFF Benjamin have to say about meme-ification of protests/rituals like #BlackBrunch?

In this article, Benjamin’s big theory is, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” I’m just going to include this excerpt from section two of this essay for you:

“The situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated… In the case of the art object, a most sensitive nucleus – namely, its authenticity – is interfered with whereas no natural object is vulnerable on that score. The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.”

He goes on to refer to this sensitive authenticity nucleus as an art object’s “aura.”

So it sounds like #BlackBrunch is screwed, right? “…the historical testimony rests on the authenticity (…) what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.” Yikes. Authority jeopardized doesn’t sound great. Until he starts talking about performance.

Describing the reproduction of an actor’s performance in film (which to him, film is one big mechanical reproduction) he sums it up:

“This situation might also be characterized as follows: for the first time – and this is the effect of the film – man has to operate with his whole living person, yet forgoing its aura. For aura is tied to his presence; there can be no replica of it.

Okay, so, “aura” tied to the “sensitive nucleus” of authenticity… this could then substantiate an argument that #BlackBrunch is an authentic, meaningful form of protest, yeah? I think Benjamin would agree (and Brecht would probably love it too, as a concept.)

I think I land on the side of Benjamin here. As long as live human beings are connected to the center of the protest, they will be authentic. They will be heard, even if they are dismissed, ignored, or stood up with in solidarity. I think as far as non-violent and meaningful protests go, this one is beautiful.

*Thanks LA Times for breaking down what happens during #BlackBrunch so simply, since I’ve not witnessed it yet myself. You can read their article here.


Melanie Harker is a conspirator with dog & pony dc, as well as Rachel Grossman’s sidekick. You can see her musings @MelanieGwynne on twitter.