By CMarie Fuhrman
I love unique, colorful, and beautiful tattoos. I have one, a dragonfly, that I had tattooed on my lower back 15 years ago, and though I have not sought any others, I have come to admire the art that women have given their skin to. I also love serendipitous events. For example, when you are thinking of someone and they call, or in the case of this blog, when you are researching one idea and all of the information leads to the formation of an entirely new project. Thus is the case while doing research for an article on the word squaw. I was looking for information for my blog, reading various sites, and articles and books such as: “My Body, Myself” and Reading Native American Women and they all seemed to start to resonate with each other. It doesn’t stop there. I have been reading essays by Roxane Gay in her book Bad Feminist and in a couple of weeks, I will be teaching a lesson to another class about the poetry of Claudia Rankine, these texts read together, with my own personal interest, made for a choir of excellent reading.
Excellent reading, that along with the information I was gathering about the word squaw (an article I promise to post soon) created an awareness for me of something that I am almost ashamed to admit. I realized that many women have not had the same experiences with their bodies (at least the reception and expectation of their bodies) as I have as a Native woman. Though I think that as female we have shared many of the same experiences, such as discrimination based on gender stereotypes or medias portrayal of the ideal, Felly Simmonds’ essay, “My Body, Myself,” made me realize how many of my experiences, mostly negative, have to do with my physical body.
Simmonds writes that, “to talk about the body is to invite derision,” and the only way we can get past the idea of others bodies as derisive, is to allow them to be as speakable as are bodies of the dominant white male culture. How are we to fully understand society without understanding all of the bodies that make it up? How do we teach sociology without a “self?” I found this helpful for my own writing as well. How can I truly explain my human experience without my body? Would it be another form of duplicity? Of masking? Of hiding from myself or trying to please the dominant culture? Though the article points to potential conflicts with combining sociology and literature, I think it may be the best way to learn about and present other bodies for understanding.
Rankine, in Citizen, shows that without black there can be no white with her full page of bold black text. Whites can only understand their whiteness because of color. And though the opposite may be true, it is as if non-whites must prove themselves against a white background. Rankine also embodies the black female experience with her own sketches throughout “Citizen” and the white’s derision or modest head-turning when she talks about her hair, or is trying to make a purchase. You see, it is what we perceive by what we see, that makes our decision about how a person is and too often, when the person is not white, that stereotype tends to be opposite of the “norm” and then considered less, or subpar.
I think Audrey Lorde was also hinting at this fully embodied idea in her essays. That non-whites have to reach out to others to educate them on the experience of being black, and thus to help them understand the experience of being white. I think too of Elissa Washuta, and her powerful essay, “This Indian Does Not Owe You,” where she considers the many ways that non-Natives have asked her to prove her ancestry. Washuta, along with Lorde, Simmonds and Roxane Gay understand the difficulties of being a non-white educator and how they may be hired to be the non-white body (and thus the voice for that body) but are not always invited to talk or teach from that perspective.
For myself, it is the history of Native American women and the romanticized idea of them that is written on the female body. My own sketches, very brief, would still be as disconcerting. For example, I have been called: Cindyjawea, Pocahontas, Squaw, and Indian Barbie. Once, in a grocery store a woman threatened her small child by gesturing towards me and saying, “If you don’t behave, I am going to send you back to a teepee with her!” The white idea of Indian is written on me, along with all the past hate, genocide, domination, and ideals. I have had dentists tell me that my teeth, because they are a different shape than white teeth, will be easily defective and should be filled before cavities begin. I have had men ask to play cowboy and Indian. It has been assumed that my ethnicity makes me wilder in bed, narrow-hipped, small chested, prone to diabetes and alcoholism, and somehow more likely to be “untamable,” (an attribute that some men and women seem to find attractive.) These things, my body speaks, without my uttering a word.
Stereotypes are ideas tattooed to a body with ink that can never be removed. I agree that many stereotypes and judgments are made simply by observation and are unfair to say the least, but those stained in to the skin of non-white women bespeak a history and an ignorance that can only be erased by education and understanding. All people, all women, deserve a chance to uniquely exist without the preconceived notions of race indelibly marked on them, without these unwanted expectations and limitations, there is not telling what beautiful and unique ink may be allowed to shine through.
I am eager to hear about your own experiences. What has been written on your body that you wish was not there?