Permanent In(u)k: Thoughts a Year and a Half After Trading In My White-Passing Privilege

On December 7, 2018, I was in the lower floor of a split level in Anchorage doing something western culture disdains: getting a face tattoo.

I grew up the San Francisco Bay Area, where the cities run together, and the freeway signs are often the only mark from one to the next. My dad, my sister, and I lived in a gated apartment complex across from a busy shopping center. A Jack-in-the-Box carved out a little square on the corner of our complex. The trees grew from squares in the concrete.

The fact that I was Iñupiaq on my absent mother’s side was something I didn’t often talk about at school. It was usually followed by a short and awkward exchange. My classmates didn’t understand Alaska and I didn’t really care enough to explain it to them, beyond clarifying that people did not live in igloos or ride polar bears.

I spent a handful of summers in Utqiaġvik when I was little, so I had an idea that being Iñupiaq had something to do with dancing, dressing a certain way, and eating a lot of strange food. But it was always something other from myself, and often unpleasant. I didn’t get the “weird” food or unpaved roads or the constant harassment from strangers who claimed to be related to me in some way. They all knew my mom or my Aaka. They didn’t know me. I didn’t want to know them.

Truthfully, I was relieved when my mom and stepdad decided to move to Anchorage and I spent summers there instead. It was much closer to my typical American upbringing. Anchorage was smaller than the Bay Area, but at least there were trees. I spent my last full summer in Utqiaġvik when I was eleven. When I ended up at the University of Alaska Anchorage for college, my motives were largely financial.

Alaska is a small town. It wasn’t long before I fell into a group of friends who came from Utqiaġvik. Half of them were actually my cousins. It was nice to have a connection to somebody, after growing up two thousand miles away.

Coming back to Alaska, meeting those people, and living with the Iñupiaq side of my family set me on a path to understanding my own traumas, systemic racism, how to reconnect with my own culture. I’m still on that path, and walking it is hard, but makes my heart happy.

The scariest thing about receiving my traditional chin markings was giving up my white-passing privilege. Being mixed race, my appearance sometimes prompted strangers to assume I was “something,” but I think most people assumed I was white. Passing as white meant I was typically safe from being racially profiled or stereotyped. I was scared that with my chin markings I would experience those things more often.

Growing up, I was subject to microaggressions from my classmates and teachers who knew my ethnic background, and even my own father. I witnessed and struggled with stereotyped representations of Inuit people in all kinds of media. But I had a privilege over those people who looked more Native. When I got my tavluġun, I gave it up voluntarily. I traded it for something better.

I remember beaming in the mirror the morning after I got my chin markings. When I got my other tattoos—one a watercolor Elmer the Elephant, one a Harry Potter script tattoo, and one a symbol from Avatar: The Last Airbender—they seemed foreign on my body. I loved them, but they were something I had to get used to. There was something different about my tavluġun. For one, it hurt less (hand-poking is slower, but much less traumatic to the skin than a tattoo gun), but also it felt like it belonged there. Like a feature of my face rather than an accent.

Like many other Inuit women, getting my tavluġun was an act of healing. It was one step closer to my culture and my ancestors. It was one step closer to peeling myself out of my own biases. I’m still ashamed by those beliefs that my own cultural foods and clothing were weird, back when I didn’t know about what a white-centric culture was. I didn’t know that American culture makes whiteness the default, and everything else is an “other,” and that I had internalized that.

The tattoo has opened me up to more microaggressions. The most common one is that people assume some sort of ownership over my tattoo, and assume they have the right to ask what it means. Please don’t do that. My markings are personal and it’s intrusive. I usually take the opportunity to politely educate people on Inuit tattooing in general and the historical purpose of the tavluġun instead.

Traditional tattoos are gaining more traction in Alaska, as waves radiate from cultural revitalization efforts like the Tupik Mi project. More and more people are recognizing and accepting traditional markings. Outside of Alaska, I get funny looks and sometimes stares. Occasionally angry or disgusted looks. People elbow their friends and then point to me and then their own chins like I’m not standing right there. Mostly I ignore them or sometimes laugh. I’m aware now that every interaction I have with a stranger can be associated with my race. Every opinion they form about me might also be applied to my people.

I have been profiled or stereotyped more often. Earlier this year, I was verbally harassed by an older white male in an elevator at my work. I had an interaction with a police officer that was far more negative than any before my tattoo. People have openly assumed I am less educated than I am, have made comments that it’s weird that I write fantasy fiction (because diverse people are only allowed to write about their diversity, apparently), and I have been used as the token Native in more than one setting.

It’s still worth it, for all that I’ve gained in self-respect taking those steps away from my internalized racism.

Getting my markings was a political act. I rejected a white-centric culture. I still try to make these choices. I try to correct myself and others when we call Utqiaġvik by its English name, “Barrow.” I try, slowly, to learn more of our dying language. I try to raise my daughter without the biases I had. I’m not perfect, but through my tavluġun and other acts, I can make myself and my culture visible just by being. And I can embrace my whiteness and my Nativeness on more even footing now.

As a bonus, I’d like to share a poem I wrote a few months ago.

The Taste of Bitter

The learning of History
Taught me what it was like
To munch
On something Bitter.

Before I knew the name
Of Bitter,
I knew the questions:

Do you live in an igloo?
Do you ride a dogsled to school?
Do you ride a whale to school?

I go to school here. Right now.
Minutes ago I sang
A song with you
About Columbus
In 1492,
And in twelve years
I’ll go home
And begin
The learning of History
And hear the name
Of Genocide.

Before I knew the name
Of Bitter,
I knew the questions:

You’re a girl?
Are you a boy?
Are you an it?
Are you queer?

[Two of those are true.]

Before I knew the name
Of Bitter,
I knew the taste of you.
But Bitter on the tongue
Is tempered by Salt,
Not Sweet.

Now that I know the name
Of Bitter,
I relish the taste of Salt.