Editorial: Bad Tattoo

I met a woman the other day who had one of those trendy tattoos that consist of a short phrase in cursive script. I glimpsed it peeking out from behind her top, and I asked if I could read it. It was in a foreign language, as so many of these tattoos are, but it happened to be one that I speak. Without divulging much detail about it, it would be safe to say that the language used in the tattoo was broken. Even the punctuation was wrong. This is also something of a stereotype for these kinds of tattoos, of course.

Realizing that I stood to gain nothing by pointing out that her tattoo was embarrassingly bad, I figuratively bit my tongue and simply said that I spoke the language. She was elated, and began to gush about how her family used to speak the language and that she’s been trying to learn it for ages, but has never made any real headway. It’s a story that many of the readers of Great White North have probably heard before, or have experienced for themselves. Honestly, it can be tough to learn another language as an adult, especially when one has no access to any kind of immersion, or did not get introduced to Linguistics at a young age.

I began to suggest free apps and programs to help her along. She nodded, then later admitted that she keeps a few paid apps on her phone, but just never seems to find time to use them. This is, again, typical and frustrating behaviour amongst those who claim to have a great interest in their heritage, but whose connection with it is so superficial that the only fruits of their efforts are a waste of some two hundred dollars for a tasteless tattoo that spells out a vapid phrase that might as well read, “Clumsy Google Translation.”

For all the ire that was beginning to be raised in me at this point, it was her next comment that I found the most puzzling and troublesome: “I’m so white that I only speak English. Maybe a bit of French from school.” Her ancestral language, of course, was European. The mind struggles to make sense of such a notion. Having a diminished connection with one’s European heritage surely doesn’t make one whiter, but less white. Imagine the same being said of anyone else. “I’m so black that I only speak English, maybe a few words of Swahili.” “I’m so Asian that I only speak English, maybe a few words of Cantonese.” It doesn’t make a lick of sense.

While I cocked an eye at the offhand remark at the time, the full depth of the thought (or lack thereof) behind it did not become fully clear to me until I mulled on it for an hour or so. The woman had clearly drunk some proverbial Kool-Aid about her heritage. Considering the way whites are mocked and reviled in popular culture of late, the beverage probably came in many different flavours and from many different sources, to follow the figure of speech. To associate being white with vacuousness and culturelessness is not only offensive, it’s so patently false and ridiculous that it’s almost laughable. One has to consider that this was probably meant as a mildly self-deprecating joke, but its implications are contemptible: “I am mediocre, and I associate this mediocrity with being a member of my race.” It’s vile, and it’s sad.

I began to imagine the cognitive dissonance she must feel, weighing both her interest in her heritage with her understanding of whites as being deracinated and culturally featureless by nature. It made her situation pitiable. She wants to learn about her heritage, her past, but her connection with it is severed. She can’t even muster the effort to work her way through a simple phone app and attain a basic, conversational level of proficiency with her (grand?-)mother tongue. Just then, it hit me, the really dark cloud coming in over the horizon that I hadn’t seen until it was upon me:

This is how most Canadians feel, isn’t it?

Now, it can be argued that this conclusion about most Canadians is merely an extrapolation from a single, anecdotal case, and that’s a valid claim up until the point that I once felt the same way when I was younger, except that in my case, I was able to engage with my heritage and re-discover for myself what it meant to be white, to be European, to be Canadian. Others, perhaps, are not so lucky; despite their yearnings to dig up what was buried, dust off the dirt and grime and see for themselves how marvelous these artifacts really are, they lack the tools.

This is one of the more important functions of organizations like the Great White North in my view – that is, to provide European Canadians with the tools to learn about their culture and heritage, and to throw off the denigrating views that some may even have internalized about how white people have no culture to speak of. One of the more brilliant qualities of this drive, one that speaks to me particularly, is its focus on the individual. European heritage is for all whites, of course – every one of us has it – but its rediscovery is not a mass activity. One doesn’t learn a language by attending a rally. One doesn’t practice the preparation of old-world cuisine at the ballot box or in a stadium seat. One does these things at home, or in rooms in a community centre, amongst small groups of like-minded individuals. The grassroots quality of it all – the result being that with effort and enthusiasm, one can not only re-engage with their heritage, but better themselves in the process as they make new connections and form new communities – is so naturally appealing that I being to wonder if this kind of Vennerian re-birth isn’t actually inevitable.

I probably sound optimistic at this stage, and that’s a fair point. Maybe it’s closer to the mark to say that I’m enthused about having a new pet project. After all, I’ve just met a nice, white gal who wants to know more about what it means to be white, and she’s just waiting for someone to help show her the way.

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