Sugar Skulls & White Smug

It is said that we are mirrors for each other, so this one goes out to the smirking white blonde mirror reflecting that one time I attempted to paint a sugar skull onto my own white face, as I am writing to myself.

You’re white. You’re blonde. Your eyes are blue. Your water is always clean. You live north of a border established by treaties, negotiated by war, and maintained by genocide. You live in a place just barely north of the river that marks this border, where an actual candidate for the president of the United States wants to build a 30-foot wall to keep out everyone living south of it, and make them pay for it. You live in a country that refuses to teach that this line on the map was drawn after hundreds of years of people seeing their villages burned to the ground with their sleeping families barricaded inside, their bodies being forced and held down by serial rapists who didn’t even see them as human, and their hands chopped off for resisting or rebelling against the enslaving of their children; and after surviving forced starvation while being backed into a corner by smallpox, influenza, and tuberculosis, with only the ocean at their backs and imminent death staring them in the face, watching helplessly as their children were torn, terrified, from the arms of their loving families who had defended them fiercely for generations, and those children incarcerated and tortured and brainwashed into worshipping the symbols of the very mass murderers who had done this to them since generations before they were even born.

Mass murderers who, to them, look like us. They cannot tell us apart. If we are being honest with ourselves, we cannot blame them.

And yet many of these women, children, and men who lived and survived and resisted every way they could, through all of this mass murder and rape of their people, who taught their children and grandchildren the tools of resistance, still found ways every day to honour the living memory of the ways their parents and grandparents and ancestors once lived and thrived in this land where their blood comes from. This land that nourished them since time immemorial, while gently teaching them every single day how to strike a balance with every breath they took. This land that showed its forgiveness while their young ones learned through making mistakes, as we all did, where ever we came from. And this land also taught them how to hide when it was necessary for their survival. And this land also taught them how to adapt all the teachings it had given generation after generation, to continue passing on many of those teachings and traditions once the people who look like us were taking their children away, since long before a river became an invisible wall. This land taught them what a living memory is, and how to keep it alive.

And that is where we came along. After seeing sugar skull portraits painted or tattooed on something whose meaning is unknown to us, we thought it would be a neat idea to paint ourselves into that portrait. Maybe we thought it would be cute or fun to try. Maybe we even thought we were honouring someone. Or maybe we thought it was such a unique art form, that on some subconscious level spoke in a booming voice to the place in our settler consciousness where our own ancestors’ unique art forms were erased generations before we were even born, and something inside of us said we must take that from them and make it our own.

But maybe none of our reasons matter. Maybe it’s more important to acknowledge the impact of painting our white faces framed with blonde hair as the portrait of someone’s ancestors south of that border. Maybe it’s more important to understand how much it would hurt us for someone who is virtually unknown to us or anyone in our families or extended communities, to come to a funeral or memorial for one of our very own beloved family members, claiming to be that person while standing over their casket or grave marker, claiming to be “honouring” the memory of the only recently deceased. That’s a start, but it’s hardly the whole picture. Words alone will only ever approach a more-or-less slightly myopic gesture towards a broader reality, the depth of which my words, spoken as a settler, especially fail to set free.

2 thoughts on “Sugar Skulls & White Smug

  1. What do you think of this? Here’s a list of what I heard before reading your words:

    Dead Prez “Hip Hop”

    The Dead Kennedys – Holiday in Cambodia

    Social Distortion – I Was Wrong


    Last night the clouds scattered everywhere,
    for a thousand leagues the same moon color.
    At dawn’s coming I saw you in dreams;
    it must be you were thinking of me.
    In my dream I grasped your hand,
    asked you what your thoughts were.
    You said you thought of me with pain,
    had no one to send a letter through.

    When I awoke, I still had not spoken in reply.
    a knock-on-the-door sound, rap rap!
    Saying, “A messenger from Shangzhou,”
    he delivered a letter of yours.
    From the pillow I rose sudden and startled,
    putting on my clothes topsy-turvy.
    I opened the seal, saw the hand-letter,
    one sheet, thirteen lines.

    “Whose beloved are You”
    I asked,
    “O You who are so
    unbearably beautiful?”
    “My own,” He replied,
    “for I am One and Alone
    love, lover, and beloved –
    mirror, beauty and the very eyes
    that see.”

    – from Fakhruddin Iraqi: Divine Flashes (Classics of Western Spirituality), Translation by William C. Chittick and Peter Lamborn Wilson

    Thank you for helping me to see the wig and skull paint on my own dreaming face.

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