Colin Kaepernick, Tattoos, and the Holiness of Us All

The easy thing to say in response to David Whitley’s melancholic lamentation on NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s tattoos is: “I’m sorry, it is a white thing.”

“It’s not a white thing, I hope” Whitley meekly protests. I don’t know David Whitley. I’ve never read him before. I don’t watch or write about pro football. I didn’t even know who Colin Kaepernick was before stumbling across this article. Maybe Whitley is sincere in his hope. Probably he is. And probably sincere also in his belief that Cam Newton (who is African-American and a QB) not having tattoos makes it not a white thing, or that Ben Roethligsberger (who is Caucasian and a QB) having one (along with numerous legal run-ins stemming from allegations of rape) also makes it not a white thing. Whitley may sincerely believe that his problem with tattoos is just a criminal vs non-criminal thing, and that that’s “not a white thing”…he hopes.

I’m a teacher, and if Whitley were my student I would certainly, and compassionately, help him to see how it is a white thing (among other things). But he’s not my student. He’s a professional writer whose work influences a hell of a lot more people than my own. So I don’t have the patience to gently tease out the problems in the tangle of racializing implication (not to mention willful ignorance of reality) that runs through Whitley’s elegy for the Untattooed Quarterback.

So instead I’ll respond to another distinction that I found offensive, but that I imagine most readers will not.

Whitley “can’t shake the notion,” he says, “that a person’s body is a temple and you don’t cover temples in graffiti.” The notion he can’t shake is a metaphor: the body is a temple. And, like all metaphors, it transfers a quality of the second term to the first. The temple is a holy place. The body is a temple. Ergo, the body is a holy place.

In this case, Whitley mobilizes the metaphor, and the idea of a holy or sacred place, in order to justify a certain prohibition: just as you may not cover your temple in graffiti, you may not cover your body in tattoos. And it presumes that there are other places, which are not holy, where, for example, graffiti would be appropriate (though from the tenor of this article I’m guessing Whitley would be hard-pressed to name one).

But what makes a place holy? And what about its holiness makes writing on it a bad thing? Or to put the question another way: what about writing makes it so threatening to holiness?

I have no problem, let me make clear, with invocations of the sacred, just so long as they don’t rest on a hierarchical distinction between what is sacred and what is not sacred; just so long as they don’t forget, as William Blake put it: that “All deities reside in the human breast” by which Blake meant not only that our bodies housed the divine, but something much more radical: that our bodies created (and continually recreate) the divine.

I am reminded of a Zen parable of an upright monk who was delighted to catch his drunken counterpart in the act of urinating at the temple wall. “Aha!” he exclaimed, “You are not fit to wear the robes! You are desecrating this holy place!” The drunk’s reply: “Show me the place that is not holy, and I will piss there.”

Or of the Gnostic gospel of Thomas in which Jesus is recorded as saying: “Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift a stone, and you will find me there.”

Blake, the Drunken Monk, and Jesus share with me a sense of the ubiquity of the sacred and therefore of its coexistence with what we think of as profane. Maybe some people would prefer it not to be that way. They might prefer a place where the difference between a temple and a prison, between a CEO and a criminal, were fixed and marked – perhaps by clearly visible graffiti on the prisons and tattoos on the criminal.

But we don’t live in that world and, in my opinion it’s a good thing. Because in that world, along with the clearly defined holy spaces come self-appointed guardians of the purity of those spaces who arrogate the power to judge the rest of us according to the degree by which we have fulfilled the criteria of holiness they have established.

Because in that world you are judge or judged, pure or dirty, sacred or profane. And because in that world, regardless of which you are, there’s a part of you that will always be suppressed, or that you will have to suppress yourself.

Because in that world, we are all therefore less than fully human, and so, less than divine.

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