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Apparently, People Think My Tattoo Is Racist?

Thomas Brown
Sep 20, 2018 · 5 min read
The tattoo in question. Photo: Thomas Brown

The Maltese cross represents history and honor — not racism

I got a tattoo last month, my first one. I’ve had a turbulent year, the kind that makes you think and re-evaluate everything. One day, instead of walking past my local tattoo parlor and thinking about it, I walked in and got inked. I’ve been thinking about it for years and already knew the tattoo I wanted. When I went home and showed off my new decoration to my roommates and neighbors, though, they expressed concern.

We live in rural Georgia — Confederate flag country — and they were worried that some people around here may like my tattoo too much, for the wrong reasons. That is my tattoo up there, a Maltese cross, a symbol steeped in nearly 1,000 years of history and culture.

I’ve been wearing a silver necklace with a Maltese Cross like this for decades. I bought it on one of my many, many trips to Malta where the delicate art of filigree has been practiced for centuries. My mother is a Maltese citizen, born and raised on the island. My grandparents were Maltese, my aunts and uncles and cousins and nieces and nephews are all Maltese. I have a great affinity and love for the country, its people, its culture (especially the food, you haven’t tasted bread until you’ve tried Ħobż Malti), and its magnificent, ancient history.

I understood why my friends were worried about my tattoo being mistaken for something sinister. A statue memorializing fallen Confederate soldiers, erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy, adorns our downtown square. (In fairness, the statue has a more complicated provenance than I first assumed.) I’ve heard racial and homophobic slurs tossed about with abandon since I moved here seven months ago.

The subject of my own safety was also broached: “Don’t show that off in Atlanta. Or near the university.” Apparently, I will either be embraced by racists or condemned by their victims for wearing something that has no real connotations for either group, only imaginary ones.


My mother’s native country is a small archipelago around 60 kilometers south of Sicily. It has been continuously inhabited for some 8,000 years and boasts some of Europe’s grandest megalithic remains, massive structures built of individual stones weighing up to 20 tons and built by a people we don’t know, with techniques similarly lost to history. Older than the pyramids of Giza and far greater in size and complexity than Stonehenge, the Maltese megalithic temples are beautiful and mysterious.

The Temple of Mnajdra in Malta. Photo: William Attard McCarthy — McCarthy’s PhotoWorks/Moment/Getty Images

Malta has been at the crossroads of the Mediterranean for millennia. Everyone from the Phoenicians onward has left their mark on the islands and its people. According to legend, Odysseus was trapped there by Calypso on his voyage home. The Bible records that St. Paul shipwrecked on an island named Melite, the Roman name for Malta — leading to Malta becoming the first Christian nation in history.

In 1565, 9,000 Maltese knights and local soldiers successfully held off around 40,000 Ottomans during the Great Siege of Malta. A feat we repeated during World War II, when Malta was the most heavily bombed place on the planet. The Maltese people were awarded the George Cross by the king of England for enduring steadfastly years of bombing and helping to make the Allied invasion of Southern Europe possible. The Maltese are proud of their history and heritage and while I’m only half-Maltese, so am I.

I’m proud of my mother and the hell her people have gone through over the centuries. I’ll wear this ink with pride.

The eight points on the cross have layers of meaning. Some teachings say the cross is a symbol of Jesus Christ’s eight beatitudes (blessings) on the Mount. It has also represented the homelands of the original eight noble families that started the Knights Hospitaller of St. John. Today, the humanitarian group Knights of Malta associates it with the qualities demanded of a knight of the Order of St. John: observant, tactful, resourceful, dexterous, explicit, discriminating, persevering, and sympathetic.

I know (now!) that some will look at a tattoo of this cross on a white man and think of the Iron Cross — a German military decoration that, although it predated the Nazis by over a century, is often intrinsically associated with that era. But I didn’t choose an Iron Cross, I chose the Maltese cross.

L: The Order of St. John variant of the eight-pointed Maltese Cross. R: The Iron Cross. Not a Maltese Cross. Easy, isn’t it? Images: Madden, assumed (based on copyright claims) via Wikimedia Commons/public domain; Lyon Cyborg via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

I’m not German. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Ich liebe meine deutschen Kumpel.) I’m not a racist. I’m not a xenophobe. I’m not a nationalist, white or otherwise. I’m not even really a Christian. But I am proud of what my cross means — to me, to the people of Malta, and to the millions of people throughout history who have been helped or inspired by the Knights of Malta. I’m proud of my mother and the hell her people have gone through over the centuries. I’ll wear this ink with pride.

So if you’re not sure what somebody’s tattoo means, maybe ask them instead of jumping to conclusions. You may learn something cool about a place you may want to go to someday.

One more thing: If you’re using a cross of any kind to brand your bigotry onto your skin or clothing, please stop. You’re making life difficult for those of us who view our heritage as a symbol of achievement and history, as opposed to a symbol of ignorance and prejudice.

Thomas Brown

Managing editor and columnist for The Swamp: https://intheswamp.wordpress.com/. Bylines at The Bipartisan Press, GEN.

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