Happy 2011! I’m planning to turn over a new bloggy leaf this year. It’s not just that I want to post more (I do), or that the content will be more diverse (it will). It’s that, along with the usual “hey! a finished knit!” and “hey! a new pattern!” posts, I’m hoping to make FlintKnits a place for conversations about the politics of knitting and craft.
There’s a lot to be said about the ways that the politics of gender and race and capitalism shape and are shaped by our crafty lives and communities, and not enough of us are saying it publicly. I have loads of conversations with friends about these questions, and I bet you do too. I also write about the politics of craft in my other life as an academic. So I’m interested in exploring how we all might collectively expand those conversations, and how I might personally make some productive connections between my intellectual/professional life and my crafty one.
This will include me talking at you, as usual, but also me asking you all a bunch of questions. It will include interviews and dialogues with other knitters and crafters who have interesting things to say about the historical and contemporary politics of craft. And! It will sometimes include guest bloggers! Like Ashley Shannon, whom most of you probably know as DoggedKnits. Ashley’s blog imploded a while back, but you can still find her amazing work on Flickr and in the forthcoming Block Party: The Modern Quilting Bee.
I asked Ashley to write down her thoughts about some recent discussions regarding race and representation that have been focused on Heather Ross’s wildly popular quilting fabrics. And because Ashley is super smart and articulate and generally awesome, she wrote a super smart and articulate and generally awesome post. Read it. Below. You’ll be glad you did.
- ON PONIES AND PRIVILEGE -
You know what I love? Ponies. Also: dogs. Goldfish. Tadpoles. VW campers. Unicorns. Gnomes. More dogs. (Especially tiny worried chihuahuas in teacups.)
And so I love Heather Ross’s fabrics. I hoard them. I weep softly over discontinued lines that came out before I really knew about fabric. I search obsessively for tiny scrap packs that are available on eBay from time to time. One time, I walked into a fabric store in a random town in the middle of rural Michigan and almost burst into tears when I found a bolt of a particular long-beloved and long-unavailable fabric there on the shelf, not marked up or anything. (To be fair, I was deathly ill at the time. But still. Tears.) They skew childish, these fabrics, but what is crafting if not continually indulging our inner children? Heather’s fabrics depict perfectly what I loved as a child — they get at what my childhood looked like.
That is why, I am actually incredibly bummed to say, I will not be buying any more Heather Ross fabrics for a while. Because while Heather might get at what my childhood looks like, here’s the thing. My childhood? A) Privileged as hell B) white as a slice of wonderbread and C) in no way universal.
Recently Heather introduced one of the prints in her forthcoming line, and my immediate reaction was to squee like crazy. Because there were TINY GIRLS! In COWBOY HATS! And they were playing with BREYER HORSES! And that was just like MY LIFE! My second impulse was to think, “hey, why don’t any of those girls have dark hair LIKE ME?”
And then I got an email from a white friend whose niece is black, and it said, roughly, “I love that new Heather Ross fabric with the little girls and the ponies, and I would love to buy a bunch of it, but I am super-bummed out that none of those little girls looks like my niece, so I won’t, because I don’t need to give her another reminder that America thinks she doesn’t count for much.”
And then I had one of those annoying but necessary moments where I realized that my white-lady privilege had completely blinded me to something that is obviously problematic about something I love — which, that is what privilege does, and so the thing you have to do with privilege is try really hard to find out where your blind spots are, try to make those blind spots as small as possible, and, when someone points those blind spots out to you, you don’t say “BUT I AM RIGHT!” You say, “oh man, I FUCKED UP.” So, here’s me saying exactly that: I fucked up, looking at that print, because my initial reaction to it was “why isn’t it more like meeeeeeeeeeee?” When in fact it was entirely like me, because I am a white girl in America, and my family was well-enough off when I was a kid to buy me an entire stableful of Breyer horses, and 99.9% of representations of human beings in the media, in popular culture, in politics and, especially, in the crafting world, are about me and people who look like me and people who exist in the same socioeconomic stratum as me. I fucked that up. And I will remember that I fucked it up, and next time, I will try harder not to fuck it up.
So, luckily, it turns out that a bunch of people were less blind-spotty than me about this, and they’ve been emailing Heather Ross and leaving her blog comments, and pointing out that it would actually be really nice if she were to make her princesses and her families with VW campers and, especially, her little girls with ponies a more diverse group of princesses and families and little girls. These people pointed out a) that not all little girls are white; b) that there is a serious dearth of representation of people of color in the crafting world; and c) that therefore it would be nice to see someone whose designs are as beloved and sought-after as Heather Ross step up and include Black or Latina or Asian or Native American little girls (and maybe even boys) in her fabrics, so that it isn’t only little white girls (and their grown-up equivalents) who can look at those fabrics and say “hey, that’s ME on there!”
And here’s where Heather Ross fucked up, in kind of epic ways. Because when she got all these things pointed out to her, her response was not “oh, wow, I fucked that up and I will try to do better in the future.” Her response was “well, maybe that’s fucked up, but I’m not going to do anything about it, because I am being TRUE TO MYSELF.” Here’s her response in its entirety:
Thanks for all of your comments! I just wanted to offer an explanation for my subject matter to those who expressed a desire to see the children in my prints as more diverse in terms of gender or race. This particular print is a great example of me drawing from memory, trying to re-capture a small moment in my own life. Since I was a pale little girl with a dark haired twin sister and a red-headed mother, those are the colors that usually end up in my palate. The period of my life that has informed this particular artwork was one in which my sister and I were very far away from any other kids, with the summertime exception of our girl cousins (the boys were playing D & D all night and slept til noon every day, so they don’t show up in many of my drawings either).
I guess I never think about my drawings of children being representative of every child, if I did I would certainly give the importance of diversity in every aspect of fine art more thought. On the other hand, I’ve developed a certain amount of defensiveness about choosing my own subject matter. In my licensing days I was often asked to draw things that I couldn’t relate to or hadn’t any real personal experience with. I found that this led to a period of my career that was wholly unsatisfying, during which I created some of my least favorite fabric prints and artwork. And to make it worse, I was working full time and making very little money. We’re talking a dollar or two an hour, here. Really. It was only when I allowed those licensing contracts to end and began to draw the things that mattered to me, things that I actually understood, that I began to love my job, which I do now, whole-heartedly. I also believe that I became a much better artist. Interestingly, it also marks the beginning of when I actually started to make some money. Hmmmmm….
Still, I apologize for offending or upsetting anyone or making anyone feel left out. That certainly wasn’t my goal. I was six or seven when I realized that the reason for art is to make you feel something. Maybe art school would have matured my perspective here, I guess I’m still clinging to my six year old self’s opinions, but I’ve never been able to see the point of making people feel anything but happy.
So it’s nice, I suppose, that her goal wasn’t to deliberately make anyone feel left out? Here’s the thing, though. That doesn’t mean shit. UNLESS YOU FIX IT. This response, in a nutshell, says “it’s too bad that this makes people feel bad, because I like to make people feel happy. Still, I’m not going to do anything about it because of how I grew up white in a white world, and because I used to have to draw some stuff that I didn’t care about, and didn’t make very much money doing that.” Surely she did not intend, by this, to say “I only care about white people” but that, frankly, is the implication, the logical conclusion, of what she’s saying: I only draw what I relate to; I don’t draw people of color.
Seriously, listen up, Heather Ross: no one is asking you to draw, like, the Lower Ninth Ward, or Hamsterdam, or how it feels to be made fun of because your name isn’t “American,” or how it feels to live in a culture that tells you every single fucking day of your life that you’re ugly because your hair isn’t straight and silky and blonde. No one is asking for that. No one is asking you to step outside of your own lived experience for even two seconds when it comes to the subject matter that you put on your fabrics. What they’re asking for is for you a) to be aware that there are plenty of little girls of color who liked, and continue to like, the same stuff you liked as a kid, and b) to reflect that awareness by using more than one color on your palette when it comes to creating skin tones, and by making infinitesimal changes to faces and hairstyles on a few (not even all! really! just some!) of the little girls that you draw, and possibly even by changing some of them to little boys, who also like dogs and ponies and mermaids and princesses and VW campers.
And, okay: maybe that wouldn’t exactly identically 100% replicate your own lived experience, if your own lived experience involved playing exclusively with other little white girls during your childhood. It may not be exactly identically 100% true to your life. But I am going to submit for your consideration that a world where white children are entirely isolated from anyone of another race such that when their grownup selves think about what their world looks like there is not one single not-white face that they can relate to in it? That world is seriously fucked up. And you can’t change the past, certainly; it’s not your fault, when you’re 4 or 7 or 10, that your pals are not diverse. But what you can change is the present, and the future, and I’m not saying that drawing a diverse group of little kids on a piece of fabric is going to magically end racism, but if there’s a little girl out there who, 30 years from now, looks back at her childhood and remembers how she played with kids who had different skin colors than hers because, maybe, in part, a piece of fabric in a quilt she dearly loved normalized that for her? Well, that’s not nothing. It’s not everything, it’s not even a lot, but it’s not nothing.
I don’t know — maybe that’s overly-Sesame Street-optimistic of me? And maybe just doing the right thing isn’t enough of a motivation. So, here’s an actual motivation, given Heather’s point that, before, when she was drawing things that she didn’t care about, she wasn’t making enough money, and that motivation is: MAKING MORE MONEY. Seriously. So many people make the mistake of thinking that the crafting world is monolithically white, and as it happens, it’s not. There are plenty of crafters of color, and, beyond that, plenty of white crafters who care about seeing diversity represented, and those people? They have crafting dollars! Lots of them! And if they get excited about a fabric from a designer who seems to care about representing them, and people they love? Well, they will buy that fabric, lots of it, at, excitingly, literally no extra cost to the person who designs that fabric!
But there’s a corollary to that too, which is that when people start thinking that someone is actively resistant to social progress, well, then sometimes people will stop spending money with that person; it’s called a boycott and it has a long and effective history. I honestly don’t know if there are enough people who care enough about whether Heather Ross puts kids of color on her fabrics to make a boycott genuinely economically punitive to her; there is currently a barf-inducing number of commenters on her blog who are praising her for “staying true to herself” by actively rejecting the idea of including representations of non-white kids, which makes me really, really sad. But I do know she won’t be getting any of my own personal fabric money unless she can recognize that saying “I’m sorry if people feel bad, but oh well!” isn’t a particularly productive response to having her privilege, her blind spots, pointed out to her. And I also know that if Heather Ross makes a choice to be awesome in this situation, it will ONLY work to her economic benefit, whereas if she decides to put her head in the sand and be threatened and afraid, which is what happens to a lot of people when they get their privilege pointed out to them, it has at least the potential to affect her cashflow adversely. So, you know, make some money, Heather! Be marginally awesome at the same time! Double bonus!
Here’s the thing: especially if you’re a pretty well-off white person, it can be genuinely difficult to see past your racial privilege. There’s almost nothing in the world we live in, in America in 2011, that’s going to force to you do it. You have to be willing to want to do it, and you have to be willing to admit when you’ve failed to do it. And when somebody says to you, as people sometimes will, because of how easy it is to fuck up, “hey, that thing you did was kinda racist,” you have to be open to saying, “huh, is it possible that what I did was kinda racist?” AND THEN YOU HAVE TO BE WILLING TO GO TO WORK. You have to make acknowledging and fixing your fuckups with regard to race an active, if occasionally humbling, part of your life. So all of this to say, Heather Ross, if you happen to read this, GO TO WORK. Draw your life! Absolutely! Be super-focused on what you did and what you loved in your own personal staying-true-to-yourself life. And then? Then you zoom out, just a little bit, just the tiniest little bit, because that’s all you need to do, so you can include everybody who’s part of the world. Because those people? Whether you realize it or not? Are part of your life.