Hiya! It’s been three whole days since I’ve gotten hate mail on this topic, so I finally feel brave enough to open it up again. My next post will feature a pretty finished object and minimal political content. I’m suspecting that the key to surviving this new approach to the blog is going to be balance.
But I do want to re-visit our conversations about Heather Ross’s public statements about race and her fabrics, in order to re-frame those conversations in ways that I think are productive for moving forward. (I get to do that, because it’s my blog. So I’m not going to spend time in this post defining what is/is not “censorship,” or explaining the trouble with colorblindness. If you want a detailed look at the entire conversation, definitely read the comments and trackbacks on the original post. I’ve closed comments on that post, and I’d appreciate if comments here can focus on the content of this post, rather than re-hashing things already said. Thanks!)
As you may have seen, there was a lot of excellent, thoughtful conversation generated by Ashley’s (IMO) excellent, thoughtful guest-post. Several folks commented that they found Ashley’s approach to be off-the-mark, because it focused on the words and works of one designer, rather than on broader problems.
As you can probably guess, I’m a big fan of examining Little Things in order to get insight into Big Things (uh, see, for instance, my most recent post, on the sociopolitical meanings of Hot Pants). As a literary scholar, Ashley works in this mode too, spending lots of time doing close readings of texts in order to make sense of the social and political worlds in which they were written. Lots of folks in the comment thread on her post were interested in connecting Ashley’s thoughts to a Bigger Picture, but there was a range of perspectives on what that picture is or should be.
What I want to do here is highlight some of the sociopolitical contexts surrounding something like a contemporary fabric print by charting out what I think are the most productive, interesting directions that conversation took. I see each of the big-picture questions that y’all raised as overlapping and interlocking, part of the giant matrix of power and privilege and pleasure that our crafty lives are all built upon.
So! Some of those bigger pictures are, in no particular order:
(1) The whiteness of “whimsy.”
As some commenters mentioned, the current fashion in mainstream/online crafting circles for “retro,” “whimsy,” and “nostalgia” is one that is white-normative. (White normativity is the set of [often unconscious and invisible] ideas and practices that make whiteness appear natural, neutral, “regular,” and right.) The whiteness of childlike whimsy in particular says something about how whiteness is attached to ideas about purity and innocence.
I’d also argue that our retro fantasies are so white-normative partly because the mythical ’simpler’ times we seem to long for (like the American 1950s, or a steampunk-pretty Victorian Britain, or the My-Little-Pony 80s) were (1) defining moments for middle class whiteness and for white womanhood in particular, and (2) periods when non-white people were experiencing some things that aren’t particularly easy to romanticize in a piece of fabric or a Halloween costume — like, say, the Jim Crow south, British imperial conquest, or the violent oppressions of the Reagan era.
What does it mean, for instance, that so many crafting cultures today romanticize happy 50s housewife imagery, or the social worlds of Jane Austen novels? We’re going to keep asking these kinds of questions here, because I think they’re crucial for making political sense of the crafting communities that we’re all a part of.
(2) Racial/ethnic stereotyping and cultural appropriation.
Several commenters had super-legit concerns about the awfulness that can happen when those with racial privilege and economic power represent those without it. (This is especially relevant in discussing toy, doll, and other children’s product industries, where racial “otherness” has, over and over again, been appropriated, commodified, exploited, and represented in fucked-up ways.)
As other commenters noted, though, there are a number of problems with the suggestion that white people should only represent white people, and POC should only represent themselves. For one thing, there’s the risk of idealizing “separate but equal” crafting markets (when, as we all know, the equal in “separate but equal” is never quite what it’s cracked up to be).
And let’s not pretend that there’s some limitless range of products out there, a wide world of equal and positive representation, and we just have to “vote with our dollars” by purchasing the products we like. One reader sent me a some pretty revealing mosaics featuring the kinds of fabrics that are “out there”:
First, there’s the gazillion fabric prints that tell stories of childlike whimsy and innocence, featuring light-skinned bodies.
Aaand second, there’s the kinds of fabric prints that feature “other” children and bodies.
So no, white artists, do not go out there and represent people of color if this is the kind of shit you’re going to produce — if you can’t be arsed to do your homework and make every possible effort do it well. Do your homework and, while you’re at it, try to be an ally. Maybe use some of your privilege to create spaces where the work and voices of POC can be promoted and heard. And when white folks try, we might well, after all that homework, still fail. But, as Ashley said so clearly, that’s when we have the chance to listen, learn, and try again.
(3) The racialized, segregated, white-normative worlds of toys and play.
Kristen said it better than I ever could. (See also the reading list at the end of this post.)
(4) The crafting cultures we live in and love are embedded in, and reproduce, the structural problems of racism, hetero-patriarchy, and economic inequality on a global scale.
The crafting world is, in many ways, a racially segregated and hierarchical one.
Dominant crafting cultures and communities — and especially the elite consumer cultures around luxury and designer yarn, fiber, textiles, etc. — are also white-normative and racially exclusive. Chawne, for instance, has spoken compellingly about her experiences negotiating those worlds, and asked that we focus our attention on changing those communities, rather than critiquing specific representational practices.
Crafting communities are also pretty clearly divided by hierarchies of class and “taste” (which are, of course, also about race). As one commenter pointed out, Heather Ross fabrics are only accessible to people who are able and willing to pay $17 for a yard of cotton.
And, to zoom out even further, another commenter asked us to consider the global markets and inequalities that make these luxury products available to crafters in wealthy countries. Textile manufacturing for US markets has been moved almost entirely overseas — in fact, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the three occupations that will lose jobs the fastest in the US between 2008 to 2018 are all in textiles.
So quilting cottons are part of a global textile and garment industry dominated by multinational corporations that subcontract factories in Asia, Africa, and Central America. Today, quilting cottons, like other crafting supplies and fabrics we use and wear, are typically manufactured under exploitative conditions, in factories located in the global south, by women of color who will never be able to purchase the products they make. The globalization of textile and yarn industries means that almost all of the the craft supplies we buy in wealthy countries are produced in this way.
For me, #4 is an especially compelling area for more research and discussion. Where do our huge — and growing — crafting communities and markets fit in to that bigger picture? What critical perspectives can help us make sense of those political structures? How should we attend to our own privilege and complicity in those systems of power and inequality? And how can we intervene in ways that might, in some small way, affect those systems?
So yes, this is a re-framing of the Heather Ross conversation in ways that I think are productive for future discussions. But it’s also a roadmap for the kinds of things I’m interested in continuing to explore here on FlintKnits (along with, of course, regular old posts about stuff I make).
Oh, and a note on swears, because a handful of people have over-performed a lot of scandalized offense at the swears in Ashley’s guest post: If you read a post on FlintKnits and are offended by the swears in it, I don’t fucking care. Keep it to yourself. Heather Ross herself publicly called this blog “The HBO of Crafting,” and that, friends, is some heavy shit to live up to. In the future, I’m going to ignore all emails and delete all comments that are just complaints about swearing. Because, again, I don’t fucking care. If you can’t handle the creative and expressive use of “adult” language, this is not the blog for you, and it never has been.
WHITE NORMATIVITY & PRIVILEGE:
- Zohra Moosa, “Three Suggestions Re: Feminism and White Privilege“
- Robert Jensen, The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (book)
- George Lipsitz, Possessive Investment In Whiteness (book)
- Tassja, “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being, Part I: Princesses and The Brown Girl’s Dilemma“
- Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were: American Families And The Nostalgia Trap (book)
- Owen Hatherley, “Austerity Nostalgia“
- Jha, “The Intersection of Race and Steampunk“
- Claire Light, “Defining and Identifying Cultural Appropriation“
- Tami, “Cultural Appropriation: Homage or Insult?“
TOYS, DOLLS AND THE COMMODIFICATION OF RACIAL/ETHNIC DIFFERENCE
- Ann Ducille, Skin Trade
- Elizabeth Chin, Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture
- Doris Yvonne Wilkinson, “Racial Socialization Through Children’s Toys: A Sociohistorical Examination.” Journal of Black Studies Vol. 5, No. 1 (Sep., 1974), pp. 96-109.
DOMESTICITY, CRAFTING, & INEQUALITY
- Evelyn Nakano Glenn, “Racial Ethnic Women’s Labor: The Intersection of Race, Gender and Class Oppression” (PDF)
- Jane Simonsen, Making Home Work: Domesticity and Native American Assimilation in the American West, 1860-1919 (book)
- Phyllis Palmer, Domesticity And Dirt: Housewives and Domestic Servants in the United States, 1920-1945 (book)
- Jane Lou Collins, Threads: Gender, Labor, and Power in the Global Apparel Industry (book)