Back in January, there was a guest post on Flintknits about fabric designer Heather Ross and race and ethnicity in her fabric designs. I’ve been following the discussion with some interest, but was too busy during January to write anything about it, and by the time my schedule freed up a bit, I felt like I had kind of missed the boat on a timely response.
Pamela Wynne just posted a followup to that earlier post and I figured I would take the opportunity to bring these posts to your attention, because I find them really interesting. Even more than the posts, the comments! Go check them out. We’ve got the crazy racists, the indignant Heather, the “me toos” and oh, also the engaged and insightful dialogue about the issue.
You know, I feel kind of bad about posting this, for a couple of reasons: first of all, I respect Pam and enjoy reading her blog, and used to enjoy reading Ashley’s blog when it was still around, and I feel like this was all done with the best of intentions but that I’m about to say some bad stuff about their actions; and secondly, as a good Berkeley-raised-and-educated liberal person of color (and, incidentally, daughter of an ethnic studies professor), it’s clear to me how I think I’m supposed to feel about the issue. But I really don’t feel that way. At the risk of being the next hapless victim of the PC crafting police, here’s my take on it.
I frankly think the first post was a shameful and shallow dogpile. Heather Ross was arbitrarily picked out as a figure to crucify in the name of racial inclusiveness. Her designs clearly weren’t created with the intention of being hateful or exclusive, and come on, it’s not like she was drawing kids doing Confederate Civil War reenactments or something, they’re just some little girls playing with horses, and they just happen to all be white and blonde. Someone essentially swooped in out of nowhere, told her she should put more non-white kids in her designs, and then, when she declined, because she doesn’t need to do every single thing that consumers ask her to do, declared her to have ”fucked up, in kind of epic ways,” posted her response, and tore her a new one.
Yes, maybe she was being a little stubborn in not wanting to take the various requests for diversity to heart. However, Heather Ross has a perfect right to draw anything she wants to. There’s no rule or law that says she has to be inclusive and racially diverse in her designs. If she had responded to the emails/comments with “oh sure, that’s a great idea, maybe I’ll put some black kids in my next design, it just never occurred to me and I think it would be fun” or something, bully for her. But that’s not what she wanted to do, so if she just stuck some ethnic children in her next fabric design purely to cave in to pressure, we’d just have some whimsical and adorable tokenism going on, some diversity-as-economic-commodity. (Maybe she could use the magic of Photoshop!) That’s not right.
What’s more, I think this is a crazy tempest in a teapot. Her fabric represents just a tiny corner of the fabric world, which represents just a tiny corner of the world of commercially available representational art. I’m sure there are plenty of racially inclusive quilting fabrics out there, if not via your local Jo-Ann fabrics, then through the Magic of teh Internets, and if not, with the rise of Spoonflower and other print-on-demand fabric outfits, it’s easier than ever to make whatever fabrics you want. (No longer am I beholden to the clumsy medium of potato stamps to depict my idyllic Asian-American childhood activities: Kumon math sets, Chinese summer camp, and making won ton! Rejoice, rejoice.) Complainers, you are artsy, crafty people. I know this because you are focused on buying fabric yardage. Go make some fabrics that look like what you want and maybe make a bunch of money doing it.
Plus, there are more important venues where these efforts can be focused. I know crafting is all near and dear to the heart, but these are quilting fabrics probably intended for mentally and emotionally robust grown-ups to purchase and use; perhaps it would be more constructive to focus on the dolls and items intended directly for impressionable children. Or at least to aim all this guilty rage towards a larger corporate target with a more diffuse market rather than one independent fabric designer. This is not to say it’s not an important topic, but I just think this whole Heather Ross-specific anger is kind of misguided and misdirected.
Kristen wrote a poignant response where she discusses her children’s excitement at finding dolls that looked like them. I grew up with these same feelings of underrepresentation (probably this has changed a bit with the rise of anime and manga?) I probably never thought about quilting fabrics or even pajamas or t-shirts or whatever, but one thing I remember always feeling sad about was the Pleasant Company’s American Girl dolls. Oh man, did I ever want one of these. They are such a crazy expensive scam (at the time, back in the late 80s/early 90s, it was, I think, $80 for a vinyl doll plus one outfit?), but they construct such appealing narratives around them, and all the paraphrenalia and stories made me insane with covetousness. But they never had any dolls that looked like me, and I always wished they did. I’ve written them letters over the years asking them to include an Asian doll, always with some polite response about my request being taken into account, but being subject to long market research and development timelines.
When I was a kid, the Pleasant Company’s approach to diversity was “we have a blonde white doll, a brunette white doll, and a brunette white doll with glasses”: they slowly started expanding their repertoire with a redheaded white doll, and then, slowly slowly (and I don’t remember the order in which these came, but I know they were all before the Asian-American doll), a black doll, a Mexican-American doll, a Native American doll, along with various other white dolls. Finally, although she’s just a sidekick, they introduced Ivy (from the 70s? It’s nearly time for my childhood’s decade to become “history”–good God!). Finally. I guess my point is that toys like this might be a better place to focus your requests and petitions. Heather Ross’s products are all essentially based around the brand of her individuality and personal style. Crap like the American Girl dolls is designed by committee and based on market demand, and I think has a greater impact on children’s psyches.
Don’t think I don’t notice all-white media or consumer product representations, I live in Wisconsin, for Christ’s sake, it happens all the time. For instance, check out the selection of neighborhood regulars at the Midtown Pub in nearby Middleton! Yeah, it’s pretty important, and it enters my mind all the time, and it kind of sucks that in those “what celebrity do you look like” games there are really not a whole lot of Asian females to choose from. But it’s just not the be-all and end-all, and I am not a helpless, spineless, media-absorbing jellyfish unable to stop my mind from absorbing all non-inclusive imagery and waving my sad tentacles going “noooo, it huuuuurts.” I looked at the cover of the menu and noticed this and found it a little funny and maybe a little sad, and then I opened the menu and ordered a hamburger and a beer and did not feel bad about myself or my place in the world. I could get upset, but I think the menu probably accurately reflects the reality around them–like Heather Ross’s point that her fabric was autobiographical and an accurate representation of a few faces she saw in her childhood–and I’d rather save the lion’s share of my emotional engagement for overt racism.
And I don’t deny that DIY culture and the online crafting blogosphere slant very heavily white. This commenter does a great job of articulating many of the things I see as problems with the racial issues in this subculture, so I’ll just point you over to him. (“The Feudal White Craftopia” is such a great description.) By being out here and saying my stuff and taking pictures of little yellow old me, I guess I’m probably doing my small part in helping diversify knitting blogs, but only racially: I mean, socioeconomically, I still come from a position of computer-literate, college-educated, middle-class privilege, like, I think, most of the craft bloggers out there. There’s diversity and there’s diversity.
P.P.S. Jesus, it’s 3:30 AM? Spring Forward, I hate you.
Edited to add: I did a bit more research and found a couple of other response posts I’d missed earlier: