Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday seems as good a day as any to talk about the conversation taking place at Flint Knits about privilege and representation. I am going to sum it up briefly, but I highly recommend reading the entirety of what is written there, and many of the comments as well, because there’s a lot to think about. This will be long, so be warned!
It all starts with Heather Ross, she of the unspeakably adorable fabrics. I am a lousy seamstress thus far, but I’ve been coveting her fabrics for years, and hoping to become good enough to make a project worthy of her patterns. I got a Heather R0ss book for Christmas, and I look forward to using it. Despite working in another end of the fiber arts, I’m a pretty big Heather Ross fan, so I was surprised when I basically walked in on a big Heather Ross controversy.
The new line of fabrics from Ms. Ross includes one with little girls in cowboy hats playing with toy horses. The little girls in question are small girls with pale skin and light hair, and this is where the controversy emerges. A number of commenters wrote to ask that Heather Ross fabrics include more portrayals of children with different skin colors and ethnicities. This comment from ‘Andrea in Vermont’ seems representative.
I agree that the spirit of the design is wonderful. And yet… just as horses come in a wide range of colors, so too do little girls (and boys, for that matter) who love them. As a mother of children of color, and a person who simply seeks more representation of *all kinds of people* in the materials I purchase to craft with, I wish… I wish for beautiful Black and Latina and Asian kids to be portrayed by your talented hands. Let us see the world’s rainbow of children represented (in skin tone, not costume) ~ it will make the designs ever so much more beautiful, and ever so much more meaningful to many more children. *Thank you* for considering this appeal.
This request struck a chord with me, because my family is underrepresented as well. White mom, brown dad, tan kids. I’m going to take a moment to say that in the construct of race, my kids can pass as white, and that’s probably how they are perceived by most people, but their self identity is as kids who have a brown dad and a pale mom, and what shocked me when they were tiny was how quickly they noticed that they were not being represented. I noticed, but then I was a new mom, hypersensitive to the fact that the baby magazines I was reading weren’t showing my family, that babies who made the cover had blue eyes, even when they had dark skin, that I hadn’t even known babies could be born with brown eyes because all of the babies I’d ever seen portrayed in magazines or on TV had blue eyes. I’d even been told that all babies are born with blue eyes, which made it very interesting when I later gave birth to two different children who were born with brown eyes.
OK, so, the fact that our family wasn’t really represented started showing up for me again when I’d shop for toys. Families for doll houses are sold in sets, and I would have had to buy three to cover all the skin colors in our family. (The different lighting in the photos above does sort of obscure the fact that I’m pretty much milk colored, and the kids, when their photos aren’t shot in dark woods, are sort of olivey tan.) Dolls tended to come in black or white with no in between. I think this has improved since I had the first child, and I do want to acknowledge that. But at the time, I found myself really frustrated at being unable to find toys that looked like my baby, and toys that looked like my family. I started noticing that families like ours weren’t often portrayed, and when they were, it was not usually as normal people, but with race or ethnicity as the subject. And I dealt with odd comments from people who didn’t really understand they were being offensive. Some examples include being told by other white women that they’d never date someone outside their race because it’s too hard on children not to belong to a culture, hearing from a white friend that she didn’t want her daughter to have to be a minority at school, and being asked, when out with my children, “What are they?”
I somehow didn’t think the kids were noticing all this, even though the kids learned the color brown first, when they each had a tiny epiphany that brown was the color of Daddy. The first time I really understood how they hungered for images of themselves was when someone sent me a link to a website that sold dolls for mixed race families. Both my then-toddler boys were across the room playing when I clicked on the link, and neither seemed to be paying attention to me. However, once I clicked the link, they were right there with me at the computer, exclaiming in excited voices, “He looks like me!
They also commented on how the doll had a brown daddy and a pink mommy, just like they did, and they were literally jumping up and down and squealing. They didn’t even really want the doll. They were just excited that he looked like they did and that he had a family like theirs. (Real Kidz dolls, like the one shown above, are no longer produced.)
My kids are not the only kids who are underrepresented, of course. Most minority children (and I would include children of mixed race couples in that designation, since mixed race couples make up only 8% of married couples in the U.S.) do not get to be the default. When someone refers to a little girl in fiction, it is assumed that she is white unless otherwise specified. When physically describing white people, many of us tend to skip skin color altogether because it is assumed, while people of color are often described by their color or ethnicity first. If I were to explore this idea in any detail, it would take a book.
Looping back to where I started, the post on Flint Knits, guest blogged by Ashley Shannon, is highly critical of Heather Ross’s response to these requests that she be more inclusive. The response is quoted in full in that post, and Heather Ross herself later responds in the comments to this criticism, but I wish to quote only a portion here.
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.
OK. Let me start by saying that in terms of inclusiveness, Heather Ross is by no means the only or the worst offender. The fact that she has little girls in cowboy hats playing with horses is actually a big thing, since so many portrayals of little girls aren’t just of white little girls; they are of white little girls in limited roles, like princesses, or girls playing with dolls or cooking materials, or picking flowers, all of which are great in moderation, but terrifying when they are nearly the only representations of young femininity. And I have a certain understanding as an artist of where Ms. Ross is coming from. When I draw people from my head, I draw myself. I think most artists have a default human who lives in their heads, and that default human is based on our self image. If I draw without referring to a model, all of my pictures look a little like me. Most artists I went to art school with had a similar default human they’d draw, and expanding outside that person who lives in our head takes a little work. I am also sympathetic to the idea that we like to draw what we know and care about. I don’t really have a desire to make a sweater that wouldn’t look good on me. And I understand as well what it is like to make very little money on your work, and I can fully believe that, beautiful and popular as Heather Ross fabrics may be, Heather Ross herself is not paying the bills with them.
However, and this is a big however, while I don’t go as far as Ms. Shannon in my frustration with Heather Ross’s response, I do feel frustrated with the quote above, not because she has an obligation to draw Every Child (it’s all in me!) but because the above response shows a certain amount of naivete about how her work is received. Of course it is representative. All of the positive responses to her work in which people say that they love the new fabric because it reminds them of their own childhood shows that it is always going to be representative. Putting your work into the public sphere means sacrificing a little of that control you had over your own vision, and the moment any iconic image is released into the world, it becomes representative not just of the things you intended, but of all the things that other people read when they bring their own experiences and values to bear on it. And while Heather Ross alone will not save the world or change the fact that many little girls and boys are underrepresented and portrayed, by not including those images, she is still part of the monolithic default representation of idealized childhood as white, whether she meant to be or not. I am willing to bet that Ms. Ross is a lovely person, and that if I met her, she’s someone I’d like to sit down with and enjoy a cup of tea and a chat. Her talky, fun book of patterns makes me think I’d like her a lot, so this isn’t a huge criticism of her as a person. No one likes to be told that they’re excluding others, or that their work reinforces blind spots, and a certain amount of defensiveness is natural. I am also not excluding myself from any of this, either the reinforcement of white privilege (which can end up being quite specific and personal in my life, since my white privilege doesn’t extend to my husband) or defensiveness at criticism. In my ideal world, though, Ms. Ross would have responded to the suggestion to be more inclusive with an acknowledgment that inclusion is badly needed, firstly, and with the explanation she essentially gave, that she is working from her childhood memories and that she drew on herself for those things, and lastly with the idea that in the future, she will consider inclusiveness in her work, whether it directly translates into little Asian and black and Hispanic kids showing up or not.
I saw in the comments at Flint Knits the suggestion that if Ms. Ross’s representations are not inclusive, then neither are the representations exclusively of children of color by artists of color. This may be a controversial position, but I think these remarks misunderstand the nature of white privilege. The white voice is present by default in our history, our art, our literature, and the underrepresented are the people of color. Exclusive representations by artists of color are a drop in the ocean in which published writers and successful artists (jobs that depend often on a steady income from elsewhere) are usually white and middle class. Ms. Ross notes in her response to the Flint Knits blog post that she did not grow up middle class, so her voice is not coming from that type of economic privilege in her background. She further notes that she’s making very little money from fabric design ($9000 a year at best), so calls that suggest she’d make more money by representing more people are probably not going to get too far, since more money is relative when one’s income is small.
I want to go on and on about this, but I feel that at over 2000 words, I’ve likely tried my readers’ patience already. Instead, let me direct you all to a documentary that was on PBS some years back called Race. It is by far the most comprehensive treatment of the subject I’ve seen on film, and it covers a lot of these smaller, more insidious issues like representation and economic privilege through historical measures that wouldn’t seem to matter today, but do. You can’t rent these videos, sadly, but a number of people have serialized them on Youtube and Google video, and searching “Race: the power of an illusion” finds them pretty easily. It’s such a good series that I wish it was easier to access. I saw it as part of an African American history class.
I’m sorry this is so long and discombobulated, but I hope it adds to the discussion. I firmly believe that this is a discussion that needs to be had as often as possible, as difficult as it is, and I am glad of the opportunity. Returning to something I said earlier, maybe it would be a good idea as a designer to make a sweater that wouldn’t look good on me, if it would look good on someone else who might not have a lot of sweaters designed for him or her.