An ongoing discussion

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.


21 Responses to “An ongoing discussion”

  1. pam Says:

    Oh, this is a really lovely combination of your own thoughts and experiences with your smart take on the politics at stake here. Thanks so much for truly contributing to this convo!

    Also, “The House We Live In,” the last installment of the *Race* series? Is amaaaazing. The whole thing is excellent, but that last episode is really remarkable. I got all excited seeing you cite it. 🙂

    • Kristen Says:

      YES! The House We Live In was the best episode for me, too, because it so clearly and concretely laid out the inherent economic privileges I didn’t know about. (Also, information about Supreme Court rulings on which ethnicities were white? Why was I never told about this in school ever? Especially when one of the justices was Taft! It seems important to know that a former president was later deciding who got to be white, and what that meant.)

      • pam Says:

        Yes! Or all the stuff about red-lining, home-ownership, and wealth? Dalton Conley is so impt to that film. His research on wealth should have shifted the entire fucking paradigm for anyone talking about race in the U.S. Too bad it totally didn’t.

      • Kristen Says:

        Yes! (WordPress will only let me reply one in, apparently.) Wealth was a huge shocker, because I hadn’t had it defined before in any terms other than income or, say, money in the bank. The new definition made me appreciate the fact that I do come from privilege in a way I hadn’t previously, because there is a safety net available to me that comes from having home owners in my family, even though I am not myself a home owner, and may never be one.

        Red lining was a mind opener. I am descended from Jews, too, so it was directly applicable right away. Ever since I watched that, I’ve been talking about red lining whenever race comes up in discussion, because it was so huge a revelation. I think the main issue in the U.S. is that we say race when we mean class a lot of the time, and we friggin’ hate talking about class, or even acknowledging that class exists, or that class is somewhat based on racism.

        ‘Nother rant: color blindness, which is completely a product of privilege as well. If you don’t see race, it’s because you can afford not to. Yes, it’s a construct, but it’s a construct on which tangible, real results are based, and if you are affected by those tangible results, you can’t afford to ignore the construct. BLEAH!

  2. Phoebe Says:

    I really enjoyed reading your take on this! You have given us all a lot to think about, thank you!

  3. Johanne Says:

    Thanks for a very thoughtful post. As the aunt of beautiful mixed race nephews, I have thought a lot about these issues, and you did a great job of expressing them. I wish that we could all be a little more aware of these issues on a general basis – long before they have to become a heated discussion.

  4. Kirsten Says:

    Very well said. Much of what you’ve written is exactly what I’ve experienced as the mother of mixed race kids and the white wife of a man with brown skin. I’ve been asked everything from “Are you their nanny?” to “Did you adopt them?”. My husband and I have been a novelty, invited to a few dinner parties to make the hosts look enlightened or worldly.

    The question of race is certainly a complicated one and I’m not sure I’m up to the task of contributing anything new to the conversation. I have followed the Heather Ross discussion closely today and am glad to see these issues being openly discussed.

    Thank you for your thoughtful insights. Of everything I’ve read today yours ring most true with me.

  5. Joyatee Says:

    I absolutely love this. I am brown, myself. I remember growing up, the only type of doll I’d see with some regularity that looked like me was Princess Jasmine dolls. Even then, she was a rareity.

  6. mizkathychin Says:

    Thanks for this. I am a somewhat goldenish coloured mom with a partner who is, in his words, so white that he is actually a shade of blue. My daughters are somewhere in between us, with one leaning towards me and the other leaning towards her dad. I grew up in small town northern Canada and it was quite a while, almost to my 30’s, before I became comfortable with my identity. I am incredibly conscious of how my daughters are growing up – influences, representation, etc. – how will they form their identities, and what can I do to help them develop a positive identity? My older daughter just turned 5 yesterday, and I made a special request that anyone giving her Barbies please to choose brunettes (Emily Post probably rolled over in her grave). One friend slipped through my radar, and now the blonde blue-eyed Barbie is the girl’s favourite. It starts so early. I have so much I would like to write in response to this post, but no time to say it properly, so I will just say Thank You for writing and above all for thinking critically and putting your thoughts out into the world.

    • Kristen Says:

      Kathy, I’ve been there, too, even just as a child without blonde hair. When I was little, I got it in my head that beautiful girls had blonde hair and blue eyes. My hair was reddish brown and I had hazel eyes, ergo, I was not beautiful. It’s not hard, looking back, to see where that idea came from, because beautiful girls were portrayed in my picture books as blonde and blue-eyed. And then you become a parent and start consciously seeking out positive portrayals of children who aren’t all golden haired and blue eyed, and you start realizing that while the stuff is out there, it’s something you do have to seek, and it’s frustrating. Ezra Jack Keats makes me so happy because the kids in his book are all different shades and have all different backgrounds, and live in a genuinely urban environment, but none of the stories are about being a particular color or living in an urban environment. They’re just ordinary stories about kids being kids, and those kids happen to be brown or tan or golden or pale, and it doesn’t matter at all. Keats was himself Jewish, but saw a need for books that showed children with different backgrounds, and he filled that need beautifully. Books with animal characters can be great, too, as the animals can be different colors and anyone can use them as an avatar, but genuinely diverse portrayals of children are still rare, and girls and kids of color are too often relegated to the sidekick role.

  7. Amanda Says:

    Very well said. You always seem to have deeply meaningful things to say on the subject of family. I can relate to much of what you say from the perspective of a queer person who finds herself and her family similarly under-represented. I’m greatly disappointed in Heather Ross’s response, the response of someone that doesn’t seem super interested in looking in her knapsack* for the privilege inside.

    * Thanks to Peggy McIntosh for her essay, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack ( which is incredibly pertinent in this discussion.

    • Kristen Says:

      Amanda, I wanted to read the essay you linked before I responded to you, but though I have it printed out and I’ve started it many times, I still haven’t done so. Regardless, thank you. It looks like a good read, and a necessary one.

      I didn’t get to queer families in my post, but this brings up an important point as well, because queer families are pretty much the only families left who are deliberately made invisible. I think it’s genuine oversight and privilege that work to leave out people of color, but I’ve seen too many campaigns to literally hide the existence of queer families to think that the oversight there is accidental. I also think that people who haven’t experienced invisibility, either personally, or on behalf of a loved one, may have trouble understanding how it can damage a person. That is a whole ‘nother post, though, I guess!

  8. mick Says:

    This was really thoughtful and beautifully written, as usual. I truly enjoyed reading this, and your thoughts about the importance of little girls playing with something not marked as overtly feminine is a really great point. In addition, thanks for voicing your ideas about artists of color representing themselves. I noticed that trend in the comments on Pam’s blog, too, and your response makes a very important point in response.

  9. JulieFrick Says:

    Thank you so much for adding to the conversation. It gets to me when people say that they “don’t see race” or that seeing themselves in popular the world around them isn’t important because they look within themselves…or some such. The first is a well-meaning but truly dishonest and ultimately detrimental attitude,and the second, while it may be true of an individual, seems really unlikely to me. As a woman I am constantly on the lookout for how women will be represented in movies, on t.v., in magazine advertisements, and as crafters we need to look at the materials we’re using too.

  10. Ashley Says:

    Hey Kristen, Pam just pointed me here and I wanted to say thanks for this post, especially the super-thoughtful notes about white privilege (which I obviously needed to frame much, much, much more clearly in my post!) and on the power of representation. Such a great contribution to the conversation! And yeah, how great is that documentary? I’ve taught bits and pieces of it and it really does do a great job of explaining both the complete artifice of race as a construct and the ramifications for all of us living within the structures realized by those arbitrary definitions.

  11. Cate Says:

    What a lovely, thoughtful post…I’ve been turning it over in my head since I first read it this morning. Thank you.

  12. Sara Bee Says:

    My friend mentioned this controversy to me, so I started poking around to learn what the substance of it is. Your post is the most thoughtful one I have seen … but this all seems like so much to-do about very little. I have to say, it’s hard to care. Heather Ross is an artist, and is entitled to create whatever she wants. The popularity of her product does not entitle her consumers to demand changes. If people can depict Jesus swimming in urine, among other atrocious themes too numerous to count, then this woman can darn well design fabrics depicting whatever color of children she wants to. If people want cute fabrics with children of color on them, which is not at all an unreasonable desire, then they can either *politely ask* Ms Ross to rerelease a few of her designs with children of color, or (gasp!) they can design their own. This attitude of entitlement whereby people with (entirely self-made) influence owe some of that influence to promote the ends of people without influence, completely runs contrary to my personal ethic. This is frivolous and petty and totally unjustified, in my opinion–feminist rhetoric notwithstanding.

  13. Liz E. Says:

    Thank you for such a balanced set of thoughts on such a complicated subject. It’s so, so easy to forget that pretty much every day we all make judgments based on looks, whether we mean to or not.

    I’m reminded of a really sad study where kids as young as 2-4 years old associated things like ‘smart’ and ‘pretty’ with images of light-skinned children and ‘lazy’ and ‘troublemaker’ with images dark-skinned children. (Study in question was somewhat rigged — the question was “point to the smartest one, point to the laziest one, etc” as opposed to “which of these children are smart/lazy/troublemakers/etc” but the point stands.

    I think that an artist has a right to create whatever she pleases… but I think in this day and age it’s naive to try and brush criticism off as “well, these are my memories, I’m not trying to be racist.” I don’t think that there’s really anything wrong with naivete per se, and there’s certainly an amount of entitlement in consumers that’s inevitably frustrating on both sides… but I think certain kinds of it are dangerous in a direct-from-creator-to-consumer business. At that point, how you brand yourself, including what you say in public forums matters a lot more than if you have, for example, a publicist or image consultant who acts as a diplomat. While the end decision might not change for various creative and business reasons, people will feel very differently when the “official statement” is a little more inclusive, aware and humble.

  14. The Heather Ross Dogpile « Feather and Fan Says:

    […] wrote a poignant response where she discusses her children’s excitement at finding dolls that looked like them. I grew […]

  15. Nan Says:

    Well written and needed. Thank you for writing this. As a mother of pale skinned blond boys (3) I feel like often we are allowed out of the solution to this problem. We talk often with the boys about this and how the world looks to people who do not look like them. My 10 year old is just starting to get a bit of a handle on this. IT is easier as we live in an urban fringe environment so we have a lot more diversity and the boys have many people they actually love there are not white. This was a choice made by us as a family and I agree and would like to see Ms. Ross make choices that will move us forward as humans as well.

  16. Miriam Says:

    hello! I found this post randomly while doing a google search for HR fabric. I feel kinda guilty that I hadn’t even noticed the lily whiteness of the figures in her fabric! I agree with you that there are far worse offenders when it comes to “all white, all the time” kind of imgery, but still I was pretty dispointed by the callusness of her response to the issue when it was brought up with her.

    my husband works at an academic library and was able to bring home a copy of “Race: the power of an illusion” and we’ve been watching it. it’s really amazing! I LOVED the first episode about how little we are different from each other DNA-wise.

    thank you for such an enlighted post on this issue and I’ll be sure to check in on your blog again!

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