What Would the Alternative Be?

If you are someone who is on Instagram and someone who likes to knit or spin or dye or sew, then you may have noticed that this community of makers has been immersed in a much-needed discussion about diversity and racism. I think I have traced the origin back to a blog post by a (white) woman who runs a small yarn company (I won’t link to it - at this point, it isn’t very important). She posted about her 2019 resolution to be braver and take risks, including a solo trip to India. The way she described India and her relationship to it was offensive to a lot of people, especially to people from India (!). Starting with some comments on her blog, the conversation began and the momentum around it was started. Crafty BIPoC voiced years and years of frustration, hurt and anger. They told stories of being treated rudely or like criminals in yarn stores, of being overlooked as vendors at fairs or in craft-related media, and of rarely ever seeing themselves represented in this world of fibre and of white people saying the most ignorant things to them.

Some of the stories reminded me of my own experience buying yarn in Nashville, TN, where I was treated with friendliness and was part of the general conversation in the store until I told the person behind the counter that the yarn I was buying was for a Black Lives Matter hat design that I was creating. It was like I flipped a switch - suddenly I was invisible. The reaction was stark and immediate. I was totally confused - these white ladies went from being my new besties to refusing to meet my eyes and acting like I wasn’t there. I left the shop and sat in my car for a moment and it dawned on me…oh, THIS is racism in action, happening to me, myself a white lady. As RuPaul says, “Why it gotta be black?” It don’t.

Of course, that story is dripping in my own white privilege - to only be on the receiving end of that kind of experience when I stepped out of the place that has been carved out for me on the backs of millions of black and brown people. White people are supposed to stay in line too, you know. I thought of the Black woman who scoffed at me and said, “You think a knit hat is going to change things?” when I suggested that what BLM needs a good, simple knitting project to bring people together (this was immediately after the Pussy Hat Project transformed that first Women’s March in 2017). I am cringing as I write that. I suppose I get points for enthusiasm but…yeah, no. Her comment was brought home again when I finished the design and posted it on Ravelry. Almost immediately, the comments were negative. ALL lives matter, they said, and rated my design poorly. They, being white women.

More recently, a friend suggested that I check out Layla Saad’s workbook, Me and White Supremacy. I downloaded it and read through the first two chapters. I’ll confess - I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to see (and feel) what is so uncomfortable and goes against this story of me as a Good Person. This is the same naivety that made me believe that white women in a yarn shop in Tennessee would cheer me on for knitting for Black Lives Matter. Feeling kindness in your heart is nice…but not quite enough. And yes, it isn’t fun and I don’t feel great. It is hard to hold the pain of others. It is hard to feel helpless in the face of systemic racism. It is hard to feel responsible for systemic racism. And…we see where we are with pretending it doesn’t exist or being complacent in the knowledge that it does exist.

I will say, however, that calling out White Apathy about half-way through felt unhelpful. It made me wonder if there is some way to hold white people accountable but also acknowledge that we are dealing with a lifetime (or many lifetimes, if you believe in that) of notions about oneself. If we want real change, we have to be willing to let there be times that look fallow to the outside world. It isn’t apathy, it’s digestion. I see it happen in men who are genuinely wanting to see their own sexism and misogyny - after a certain point, they shut down. I feel it in myself in this work. It doesn’t mean that I don’t understand that BIPoC never get a break. It doesn’t mean that I don’t see the privilege of taking a moment to digest. And still. I would say that all of us need time to integrate new information, especially new information that calls up so much discomfort, so that we can take the very necessary next steps. I am not sure that labeling that moment of digestion “apathy” is correct. If someone takes a step back and never returns…well…that’s another story.

I remember complaining to someone about how tired I was of having to explain what it feels like to be on the receiving end of sexism to men over and over and over. Why don’t they ever step up? Why can’t they be curious and ask a question for once? It’s like they WANT to be ignorant! And so on, like that. She said to me, “I don’t know the answer to your questions because I am not a man. But it seems to me that part of our work , coming into the world in this female form, is to teach men this. We may get tired of it. We may not want to do it. Yet, we have to. What would the alternative be?”

So, as a white person, can we be curious and ask a question? Can we realize the enormous debt of gratitude that we have towards BIPoC for educating us, over and over and over? Can we step up and do the damn workbook? We already know what the alternative would be and it is exactly this that needs changing.

EDITED TO ADD: Re-reading this about a month later, I mostly feel in agreement with what I have written. I feel a little uneasy about putting that Nashville story in there as it reinforces that need that we white people have to put ourselves in the center at all times, even when talking about racism. I am leaving it in for a couple of reasons. One is because it is where I was at a month ago and it is ok to leave those traces as markers. I hope I will see progress in the future. I also think that my point that white people also are put into a box in systemic racism is important. We are getting played too! Someone is benefitting from this system but likely it isn’t you and me. Remember that!

I also wanted to add that I have observed some white knitting celebrities saying things like, “I do this work in other ways besides making statements on social media. I am not comfortable doing it here and I won’t be forced (or “bullied”) into doing so.” My initial reaction was to think that it was a little slippery but to respect that we all have different personalities and we need people working in all aspects of life - not just posting (or posing) on social media. I do still believe that AND YET…I also see that these moves are hurting BIPoC. How do I know that? I am reading their response and they are telling me (and others)! To me, that is more than enough. I can’t justify spending money on patterns and products when I know the person receiving it is ok with hurting BIPoC. I understand that it can be uncomfortable to take a stand in the volatile world of social media. It feels risky that one’s words will be misunderstood (you can pretty much guarantee that they will by someone!). But those concerns are as nothing compared to the pain of racism. As nothing.