OK. So, I read a beautiful post on Melody Miller’s blog about kindness. I didn’t know what had prompted it until I read a comment that mentioned the True Up blog. Me, being me, I tend to only look at the pictures so I’d missed the actual blog post surrounding controversial comments made on another blog and surrounding Heather Ross’ fabric designs.
I know my blog isn’t popular and maybe no one will even read this but I do want to talk about the subject matter. First, I’ll say that my background is in Critical Theory. This is where I found my home and what I’m currently working with as I complete a Master’s degree. So issues of representation are important to me and they interest me.
The complaint about Heather Ross was that her fabric line included “little white girls” and no other colours. Her response (though I already knew the answer prior to reading it) was that she was drawing on her own childhood. It makes me wonder, exactly how would Heather Ross be doing anything other than cowing to bullying if she were to start changing the colours of the children on her fabric, not because she was designing what came from the heart but because she was being bullied into changing her art. Why on earth, if the little girls represented herself, would she then make them different colours? Why is it up to her and do we really want to buy fabric from a designer who feels they have to make the children in their design different colours to satisfy others? Is that what we really want?
People talk of privilege and it’s all well and good to do so. Certainly it’s important to recognize that we do come from a place of privilege. And while privilege varies in North America, the fact that we live in North America means we are afforded a certain amount of privilege regardless of skin colour or class. If you are screaming about privilege from the keyboard behind your computer, you are a person of privilege. I think it’s important to recognize that privilege is not exclusive to only one group of people. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have a roof over our heads and full bellies and computers on which we can convey our thoughts to the world are doing so from a place of privilege.
And I don’t say that to suggest there isn’t a racial divide within North America. It would be foolish to suggest that there wasn’t. But that doesn’t change the fact that we still all hold a certain privilege just for being here, with our computers and laptops and our homes and cars (I don’t have a car but you know…) and our jobs and the clothes on our backs and the food in our fridges.
Once upon a time I read that, as a writer, one should write what they know. That is, your stories should be about subjects you are knowledgeable on and that writing tends to fail when we try to write about things we don’t know anything about. I’m not talking about fantasy vs realistic fiction but rather, say, a writer trying to write about the experience of, for example, an African American child growing up in the South in the 1950s when the writer is Caucasian and comes from the North. It’s very hard to be successful as a writer if you try to write about something you have absolutely no understanding about. I would think it would be very hard for a designer, too, to design from a place that is beyond their realm of experience.
And in many ways, Heather Ross was damned if she did and damned if she did not. Let us imagine then that instead of little blonde girl representations of herself and her childhood, she substituted in little dark girls of other races. Surely her experience cannot simply be transferred to another skin colour. Surely there would still be those that complained of how she was merely paying lip service. So should she then try to design from the experience of a childhood that she didn’t have? How would she do that? Would it even be possible? Most importantly I think is why should she? Why Heather Ross? Why are there people insisting she change the designs, abandon being true to herself, abandon the fact that her designs are representations of herself and instead begin designing for others? How contrived and forced will designing become for her? When something is contrived and forced, joy is abandoned and what then? Why bother?
I’m not suggesting for a moment that there shouldn’t be representations of other races in the fabric industry as in any industry, movies, books, tv shows, whatever. Of course there should. Perhaps we need to reach out and and encourage designers of various backgrounds to come forward. We need to support their work. Demand it. So that they can design from their experiences and bring us their joys, their childhood, representations of themselves. And if diversity isn’t being supported by the companies that produce fabric, isn’t it much more logical to go after them rather than an individual designer?
I can only speak from my experience just like anyone else. As a Jewish girl in a city where there are VERY FEW Jewish families, I have a lifetime of experience of “othering”. My experience will not be the same as someone of colour but I don’t think that diminishes my experiences any. From Christmas concerts in school to Christmas specials on TV to Christmas fabric, I am very much made aware of my differences, especially at that time of year. Unless you’re Jewish you’ve probably never tried to find Jewish themed fabric. Let me tell you, it is hard to find and when you do find it you will be stuck with two or three motifs. Stars of David, Chanukah menorahs and the word “Shalom” are the summation of being Jewish in the world of fabric. Does it suck? Absolutely. Do I wish there was more fabric out there that I could relate to, especially during the holidays? Absolutely. Do I blame Alexander Henry because he put out the cutest Christmas themed fabric and I wish he could have released something similar only Chanukah themed instead? No. I may wish for it but I don’t expect him to provide it. Nor do I expect any one designer to start representing me and my life experience in their designs. If I were a designer I’d do it myself but unfortunately I’m not, so I have to look for a designer with a similar experience and when I find them I need to support them. I need to let the companies know that I support them and that I want to see their work.
It’s on us, as consumers (the irony of being a consumer in a discussion of privilege has not escaped me) to encourage the companies to produce more of what we want to see. It is not up to any individual designers and frankly I would rather see an African American designer produce fabric with little dark skinned and dark haired girls than see Heather Ross change the colour of the little girls on her fabric. Diversity shouldn’t just be in the designs, it should come from the designers themselves. So that’s on us. That doesn’t mean we need to boycott a line of fabric or a fabric designer nor does it mean we should feel badly for loving Heather Ross’ fabric (or anyone else’s).
It’s a shame that one designer was singled out and attacked for a problem that comes, not from her, but from the producers of the fabric themselves and also from us as consumers for not demanding of those companies to provide us with what we’re looking for. Remember that unless you tell someone, they won’t know what you want. So write to the people who produce the fabrics. Be polite. Tell them what you would like to see more of and maybe you’ll find that they listen. Maybe they weren’t aware that customers were looking for this and now that they are you’ll see something different. But until you speak up and direct your comments, thoughts, requests, appropriately, don’t expect to see a change.
There is my wordy train of thought on the issue. I hope Heather Ross continues to design from the heart and I hope that those people who are desperately seeking representation in the fabric industry will push for it and maybe even some designers will step forward. The torch has been extended, now it’s up to someone to pick it up. And me, I’ll keep hoping that my own experience will someday be expressed in something more than a Star of David or a Chanukah menorah.