Sunday, January 20, 2019

Reflections on Instagram and conversations about racism in the knitting community

I have been absorbed in the conversation on Instagram this week, about racism in the knitting community.  I have been reading, watching people’s stories about the precipitating event and about the responses to that event, thinking carefully. (Note: by “precipitating event”, I don’t mean “isolated incident” – I mean “one thing that looks a lot like countless other things that just haven’t happened to lead to a big important conversation, even though they should have.)  What I’ve seen has resonated with what I know to be true in academia, and with what I have been also seeing and worrying a lot about in the mindfulness community, where words like ‘forgiveness’ are bandied about without any context or discussion of what it means to tell, for example, POC to forgive without a concomitant addressing of the ongoing institutional violence and oppression that they are being asked to forgive.  That, folks, is a problem.  That is something that I’d like to talk more about in the future, when I can make better reference to the people who are on the front lines of dealing with that, and who have written and spoken wisely and thoughtfully about it. 

By the same token, I don’t want to summarize the discussion on IG or speak for the people who have done so much educating – that they shouldn’t have to do – over the past week.  I’d instead refer you to: @ggmadeit; @thecolormustard; @su.krita, who kindly gave me permission to point you in their direction.  There are many other people doing this work whom I hope you will seek out as well.

I really wasn’t sure that I’d end up saying anything about this, for a couple of reasons.  The first has to do with my own use of IG, which, until this week, has largely been to follow friends and family – in other words, it hasn’t been a place where I’ve engaged a whole lot with the knitting community.  In the last week, though, IG has become a place where I follow knitters and spinners.  In some ways, I’m not sure how I feel about that, because I’ve been trying to spend less time on social media, not more.  But at the same time, I can’t regret the inspiration I have drawn from the projects and work of so many fantastic and creative women.  So.

This blog is the space where I have done much more connecting and thinking about making and the world of makers.  And this is the space where I have to look at and think carefully about the makeup of the blogs and bloggers I follow, which are almost exclusively white women.  That is not OK, and it is not OK that I hadn’t until now taken steps to change that - to make sure that the blogs that I read and follow represent the world that I live in.  I also have to think about my disappointment in several of the well-known white women designers whose work I love and whose blogs and IG feeds I do follow, who have said absolutely nothing about the work that’s been done this week.  It’s impossible for me to imagine that they don’t know about it, so where are their voices?  Where is their work to amplify those who have spoken so clearly this week?

And that’s what finally helped me to realize that I need to say something.  I don’t have a lot of readers any more, and I don’t have very many followers on IG who are part of the knitting community.  (In fact, for those of you who aren’t knitters who followed the link from my IG feed – hi!  Yes, I have a knitting blog – who knew, right?). So, it’s not like I can do a lot of amplifying here.  And I don’t want to tell the stories that BIPOC members of the community live every day and have told so well (see those references above – there are so many more).  Instead, I want to talk about parts of the response to those stories that have disturbed me greatly, and that have done additional violence to those who exposed themselves in coming forward to talk about their experiences of racism in the knitting community. 

And I want to say this very clearly to those women who have been doing all of this work – that, I say again, they should not have to do – I hear you.  I know that you know this, but I want to say that I know that you are not crazy.  Racism and its effects in the knitting community (and academia, and the mindfulness community, and and and…) are real and corrosive.  Thank you.  Thank you for taking the time and emotional energy to talk about that.  Thank you for your continuing work in calling people out on the deeply problematic ways that they’ve responded to the initial discussion.  I can’t imagine the toll it’s taken on you and continues to take on you.

It’s those responses that I want to talk about a little more.  I can’t say that I’ve been surprised by the way that many WW have responded, nor by what they’ve said in their own posts, and in the comments on the posts I reference above.  But I have been disgusted and appalled.  There are two trends in particular that I want to call out.  First, the “I’ve been afraid to say something” (because someone might get mad at me, I might say the wrong thing, etc).  And second the “let’s get past this/I want this space to return to being my happy space/let peace begin with me/let’s level up” responses. 

OK.  “I’ve been afraid to say something because I might say the wrong thing and then someone might get mad at me.”  I hear this all the time from young men in my gender classes.  (And I, too, feel that fear.)  There they are, perhaps for the first time, sitting in a room with women who talk about the ways that sexism and violence against women inform everything that women do, every single day.  And at some point, some young man says exactly that: I’m afraid to talk because I might say the wrong thing and someone might get mad at me.  And I say – and I say this with genuine love and sympathy – good.  You should be afraid, and you should know what it’s like to have to watch every word you say because someone might take it the wrong way and police you.  Welcome to the lived experience of members of oppressed groups, who have to watch what they say all the time.  All. The. Time.  Every minute of every day.  And for whom the consequences of saying “the wrong thing” aren’t just facing the momentary discomfort of being called out for it.  The consequences are far worse and far more systematic.  Loss of jobs.  Violence.  Lack of justice for violence perpetrated against them.  All of that and more.  So, with love, I say this same thing to the women on IG who have left that comment: sit with that discomfort.  Think carefully before you speak.  And, when you have something important and useful to say, say it with care, and then listen, with care, to what people have to say to you.  If someone takes the time and energy to tell you that what you just said was problematic, think for a moment about how hard it was for them to do that – given that difficulty, assume that what they’re saying is important enough to take on board.  And that goes for what I’m saying here.  There is no way that I am getting this all right.  I am trying my best, but I live and breathe a racist system just like the rest of us.  I am sorry for what I am getting wrong, and while I don’t think it is anyone’s job to educate me, if any of you want to share with me how I can do better, I am listening.

My other response to this fear of saying the wrong thing is this: maybe we should all be careful, all the time, of our words.  I’m a linguist in no small part because I believe in my guts that words are powerful things.  They change worlds.  With Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Day coming up, I can’t help but think of his famous speech – when he said he had a dream, he was speaking that dream into reality.  We are not there yet, but his words call into being the possibility of a better future.  Which is what we all need to be working towards, and what I hope the knitting community can take a step towards, thanks to the powerful words of women who spoke and speak out.

And that brings me to that other response that I’m really hating right now: Ok, we’ve said this stuff, now can we go back to our peaceful happy place?  First off, if we really read what people had to say, we’d see that, obviously, that space is neither peaceful nor happy for those folks who wrote about the problem of racism in the community.  Right?  So we can’t go back to that – we shouldn’t want to.  We should want to go forward, to something more inclusive.  How can this be my happy place if it’s someone else’s oppressive place?  This is the hard and important work for white people: to see and acknowledge and feel the pain and violence that white supremacy causes to us.  To white people.  To want to return to a happy place that we know is exclusionary to others makes us less human.  I don’t want to be less human, just because it’s easy.  And I don’t want my desire to dismantle racism to come from a place of white saviourhood, which is what happens when I think of it as something that’s happening to “them”, over there.  Racism is toxic, period.

This also highlights a thing that I’ve mulled over in both personal and social relationships for a long time: the habit that people have of wanting to take credit for the good without taking responsibility for the bad.  In personal relationships, this happens when I say, but these things you did? They were abusive and painful.  And the person I’m talking to says, why do you always want to talk about the bad things?  What about all of the good things? 

Yep, the good things are there.  But you can’t pretend that’s all that’s there just because it’s easier and more comfortable, when the bad things are making lumps under the rug where you’ve swept them.

In history, white folks want to do this.  We want credit for Lincoln without taking the responsibility for Jackson.  And responsibility doesn’t mean a quick mea culpa and then can we move on please?  I’m thinking restitution. I’m thinking dismantling structures that replicate the injustices “of the past” again and again.  Sorry and now let’s move on doesn’t cut it. 

I didn’t mean to write this much, and I think it’s time to stop and listen. A few final words.  First, if anyone reading this has responded in one of these ways, please realize that doing so, or glossing over this past week as if it didn’t happen, is another form of violence.  Please don’t do that.  The second thing is to remember to see the women who came forward to speak in all of their resilience and glory.  Their feeds are full of creativity and beauty that I find totally inspiring.  Please don’t treat their feeds as pain porn to feed some kind of white liberal guilt.  This conversation is one part of a much larger whole – a critical part, but not all that there is.

Thank you.