Something happened at a quilt show recently, and it’s been tumbling around in my mind for a while. I was born and raised in a part of the US considered progressive, open-minded, and racially diverse, which I like. However, I regularly see indications all is not as rosy as it would seem.
The majority of quilters I meet at shows are white, female, and over 40. The vendors at these shows are often a mix of men and women, but almost universally white and often over 40 (to which I am no exception). Many vendors come from the Midwest, where quilting is a big industry, or more rural areas here in the West where the demographic tends to be rather white and conservative.
There are men who come to these shows–not just husbands, but actual male quilters–but again, they are typically over 40. Young quilters stand out, sometimes by their enthusiasm at finding the perfect fabric for a project, but these are still mostly women. Young, male quilters? A rare breed. Young, male, and non-white? Those guys stand out as the exception to every rule.
So when a young man with dark skin and a bulging backpack showed up at a show last month, people took notice. He wandered around booths slowly, asked a few random questions, and generally looked out-of-place. I made eye contact with him once as he looked over from the booth next to mine. He seemed a bit odd to me, but I was busy with customers and didn’t look back again. My assistant that day told me he came into our booth and looked around, but left with no incident. I didn’t even notice him as I checked out a long line of customers.
Shortly after that another vendor breezed past my booth and whispered there was a “young black man with a backpack” shoplifting and told me to keep my eyes open and watch out for him. A few minutes later there was a scuffle in a booth one aisle over, almost knocking over the booth behind it (the booth in front of me) and repeated shouts for “SECURITY!”
The young man who had stood out by his appearance and slightly erratic behavior was tackled to the ground. His backpack opened to reveal… nothing other than his own possessions. I don’t know why he came to the quilt show that day, but I suspect he won’t be coming back.
My husband teaches in a classroom where he is the whitest guy in the room. His students come from diverse backgrounds, including immigrant families from Yemen, but most are African-American. Even within the African-American community there is a wide range of diversity when you look closer. I asked a group of his students one year if they could show me on a globe where their families came from. Fingers pointed to a variety of locations, but for the most part they didn’t know. Their family roots in the US are likely much deeper than mine; two of my grandparents only just arrived on US shores in the 20th century, one from England (1920?) and one from Lithuania (1912).
As a white kid growing up in a predominantly white school district I learned the overwhelming majority of kids I went to school with descended from German and Irish immigrants. In grade school and junior high we studied how in the 19th century floods of immigrants fled Europe, embarking on long trans-Atlantic voyages to scratch their way up the socioeconomic ladder in the US. We were told our nation was a melting pot of immigrants from all over the world and how that made us special. We learned the Civil War and Civil Rights Era battles made the world a better place for African Americans, and how racism really wasn’t a thing these days, especially here on the progressive West Coast.
Ah, the idealistic 1980s. How precious.
At a recent meeting of the East Bay Modern Quilters I met members of another local guild, the African American Quilt Guild of Oakland. The two groups share a common interest in quilting, but each group interprets quilting in a different way. EBMQ as a group leans toward young, white quilters, and the types of quilts we make reflect the trends current in the Modern Quilt scene today (here’s a good Pinterest board for example), with a bit of crossover from traditional American quilting styles. AAQGO members who have shared their work with us at EBMQ group meetings have presented wildly vibrant, colorful, and exciting works, untethered to the Modern Quilt scene. They quilt what they like and are happy to share their vision with the community as they view quilting as a community-building enterprise, sharing knowledge across generations.
Most quilters who have the time, energy, and resources produce quilts to donate to various groups, such as hospitals, senior centers, homeless shelters, etc. Quilts as an expression of community support are nothing new. Quilters definitely have generosity of spirit.
I have been on the receiving end of such quilts when my daughter was little and I traveled the West Coast as an itinerant vendor, technically homeless but still working full-time to support my family with my own handiwork. I was a jeweler for ten years, until 2001 when my tools and materials were stolen. At that point I went back to the skills my mother taught me–design and sewing. 15 years later I’m still at it, and very happy to be a quilter (soft fabrics, yay!) rather than a jeweler (heavy metals, bleh).
Theft happens at every show, and as vendors we are aware of it. We vendors try to keep an eye on customers who might be pocketing things, but items do disappear. When I think back to shows where I suspect items might have been stolen, the only people I’ve seen in my booth looked a lot like me; white, female, and over 40.
To that young man who was wrongfully tackled to the ground in a public setting where he didn’t fit in, I am so sorry. It’s shameful and embarrassing to know that could have happened, but even in this country in 2016 you will stand out as a threat to people who don’t recognize you as being one of them.