White as a Sheet – thoughts on race and quilting

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.

2015.02.07-Fairyland-quilt-reveal
African American Quilt Guild of Oakland, CA

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.

What’s your experience? Are you a Quilter of Color? As a primarily online vendor I don’t get to see what my customers look like unless we meet at a show, so I’d love to hear from you.

13 Comments Add yours

  1. Nia Lorre says:

    I am a quilter and woman of color. It is not uncommon to be closely followed by security, interrogated when attending a group for the first (and last) time, and I rarely see people who look like me on the internet. This includes all of the crafts, not just quilting.

    But – there are exceptions. I spent most of last Saturday at The Cotton Patch in Lafayette making small kennel quilts and everyone treated me like one of the gang. There were no strange looks, double-takes, whispers, or politely hostile comments which sadly, are the norm.

    I was a child in Washington DC during both JFK and MLK’s assassinations and ensuring race riots. How sad that we, as a country, still have so far to go. Other than having a fabulous year-round tan, I am no different than any other nice lady who likes to craft.

    1. Thank you for sharing, Nia! I grew up near the Cotton Patch. The community is really white, but as children we were taught to be inclusive. I’m glad you had a positive experience. Sorry about the negative experiences. We still have a long way to go.

      If you’ll be at Voices in Cloth or the Concord guild show in April, please stop in my booth and say hello!

  2. SANDRA MUSASHI says:

    I think you are very brave to broach the subject and put it out there on your blog. We are not immune from profiling on an individual level. Good for you for bringing it to an awareness and a point of discussion. It’s wrong to make such unfounded judgements and admirable to bring the issue to the table. We have to start somewhere. There is always a beginning. Thank you. Sandy >

    1. Thank you, Sandy. 🙂

  3. Sarah Young says:

    I was at the show where the incident you described occurred Carol. I was appaled at the reaction by bystanders who jumped to conclusions but turned tail when the backback was not filled with “booty”. We are indeed in need of some introspection and contemplation as a nation as we look around us and see people different from ourselves. It is bad enough that our country has not advanced much since the tragic assignations of the 60’s but to hear candidates running for the highest office in the land fostering racist thoughts and actions makes me wonder how we will ever make progress. We are a nation of immigrants and as such we need to remember why we, or our ansestors, came to America in the first place. Was it not for freedom? I thank you for reminding us that we need to wake up and look around and accept people for what they are, people. Not of any group, religion, color or any other definition but as people. Thanks again for your thoughtful insight.

    Sarah

    1. Beautifully said, Sarah. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Carol Morrow says:

    Well, quite a surprise to see a discussion of race on a quilting blog, and I loved it. Us white women over 40 need to use our hard earned authority to speak up on these important issues. I love your blog, and now, I respect you as a thoughtful, interesting woman beyond your art. Thanks

    1. Thank you, Carol. I appreciate it!

  5. Helen says:

    I can see the headlines now: BLACK MAN CAUGHT STEALING FAT QUARTERS! Thanks, Carol, for showing us that racism and profiling, sadly, are everywhere.

  6. Wow, thanks for this post. Yes, by the demographics most quilters in the US are “older” women, and with a relatively high household income. And yes, I suspect they are mostly white. I live in a fairly diverse (university) community and there are no Black members of my local guild. I believe — I hope — we would be welcoming to anyone. But other than a white man who belonged for a few years, we’re a pretty homogeneous group.

    When I go to quilt shows a lot of the vendors are men and I don’t think anything of it at all. My husband is more involved in my quilting all the time, and while he still feels a little self-conscious about it, I can tell he’s also pleased to be included. So I don’t assume all the non-vendor men at shows are “husbands.” At the first big quilt show I attended, the most exciting booth offered some beautiful African fabrics. The vendors there were men, Africans. And frankly until reading your post I never considered how they were different from the others on the big showroom floor. They loved fabrics and so did all the rest of us. Isn’t that enough?

    I’m sorry the young man at your show was treated so disrespectfully. It is a very sad comment on us, that we still have so far to go in acceptance.

    1. Africa has such a rich textile culture, from north to south, and I suspect we’re only just seeing the start of it. I know some African vendors have been around the US quilt circuit for years, but Americana beats out anything ethnic on a regular basis at most quilt shows. The Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibits have helped bring African-American quilt culture of the South into view, and that’s great, but what else?

      To be honest, I couldn’t tell you how many award winning quilts at the big shows are by quilters who are not white, middle aged women because I’m only looking at the quilts and not researching the quilters. Maybe that needs to change. I’ll look into doing some interviews in the future.

      1. I’d love to know what you find out.

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