Midwest Craft Convention Reflection and “Racial Justice and the Role of Knitting” Transcript

by CheyOnna

I just had a really motivating experience at the Midwest Craft Con in Columbus, OH. Let’s start with a HUGE shout-out to my mother for accompanying me and helping stifle my social anxieties. She also did a fantastic job handing out business cards.
Interestingly, the convention was different than I expected even though I did not know what to expect. First, it seemed that most of the attendees identified as business owners (specifically as indie craft makers with a focus on selling) and store owners. This was also reflected by the topics in the schedule (which you can still see here for now). Here are a few examples: Bookkeeping Basics, Make a Marketing Plan, Contracts for Crafters, etc. I don’t know why I didn’t expect this until my last minute schedule planning, but I didn’t. Second, my session was the only one that mentioned knitting explicitly. Upon further investigation of this, I noted that no other speakers seemed to strongly identify as knitters either. How odd right?? Nevertheless, I found my place at the convention and learned a lot.

Specifically, I learned about bookkeeping for a small artsy business, making action plans, reaching out to bloggers for exposure, time management, finding compatible partners, using social media effectively, and building valuable relationships with stores. Whew. All the while, I considered how this information applied to The Yarn Mission, which I don’t consider a business, and perhaps my future. I also plotted ways to share this information with my community of artists, makers, and organizers. Don’t you worry yourselves I have already mind mapped it. Once I make my action plan I can share explain further. The discussions, environment, and side conversations helped me make new pledges to myself and clarify the missions of The Yarn Mission as I see it.

Thankfully, I think I helped others learn some as well. I plan on constructing toolkits to help store owners and group guiders improve their inclusivity and anti-racism. Below I am posting the script I used to guide my session. You will see that we had a small-group discussions as well. To reflect this, I will summarize some of the things that the groups shared back to the large group. I requested that the people participating in the session write a pledge to themselves on how they can work toward inclusivity and anti-racism.

You will note that I expected to be speaking to a primarily white audience that did not yet have inclusive spaces. As it was we had approximately 20 participants, none were Black. My mother and I were the only Black faces in a room discussing Black Liberation work. The group portion would have looked differently if there had been other Black folks. I had considered the various ways to approach it so that the other Black folks would not be overburdened by inquisitive white folks. Explicitly, I was concerned about white people expecting their Black co-participants to explain things to them and tell them what to do bearing the burden of this introspective project. I also considered the ways I would guide the discussion more to reduce the likelihood of offensive/potentially triggering statements. Discussions about racism can be traumatizing/re-traumatizing for Black folks. Often white people want to give examples of things they have witnessed without realizing that they may literally be explaining a situation from the outside to someone who has experienced it from the inside. However, I did not tackle any of these issues since I needed to only worry about myself and my mother (and we signed up for it). In the session and conversations that I had outside of the session, I made a point to make clear that Black people are not for teaching white people about their racist ways. I repeated that there are resources for learning about racism and white people’s role. This is really important. I teach white people sometimes but not all the time. I recognize that I can NOT do it all the time. It is tiring and traumatizing. I can do it in specific circumstances… sometimes. I find it imperative that when I do teach that I make it clear that no one should be expected to do what I do.

Regardless of me having a predominately white group, the discussion points apply to many Black-owned spots as well. Black-owned knitting stores may also have a strained time connecting with the greater Black community because of the whitewashing of knitting and other arts. The recommendations would be similar. I can provide a more nuanced discussion about this topic later.

Presented at the Midwest Craft Convention in Columbus, OH on February 20, 2016

2016-02-26 07.44.23

First, I will begin with a moment of silence. This moment of silence is because we have been too late for so many. We were too late for Rekia Boyd, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Kimberly King, Michael Brown, Kajieme Powell, Vonderrit Meyers, Tamir Rice, Jessie Hernandez, Isaac Holmes, LaDarius Williams, Marcus Golden Jr., Ryan Stokes, Sandra Bland, Kalief Browder, Phil Quinn, Jamar Clark… just to name a few. This moment of silence is for all of us. We must center ourselves in this moment and ground ourselves in this space. I am here because of lost lives and liberty. I am here for the preservation of life and liberty. I believe there is nothing more than that and anything less is an atrocity. Our moment starts now.

I feel obliged to include a disclaimer about how I do not feel obliged to speak to the arguments against what I will be saying. I will not implicitly nor explicitly address common arguments or the persistent devil’s advocate. That is to say, listen to what I am saying. Do not listen to your pre-emptive interpretation. Do not listen to what you have heard in the media or from popular voices. Listen to me now and hear me. If you disagree with something I say, think about if you are disagreeing with the words I am saying or with words I left unsaid. If you think about it and you still disagree, keep it to yourself. Sit with it, think about it, read about it, read about other things, and see if they relate to it, consider whether your privilege helped you disagree, and repeat until you can understand where I am coming from. Not because I am “right” but because I present a valid perspective. On some things, I am very right. I am correct, factually sound, and well supported by evidence, but some of you may prefer to be wrong. Fine. But I am not incorrect.

This is not a space to center the struggles of white people in the pursuit of Black Liberation. This is not a space to make white people feel comfortable. Rather, this is a discussion about knitting as part of struggle for racial justice, for Black Liberation. I started by naming victims of racialized violence, which could arguably be said about all victims of color. Most of the names I have called to this space were killed by state violence. I am not suggesting that knitting saves lives. I am also not suggesting that memorialization is enough. But I am saying that Tamir Rice should have never been described as threatening or as an adult at the age of 12. I am saying that the state did not kill him alone, individuals helped. If we are silent, we are complicit. (say this with me)

If we are silent, we are complicit.

So perhaps introductions are in order. I am CheyOnna. I use she, her, and her’s as my pronouns. I founded The Yarn Mission. The Yarn Mission is an anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-oppressive knitting collective. There is a chapter in St. Louis, MO and Minneapolis, MN. Briefly, some of the work we do is engaging with others doing the work, sharing knitting in the community and in schools, and finding ways to work toward Black Liberation. We have a website and social media presence. I won’t dwell on that anymore but please get looped in with us.

Our knitting cannot be revolutionary if we are not. Black Liberation does not need charity knitting. Well it wouldn’t mind it… but it does not end there. We can and will work through this together.

First, I cannot tell you what Black Liberation looks like. (I think many of us Black Folks have an idea about what it could look like but I’m not sure it is guaranteed to look any certain way) It is multifaceted. I will tell you that I can’t be free if my family is not also free. My trans-family must be free. My gender queer and gender fluid family must be free. My family with criminal pasts must be free. My family with chips on their shoulders must be free. I need you to know that Black Liberation means that ALL Black Folks are free. And truly I mean this globally.

I can tell you what Black Liberation does NOT look like. Black Liberation does not mean disparate treatment according to race. So that fact that less than 20% of the population in Minneapolis is Black but that the police only killed Black people in 2015 is not Black Liberation. The fact what when I say Black lives matter, people want to recenter white lives is not Black Liberation. Black Liberation does not look like me fearing for the lives and liberty of brown-skinned children rather than simply appreciating their youthfulness.

First, I need to make sure we are beginning on the same page. The popular knitting culture in the United States is a white space. It tends to be a white woman space but not without patriarchy. How can we tell that knitting is a white space? (You can shout out ways)


-knitting videos

-most knitting conference speakers

-visit to your LYS

-visit to your local knitter’s guild / circles

Most of these did come from the workshop participants.

But is knitting traditionally a white activity? Absolutely not. Knitting has often been a tool for sustainability and survival. A way to stay warm. A way to comfort and protect our loved ones. This has been true for many cultures. However, when I do an online search for knitting in Africa I mostly see knitting FOR Africa. This is a problem. It has a few causes but a major one is erasure. Erasure yields to appropriation and cultural insensitivity.

You cannot appreciate and support Navajo weavers while also ignoring the fact that many places are known by the names of murderers who attempted full genocide. You cannot appreciate indigenous art while wearing sports apparel with caricatures of indigenous people on it. You cannot incorporate African designs without learning, highlighting, and making space for African history and present. Just the same as you cannot support Black Liberation and not find an issue with the utter dearth of representation of Black folks in your knitting magazines, books, stores, and groups. Erasure allows us to think that Black, Brown, and Indigenous folks are either not involved or separate. In fact, erasure allows some of us to not think about Black, Brown, and Indigenous folks at all. Yet, some of us may easily use designs reminiscent of cultures we haven’t attempted to include or hear. We pick these designs up from museums and pattern books, but do not attempt to bridge our cultural gap through engagement or concerted support. Cultural appropriation is this taking from a culture without much of an understanding of said culture without inclusion of members of said culture. Cultural appropriation is exploitation.

Hopefully, you are already seeing some of where this is going. For instance, perhaps some of you are saying okay 1) do not culturally appropriate. That is indeed a good place to start. But you would not be done there.

Now I have taught college classes and know that not everyone wants to spend lots of time listening to me… shockingly enough. I would like for us to begin our work here and now. Let’s form three groups. Each group will discuss ways that knitting can help us 1) engage, 2) include, and 3) learn our way towards Black Liberation. This isn’t a time to impress so think about things you have done but also things that you have not yet done.

According to the discussions within groups and the share back many of the participants had considered issues of inclusivity before. However, they had ultimately found it difficult or did not place it as a priority and it sat on the backburner. Some people explained that they found it hard to find Black people especially if they considered the Black population to be a small proportion of their neighborhood or city. Generally, in response they were pushed to consciously find a way. Many noted that collaborating with other groups and especially Black groups could be a good method for improving the inclusivity of their groups. They were also urged to consider a variety of ways to advertise (e.g. posting in more locations). We made sure to discuss that Black people are a heterogeneous group. We are not all poor and we are not all too busy to knit/participate in art events. The responsibility was placed on our participants to purposefully increase the inclusivity of their events. Moreover, we briefly discussed that this is different than diversity. I explained that I am NOT recommending that they throw Black people into their white spaces without allowing their white space to shift to an inclusive space that is welcoming and pliable.

We briefly alluded to the importance of representation within the stores and spaces. I mentioned that although stores celebrate TONS of things including President’s Day and Valentine’s Day, besides book stores most do nothing for Black History Month. One owner shared that at her store, she actually thought about this and attempted to put together a display. However, she found that she did not have enough items to build a display. Her experience opened her eyes to her own exclusivity and neglectfulness. Stores can consciously stock merchandise/products by Black people and showing Black people. White people should be interested in these items too. We are not necessarily there yet which is why movies featuring only white people do so well and movies featuring mostly Black people fare less well, but we must build for our aspirations. I did not have a chance to share this next part during the session but I can here. I avoid buying books and magazines that do not include Black models and other models of color. This means I often do not buy knitting books or magazines. 

Some other points that we didn’t get to discuss as much in the workshop was the importance of hiring Black people. Many people learn on the job. Many people are amateurs at the specialty art the store they work at centers (at knitting stores, art supply stores, handmade jewelry, etc) so there are no excuses. Hence, hire Black folks. Once, Black folks are hired make sure that the environment you are creating allows for them to guide and help it shift to be inclusive. Do not think that one Black person is enough. Also, do not think that there could be too many Black folks. It would be great for you to have times where you only have Black employees (as long as you are paying fair and competitive wages that are not less than what you offer white employees and their treatment is equitable). However, remember that having Black people there is not an end in itself. You need to create an environment that allows Black people to see themselves there, safe and comfortable.  

White spaces can post pro-Black, pro-Women, and pro-LGBTQ signs and host events that show that you care about the various communities that you serve. You can explain that being pro-Black means that you recognize the privilege that white people have and the opportunities, comforts, and necessities that Black people are denied and in response you purposefully support Black people. White shops can consciously support the efforts of Black organizations and groups. They can attend events that other communities are having and learn from them. They can learn from Black folks on the internet and through books. They can host events and make donations. Most importantly, they can be proactive about offering their resources rather than expecting people not previously included in their space to waltz in unannounced and seemingly unwelcomed. 

I’d like to conclude this with a real example. My dentist is a Black man. However, before knowing that and seeing him, I liked his office. On the window to the outside is a poster advertising the importance of great teeth (of course). This poster features a brown-skinned Black family. When I walk in, I am greeted by a Black Woman receptionist who wears her hair wrapped. Once I sit down, I see local newspapers that discuss issues of race and ongoing initiatives to combat oppression. I see a publication printed in Spanish. Once I go to the back room, and am lying in the chair having my teeth cleaned by a white Woman, I stare at an advertisement for a teeth whitening system. Apparently, I am supposed to ask my dentist about this whitening system- I won’t though. But what I notice is that it features one white Woman and one Black Woman each with large open teeth smiles. As I look at their smiles, I listen to Stevie Wonder on the radio. I hate going to the dentist but I love my dentist office. I know that he has purposefully chosen his display advertisements. I know that he considers his employees because of their skills, qualifications, and potential rather than excluding because of their brown-skin and/or naturally worn Black Woman hair. Because of the inclusive feeling environment that he has created, most of the people I sit in the waiting room with have brown skin. Some of us come with interpreters, some of us with children in tow, some of us take taxis, while some of us drive fancy cars, but we are mostly brown-skinned. This is even though this office is located in a mostly white area. I realize that the same things that attract and impress me put off white people. However, I challenge knitting stores which often sit with the privilege of already having extensive white bases to attempt to create the environment that my dentist does. You may not be a Black owner and operator but you can set the stage for an inclusive environment that invites in all members of community.

How do all of these things help us toward ultimate Black Liberation? Well, white supremacy and other intersecting forms of oppression work best when they go undiscussed. As we consciously do things different, we can begin to plan. Through knitting we are touching the whole lives of others. Work in the revolutionary realm does not stop there, it can extend further. Perhaps (and hint hint I would advise this), you will think about how this discussion could apply to your corporate job, the school you work in, the leisure sporting league you help organize, etc. Perhaps you will find ways to be consciously inclusive, to be pro-Black, to remember to be pro-Women and to do so unashamedly. I want you to use this discussion to help you reconcile that the work can look many different ways. Do not demonize any form of the work. If it works against oppression without oppression, it is necessary. Under the powers and privileges that underlie oppression, this is difficult because this means we have to think about the ways that we oppress. Oppression is systemic but we play a role as an individual in supporting the system (actively or implicitly) or in working to break down the system.

Let’s get to work.