This is my story of white privilege.
Well, no. I have many, many stories about white privilege because I’m, you know, white. To my knowledge my ancestors are Polish, German and Irish, and I’m blond-haired (even if I have to give the color a little “help” now, after kids) and blue- eyed and have been given many, many advantages in this life on account of being white. So, this is just ONE story from a lifetime of white privilege.
(And before I jump into it, let’s chat about white privilege for a second. White people tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to the term “white privilege,” taking it to be a personal criticism implying that you haven’t earned whatever you have. It’s not. White privilege doesn’t mean your life has been easy. It doesn’t mean you haven’t struggled and faced challenges. It doesn’t mean you haven’t worked hard. It doesn’t mean you haven’t dealt with sexism, homophobia, ableism, classism, or any other form of systemic discrimination. It simply means that the color of your skin isn’t the reason for your challenges. The color of your skin isn’t making the challenges you face even more difficult. And you have it, simply by virtue of being born, because it is systemic in our society.)
No doubt you’ve observed or participated in the discussions unfolding over the last few weeks about racism, inclusion and representation in the knitting community. This is an important discussion—the knitting community is overwhelmingly white, and we need to (finally!) examine the ways we discourage BIPOC from participating in our community—whether it is intentional or not—and work to address them.
Have you noticed how few BIPOC knitters you see on Instagram, on Ravelry, at fiber festivals, at your local yarn shop? Maybe not—generally speaking, white people are used to being surrounded by other white people, so it’s our default. We don’t notice the absence of someone we don’t expect to be there in the first place.
I’m from Baltimore, a city whose population is estimated to be 60%+ Black. And when I attended my first knitting “event” in Baltimore so many years ago—Stitches East—it did strike me as odd that in a majority Black city, I saw so few Black knitters at this large event that many knitters I’d spoken with were eager to attend.
And what I thought, at the time, was this: Black people are way too cool to knit.
This is white privilege.
I mean . . . it kinda sounds like a compliment, right? My experiences with Black people over my 27-or-so years of life at that point led me to believe they were not sitting at home on Saturday nights knitting—they were much cooler than I was, out with their friends, dancing, partying, and having fun. Essentially, my conclusion was that Black people were not there because they did not want to be there.
It simply did not occur to me that Black people may not feel comfortable at a knitting event, may not feel welcome, may not feel included. Because I felt comfortable and welcome, I just assumed everyone did.
(And of course, making a sweeping assumption about Black people as a whole being too cool to knit is … not cool. It’s racist. Black people have interests and hobbies just as diverse as those of white people, obviously.)
(And, generally speaking, the vast majority of people are cooler than I am, regardless of skin color and/or interest in knitting, so it’s not really the best lens through which to gauge anything anyway.)
These kinds of assumptions are what white people, and right now, the white knitting community in particular, are being asked to stop and examine. The white experience is not the default experience, and we need to work to see beyond it—to see the ways in which our society, both intentionally and unintentionally, excludes, discriminates against and disadvantages BIPOC.
It is, at first pass, a challenge—to try to see the world through someone else’s eyes. But we are not being asked to do so based on nothing—BIPOC are telling us their experiences. They are telling us they don’t feel welcome, comfortable, represented, included. They’re sharing their experiences of prejudice, discrimination, microaggressions, and racism. They’re even telling us the ways we can fix that (which, frankly, isn’t their responsibility).
We need to listen.
And then we need to do the work to fix it.
It’s not going to be easy. Breaking down the entrenched structure of hundreds of years of racism that we benefit from (whether we like it—or even acknowledge it—or not) is a daunting task, and I know many of us (at least in the US) are already looking at recent policies and practices being implemented in our names and feeling pretty helpless.
But consider (this rough approximation of?) Maya Angelou’s words:
“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
I cannot change the fact that at some point I thought BIPOC were not part of the knitting community because they didn’t want to be. But I know now that it’s not true, and I can do better by doing what I can to make the knitting community more welcoming, inclusive, and representative of BIPOC.
And I can carry that work forward into other areas of my life and my broader community.
And I can vote for people who promise to work to fix exclusionary, discriminatory, racist policies and practices—and then hold them accountable for that work.
(One last note: I’ve seen more than a few comments from white women in the knitting community indicating their hesitation to speak up and speak out for fear of saying something offensive or counterproductive or just plain stupid. And I get that.
But you know what? I’ve probably said something stupid or offensive in this post. And when someone rightfully calls me out, I’ll feel terrible and guilty and defensive. But I will also learn something, and that is far more valuable than my personal sense of tranquility.
So speak up.)