BEADS AND RACE
Is there racism in beading?
“No,” yells the white beader chick carefully stitching her beadwork to perfection.
But I’m not sure about that. I don’t think there’s racism with a capital “R”, but maybe some things with a little “r”.
Look around. Very, very, very few, virtually none, Black bead artists. Or Latino. Or Asian. Look at the major national instructors. We have Joyce Scott. Who else?
Look at the faces of the women and men who contribute articles to the various bead magazines. White, white, white.
Look at the complexion of the attendees at bead shows, or the customers, staff and owners of bead shops, or the members of the local bead societies. Or at the entrants to all our national and international contests sponsored by Land of Odds and The Center for Beadwork & Jewelry Arts — The Ugly Necklace Contest, All Dolled Up: Beaded Art Doll Competition or The Illustrative Beader: Beaded Tapestry Competition.
Does this mean, from a color palette sense, that beading is primarily monochromatic, with no color clash, contrast, coordination or complimentarity — mostly of interest to white folks, and not black, brown, or yellow? I have my doubts. I imagine everyone loves jewelry, and the same proportions of people within any cultural group probably like to make jewelry as much as any other group, as well.
One of my friends told me that in New York and New Jersey, there is a diversity of culture and complexion, and one that is very natural. But this diversity doesn’t extend across the country. Certainly not in Nashville, Tennessee.
And I always have wondered why some people called the Ndebele Stitch, the “Herringbone Stitch”. Is it the pronunciation of the word “Ndebele” that influenced the switch? Or something more sinister?
All this is sad. If all there was to Jewelry Design was following a set of instructions and mimicking someone else’s work, a concern about diversity would not be that important. You follow the steps. You get the job done. No socio-cultural issues influencing any of your choices.
But for people who design things, this isn’t the case. Design is about creative construction. Design is where you take ideas and you take emotions and you apply your hands. Segregating ideas weakens your own. Segregating ideas result in failed opportunities to interact with others who are not like yourself. Segregating ideas are failed opportunities to learn new designs. They are failed opportunities for manipulating design elements in ways you’ve never thought about.
As a designer, you want to have many and varied experiences all through life. These experiences influence your recognition of colors, your choices for linking beads and pieces to stringing materials, your ideas about styles and looks and lengths and fashions. You don’t want to close yourself off to any part of the world. If you did, you would short-change your creative spirit. That essence within you and from which your jewelry resonates.
Yes, I know, you often bead and make jewelry as a type of escape from the real world. A meditative, relaxing, no problemo means of production. But you can’t escape the real world entirely. And you shouldn’t want to.
Race issues aren’t new problems that suddenly appeared circa 2020. They have historical roots, and an unsettling lingering quality to them. The day I wrote this article, these were some of the headlines on the MSNBC.com website home-page:
“Interracial couple denied marriage license [in Louisiana]”
“Appearance matters more for black CEO’s”
“Breaking Barriers: US Minority Leaders”
I remember when I was in high school, there were only 7 other Jewish-Americans and only 1 other Chinese-American in the entire school. We were all called the N-word by our peers. They used the N-word because they didn’t know the K-word or the C-word. The N-word would do. It was uncomfortable and awkward to go to school, and I learned, at least while I was in high school, to see an anti-Semite under every rock, whether there was one or not.
I can remember, also, and this was decades ago, when I was young and in junior high and high school, that my dad had to manage racial issues on a different level. It wasn’t discrimination against him. It was he discriminating against others — a perhaps necessary discrimination, from a business standpoint.
My dad owned a small pharmacy in a very small town called Raritan, New Jersey. Raritan was inhabited mostly by old world Italians, and was very insular. There were no black people in town. The people in town wouldn’t allow it. I remember once that a black family had bought a house there. A week later, before this family had moved in, it was suspiciously burnt to the ground. No one knew who did this, and everyone knew who did this. This family did not rebuild.
My father was not racist. Yet he would never hire a black person as a clerk or as a delivery driver. A black clerk, he feared, would keep his customers away. And a black driver, he feared, would be shot dead.
All these tensions in the air did not mean that we had no black customers. In fact, we had many black customers. They boarded the bus — during the day, not at night — and traveled the 2 miles from the next town over — Somerville. There were two drugstores in Somerville at the time. Blacks perceived that they were discriminated against at these stores, and not at ours. As I said, my father was not a racist.
Similar issues still arise. And while not as emotionally charged as when I was young, they’re still a bit emotionally charged. Owning the bead store means I can’t run and hide and bury myself. I have to deal with uncomfortable situations involving race. And I do.
It wasn’t until around 2009–22 years after starting this business — that we seemed to have some regular, repeat customers who were black, and Latino, and Asian. But still very few. Definitely not enough. I can’t imagine that there are not many, many more minority beaders and jewelry makers in town.
Each time we advertise to fill a staff position, we try to go out of our way to attract qualified minority applicants. We talk to our minority customers. We contact newspapers and agencies that target various minority communities. We contact the state’s Job Service. We get very few minority applicants, and fewer qualified ones. We pay well. The job is very interesting and rarely boring. While I’ve offered jobs to minority applicants, I’ve never had a taker. Whether I project this onto the situation, or it’s real, I get a sense of ill-ease, some risk, some discomfort.
Minority customers seem to self-select where they shop, where they look for jobs, and where they take classes. They seem to go to the large craft stores and discount stores, rather than the small bead and craft shops. This is understandable. As a minority, you are more likely to get discriminated against in a mom-and-pop shop in the South, than you are in a large corporate retail setting. You more likely have to deviate from the major roads or what are safe neighborhoods for you in order to visit these mom-and-pop shops. The odds are against you of getting hired in these small shops, because, just like with my dad, even if the owners are not racist, they have to be realists.
It doesn’t take much to make someone feel uncomfortable and ill-at-ease. Perceived slights are everywhere. Not getting asked if you need some help. A too-abrupt explanation of classes. A question which reveals that assumptions have been made about you, because of your ethnicity. Often an expected level of service rises and falls with the energy-level of the staff, or how pressured they have been during the day, or other things going on in their personal lives. It rarely rises and falls because of race. But it’s not always perceived or understood that way.
I had one minority student who tried to register for one of my advanced jewelry design classes — a class with 3 other prerequisites — and I turned her down. She was furious. She explained that she had taken all these other classes at other bead stores. I told her that our classes are not the same as at other beads stores. They teach steps; we teach theory and applications. I asked her a couple of design-theory questions — things I cover in my other classes — and she was clueless. My first question is always “Do you know the difference between gold-filled and gold-plated?” Rarely does anyone know the answer, and she did not either. I explained to her that I make everyone start at the beginning of our curriculum, including experienced beaders and jewelry makers, because classes elsewhere are craft-oriented project classes, and our classes are skills-based and more academic. I told her she would be wasting her money starting with this advanced class. She took it to mean that, as a minority, I felt she was incapable of learning. I tried to reason with her, but to no avail. Lost a student, garnered more bad word of mouth, and felt I was not heard nor understood.
On another occasion, a minority customer walked into the store, and was not greeted by staff. She walked in at a moment where the staff member who would have greeted her, had gotten sick and was throwing up in the bathroom, two other staff working on internet orders had been dealing with a problem with a customer on the phone, and another staff was getting some inventory from the back room. She expected to be greeted. She assumed the lack of any attention — and she did not even have a staff member glance her way and smile — was because she was black. She complained vociferously to me. Barely stretching my voice over her anger, I explained in great detail what was happening around her. Eventually, she calmed down. She has remained a customer. But she could as easily have gone elsewhere. She did not have to complain to me, and in effect, challenge her first assumptions. But she did. And this was a subject I did not want to deal with — not at all. But glad we had that conversation.
People make assumptions about other people based on their race. This is an unfortunate, but rationale thing that people do. It can be both funny and tragic. Someone puts you into a box in terms of the types of beading or jewelry making they expect you to do, because of your skin color or the slant of your eyes. Someone assumes that your level of jewelry-making proficiency must be based on your cultural and social and biological history.
Time and again over the years, I’ve introduced minority students to one of our bead study groups or jewelry making classes. The groups and classes are very inviting. But how many times I’ve overheard them peppering the person with questions, assuming, for instance, a black person would automatically be interested in Zulu beadwork, tribal jewelry and motifs, or African Trade Beads. And they’re not. Or that an Asian student would only be interested in bead weaving or pearl knotting, and only with Japanese seed beads or Japanese pearls. And they’re not. Or that a Latino student would prefer to use very bright colors. When they’re not. And they get asked all these questions which re-emphasizes that they are not necessarily among friends. And they don’t come back.
While these occurrences are the exception, rather than the rule, they happen often enough to make you think about the relationship of beads to race, beading to race, and bead stores to race. We don’t want to contribute to a hostile environment, even if this sense of hostility is very slight, often unintended. We want to contribute to a free flowing and overflowing multitudinous outpouring of ideas.
The beader’s job is not to solve the problems of the world. But in a quest for good design, the beader has to let some of the world in — problems and all.
Other Articles of Interest by Warren Feld:
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