I went to JoAnn a few weeks ago in a mad rush to find some more cardstock to finish up making Ramadan banners that I was planning to mail to my family. What I was really looking for was a patterned cardstock pack which had Muslim-y vibes—and guess what? I found two! Yes, two! Can you believe it?! What, my culture is relevant to the mass consumer market in America?
Here’s the first paper pack called “Storyteller” which has major South Asian vibes. Please read the description on that one.
Here’s the second called “Olivetta” which has Mediterranean vibes.
Although I was beyond stoked about these amazing finds, I was also a little offended. I’ll tell you why. All of the ethnic (shudder) cardstock packs that were at JoAnn that day seemed like a huge Orientalist brushstroke was painted over them. There was the South Asian one, “Storyteller,” the Mediterranean one, “Olivetta,” the …Chinese or was it supposed to be East Asian? one, “Far East,” and the Mexican or maybe also broadly Latin American one, “Fiesta Fever.” Of course, Orientalism doesn’t apply to Latin American cultures, but the function of taking a set of diverse cultures from a large geographic area in the world and letting the imagination mix them all together is at play in all of them.
The worst part of them is probably their names, which leads me to believe that there is an uninformed fantasy of what “those other people over there” are like and what their “aesthetic” can be distilled down to. As I mentioned in my previous post about Trina’s character in the To All the Boys film trilogy, I wish that they had just straight up named the packs in a very straightforward way which explicitly states where these designs are meant to represent. “Storyteller,” which makes me think of Aladdin and all the ignorant culture mixing (Arab, Persian, and South Asian—and honestly East Asian since the original Aladdin character is of Chinese origin), could have been named “South Asian Textiles.” Honestly, what the—-is this supposed to refer to Sheherazad? Blegh weird harem and the male gaze feels.
The “Far East” collection also sets off my Orientalist alarm because it just sounds so Silk Road-y—like it’s referring to a place in Ancient history (or Ancient China.) I don’t have the collection and I am not well-versed with the arts of East Asia enough to tell on a quick glance where the design influences came from, but regardless, the name has this way of making me think “hey, this doesn’t refer to an actual place or people that exist today,” which I think is way more conducive to selling this paper stack to people who aren’t East Asian. Why not call it something like “East Asian Inspiration?” A little lame, but at least you’d know which culture you might be appropriating if you had a clear name to work with.
“Olivetta” isn’t as overtly terrible, but it seems like a way to depoliticize the Mediterranean region by calling the paper stack simply a generic term which I think the general population would fail to think of the scary, crazy Arabs who also live in that region. Similarly, when you have Palestinian restaurants that just go by “Mediterranean Restaurant.” Again, it just seems like it’s taking the stereotype of a look from a region with so many cultures in it. I don’t have a name suggestion for this one—because what I really want it to be is “End the Illegal Occupation of Palestine by Israel” but I really don’t think capitalism has much space for that title in a craft store.
Lastly, “Fiesta Fever” makes me think of how Mexican culture is pretty prevalent in the US, but often in a way which allows more privileged people to appropriate Mexican culture and throw “fiestas” or “taco nights” with pinatas (where’s the tilde on this thing?) without having much real knowledge or awareness of the culture and the struggles which Mexican-Americans and Mexicans just south of the border face because of the US. How about this as a condition—buy and use these papers and you have to become an actively participating ally to the Mexican-American community. One of the things that I found particularly offensive was the Dia de los Muertos skulls that were featured in some of the designs—it’s making a reference to something sacred to that community and I think we should really think about the appropriate ways in which the average American who is not Mexican might be able to use a cardstock like that in their crafting. I mean, are there any? Yikes!
They’re all beautiful paper pads in many ways, but they also make me feel so icky when I think that any person can go into JoAnn and buy them. Yes, I feel so lucky to have some amazing Desi and Arab printed cardstocks to use in the Ramadan-Eid al Adha season with a Desi wedding squeezed into the middle, but I have to think beyond myself. When I look at the sample crafts they feature in the pictures for the paper pack, I’m just thinking—whoever this “sunshine” is you’re wishing a happy birthday to better be South Asian! I’m thinking about all of the ways that people who aren’t South Asian or aren’t basically adopted into a South Asian culture would use these sheets of cardstock. What would it be appropriate for besides maybe a history of India poster board that any student of any racial/ethnic background was making for school? Or a beautiful poster for a book like The Namesake (English teacher senses tingling.) Tangential rant moment: It’s also reminding me of how when white people wear something “ethnic” they look exotic, sophisticated, cultured, sexy, etc. but when the people from that culture wear it, they just look like fobs. A cute $80 brtand name kurti worn by a white woman looks beachy and summery but worn by me or my mom makes our Desiness stick out like a sore thumb and pushes us further into the corner of “the other.” I recently went to the ER, and I just happened to be wearing a kurti that day. I literally ran to my closet before I left to change into “American clothes” explaining to my husband that I don’t need any more barriers that might prevent me from receiving adequate care added to my plate on top of: being a woman, person of color, Muslim hijab-wearer, and person of petite stature. Let’s get back to the paper–another despicable layer is that these paper stacks are meant to be a source of monetary profit and not genuine education and awareness building which I am also assuming were not designed and created by individuals from those ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
You might be thinking—hold up, you 100% Pakistani-American, what makes you thihk “Olivetta” is a paper stack that you can use scot-free? I personally believe that my connection to the Muslim Ummah as a Muslim myself makes it okay for me to utilize the “Olivetta” paper pad, especially since a lot of the pages that don’t feature lemons (so random) have designs which I would see in Islamic architecture. The Arab world is a particularly important region to Muslims worldwide, since many of the holiest sites in Islam are in that region. There’s a reason why I didn’t buy the “Far East” and “Fiesta Fever” packs, too, okay? Even though they were also on sale…I had already spent too much money on paper that day anyways…I’m kidding—I just had no CLUE WHAT on earth I could use these papers for in a way that wouldn’t make me feel utterly ashamed of my appropriation of another culture.
Anyways, am I making a big deal out of this? I don’t know where the line is between cultural appreciation and appropriation when it comes to crafting, but now that I’ve seen these paper stacks maybe we should start this conversation. Crafters of color, I know our numbers are small, but if you’re out there–I’d love to hear from you!