About a Pink Sweater: an Essay by Sophia Cai

Sophia Cai is a curator, writer, and knitter based in Melbourne, Australia. Sophia is one of the many voices who has been a fearless advocate for change and action within the fibre community regarding diversity and anti-racism. We’re honoured to have her contribute to Issue 31 and we’re publishing Sophia’s full essay on the blog so it can be shared as widely as possible. 

Illustration by Maggie Chiang

Of all the handknitted sweaters currently sitting in my wardrobe, it is one that was not knit by me but instead by three of my friends that holds the most significance. It is a raglan sweater, knit in the round from the bottom up, and made from shockingly bright pink, hand-dyed, single-ply, merino wool from my stash. Across the front of the sweater is the phrase CONFRONT & AFFRONT in bold yellow crochet i-cord, felted and sewn to the fabric. The ‘&’ looks less like an ampersand and more like a pretzel. The sweater is truly one-of-a-kind, the only one like it in the world.

While this sweater is currently in my possession, it does not belong to me and I do not intend to keep it forever. It was made as a group effort, and although undoubtedly striking, the sweater’s importance lies not merely in its appearance or the words inscribed across the front. Embodied in the individual stitches that make up the sweater is a community reckoning with a deeply uncomfortable but necessary self-interrogation; in a community built on a shared joy of crafting, how do we make and hold space for difficult topics related to racism and white privilege?

The story behind the sweater has two parts, and its origin can be traced to the beginning of 2019 when the Instagram knitting community started to discuss white privilege and the experience of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC*) in this space. I am incredibly wary of saying that January 2019 is the starting point for this anti-racism movement in the fibre community because of course these issues have existed for a long time in our predominantly white sphere. However, what is undoubtedly true is that it was the volume and tenacity of BIPOC voices speaking together, many for the first time, combined with the use of Instagram as a platform to share resources and make connections, that made an indelible effect.

The phrase ‘confront and affront’ was something that my friend Ivy and I came up with in January to express our frustration and disappointment when we tried to bring this conversation to our immediate Melbourne knitting group. Considering this group of people to be friends, we tried to discuss what the burgeoning conversation about white privilege and knitting meant, and how we should do more to support and centre BIPOC experiences. Instead, we were met with further questions, expectations to explain why something was racist or not and, perhaps most hurtfully, silence and minimisation.

Ivy and I initially picked the words mostly because they rhymed and, as we said it to ourselves over and over again on the drive back home, it gave us the strength and resilience to speak up. We reminded ourselves that the purpose of this mantra was to move away from our own comfort, and to no longer let things slide because we were scared to say something; that our experiences and voices are important too, even if they are challenging to hear. Having spent my life trying to fit into a white Australia as a first-generation Chinese migrant, I grappled with the duality of both wanting to use my voice to advocate for change but also struggling with that expectation of myself by the very fact of my racialised identity. I do not believe BIPOC should ever be expected to do the emotional labour of explaining racism by virtue of one’s lived experience, but there is also a reclaiming of power that comes from being in control of your own narrative. The realisation that I was trying to ‘perform’ a certain version of myself to fit into existing power structures changed my perspective.

Most people understand the ‘confront’, but it’s the ‘affront’ they do not like.

After this point, I was more emboldened to use my voice on Instagram in a public way to speak about racism, and to call in businesses and members of my local Melbourne knitting community to lend their support. What I found instead was that the moment I spoke up, the moment I left the supposed ‘safety’ of being a consumer and asked for accountability, was also when I found myself at the receiving end of more racial abuse and micro-aggressions than I had ever experienced before. From hateful DMs from strangers to losing friends who told me to “calm down” or that I was “scary when angry”, I had never felt a more strident attempt to silence me into submission than after I started speaking out.

I soon realised that despite what the knitting community espoused about being “welcome to all”, this was an illusion if it was at the cost of being able to speak my truth. The supposed safety of any space is compromised if it is not intolerant of intolerance, if BIPOC and marginalised members of the community can’t share their experiences without being questioned or diminished. Being apolitical in order to be inclusive or for the sake of civility is not a solution either, and there is no such thing as neutrality when talking about human rights and dignity. There is no middle ground and no two sides to racism.

Most people understand the ‘confront’, but it’s the ‘affront’ they do not like. They ask me what I mean, what my goals are, and sometimes even say “I support you but not your methods”. The issue people have is frequently in the tone or perceived delivery of my anti-racism work, rather than the message behind the words. I’ve seen words like ‘bullying’, ‘divisive’ or ‘witch-hunt’ used to demonise marginalised members of the fibre community who are trying to simply express their views or experience.

I’ve since realised the power of reclaiming the words that are used against you. For me, affronting means being clear and challenging someone’s established values, particularly as we learn so many of these values from dominant social paradigms. Affronting also means not tone-policing yourself or relying on niceness merely to preserve people’s comfort or to avoid all negativity. It does create a more difficult situation to navigate, but these are difficult conversations to navigate. It also means accepting the anger that I feel at racism and white fragility, and acknowledging that anger is a valid emotion to feel when faced with injustice. Anger is not the same as hate, and kindness can be a tool used to protect the status quo. ‘Love and light’ does not a revolution make.

Over time, the phrase ‘confront & affront’ has taken on a life of its own. When my friends came together to knit the pink sweater with these words on it, it was a gesture of love and solidarity. It was planned as a special garment for me to wear as a speaker at Edinburgh Yarn Festival (EYF) for the Diversity & Inclusion panel, where I had been invited to speak. Although I had long made plans to visit EYF for the first time as part of a European honeymoon (thanks to my incredibly understanding partner), the panel was a late addition to the programme and therefore to my travel itinerary.

In one week before my flight, my friends juggled knitting time in amongst their other commitments to make sure I had the sweater ready for my trip. Using Elizabeth Zimmerman’s percentage system to work out the numbers, they knit the body, then the two sleeves, and finally crocheted and hand-stitched the words across the front using some remnant bright yellow yarn. The sweater was never blocked, because we ran out of time.

Knowing now that I cannot expect people to change, confronting and affronting takes a different tune.

In that moment I realised the importance of doing the anti-racism work with a community of peers, and how important it is to have multiple voices and people to carry this forward. The hardest thing about confronting and affronting is the emotional labour it takes, which is why you can’t do it on your own. It is worth mentioning that the sweater was made for me to wear by three white women, that their labour and time for this is different to the physical act of a woman of colour wearing it. But I recognised the importance of collaboration, and how white allies can play a role that doesn’t centre them, while realising that allyship requires ongoing engagement and work. It’s not a checklist. There are no cookies given out for allyship.

When I put on the sweater for the first time, it made me feel empowered yet also vulnerable. Though knit for me to wear at a specific event, I never felt like the sweater belonged to me. Wearing it was a way to express my connection with others, particularly BIPOC makers, who I had seen take on the additional emotional burden of being anti-racism educators in the knitting community. It was a heavy weight to carry.

It was not easy to wear the sweater for the first time out in public. I remember asking my friend to walk around with me, because I was worried about doing it on my own. I was not sure what I was fearful of, whether it was a worry of offending people, of having people stare at me, or of putting myself in a vulnerable position in a public setting. The truth of this matter is of course that confronting & affronting is not easy for me, despite wearing it close to my heart, literally and metaphorically.

In the months since EYF, the sweater has seen few outings. It has been passed around to friends to try on (spoiler alert: it looks good on everyone), and also had a brief outing to a Melbourne yarn market, where golliwog dolls were for sale. Part of the reason I haven’t worn it more is that with the emotional baggage of confronting white fragility en masse over the last few months, I have struggled with the conflict this has brought into my life.

Knowing now that I cannot expect people to change, confronting and affronting takes a different tune. I remind myself that part of anti-racism work is also taking care of myself. Every time I feel the hopelessness and despair of feeling unheard, I remember that the goal is perhaps not only to change the system built around white supremacy, but to find and build new communities in spaces that did not exist before. There are many BIPOC voices who are doing this difficult work, we should recognise how much the knitting community has gained from this labour that none of us asked for.

I am unsure what will happen next to the pink sweater. Confronting and affronting has shaped not only my experience in the knitting community over the last year, but also my personal growth in that time to becoming a more true and honest version of myself. Confronting myself to look deeper at my own assumed values and internalised biases shook my values and sense of belonging to the core. Perhaps it is now time for me to pass this sweater on to another recipient – it definitely deserves to be worn again.

* Editors’ note: Black, Asian, and minority ethnic, or BAME is a similarly used term in the U.K.

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