My name is Yvette-Michelle and I have been a textile artist and entrepreneur for over twenty years. My husband, two sons, my mother and I live in Ontario, Canada. I can tell you about my eight year old great great great maternal grandmother who was kidnapped from her village in Nigeria and was sold to a plantation owner in Trinidad and Tobago in the mid 1800’s. I can share the stories she told her children to pass down to their children, and how she urged us to never forget that we are African and were enslaved. Among many other life lessons, it is a lesson I continue to pass along to my bi-racial children. I could share countless other events in my life; from being called the N word by East Indian students at my elementary school, to the heartbreak I felt in high school hearing the Italian American boy I had a crush on say to a friend that his parents would “kill him” if he dated a black girl. There is also the story of being called the N word at a pub in Toronto. I could also share the deep sorrow I felt watching my husband lose family members and childhood friends, because his wife is “Black.”
Some of the events in my life are big life defining moments, while other moments are seemingly things that I can simply brush off my shoulder. Slowly, over the course of 46 years (my lifetime), these moments define my life experience as a human being in a world that sees my skin colour and rarely pauses long enough to see me. There is a twisted narrative, that in no uncertain terms lets me know what I am expected to accept as my reality. Each day I awake and struggle against the fear and anger that tries to force its way into my psyche, I fight to hold on to myself and not let others redefine me.
If you have read this far, thank you. Instead of sharing my entire life story, I will focus on a solitary thought; that we should treat others with dignity and respect. This is not a political or complex thought, and it is not meant to incite a wave of angry comments. I am not attempting to address the hundreds of years of injustice, human trafficking or countless murders. Nor can I speak for the heartbroken families and the millions of people who live in fear each day. I live in my own skin and I feel this issue deeply, and words cannot express my pain or sorrow. I also feel that there are many others who are more qualified than I am to provide insight and educational resources for where you can learn more about American history, Canadian history and world history. In many cases you simply have to open your eyes and it is all around us, no history lessons needed.
Let Us Call It What It Is
This is not a suffering competition, it is simply me giving voice to my lived experience. Like so many others I have been reading and observing all the media and social media accounts and feeling helpless. I decided that one thing I can do, is share one of my experiences, and hopefully it will help amplify the message that this touches so many people. Not every experience is going to be profound or earth shattering, but they cause a ripple effect and this is the point of sharing.
Several years ago, I was introduced to someone that seemed very friendly and supportive. Our husbands were in a band together, and we were part of the same friend circle. She was one of those people that you may describe as “cheerful and bubbly.” She asked to take one of my classes, as a way of “supporting my business” and suggested that she really wanted to learn a particular craft for years. We chatted about how much she admired pieces she had seen at her step-mother’s home. I asked why she did not ask her step-mom for lessons and she suggested, she felt she could learn better from me. She also indicated that she wanted to make a few pieces as backdrops to decorate her home and showcase her creative work. This person took two classes, one of which was taught by a guest instructor at my home studio. During this time, she continued to express her interest in “supporting me as a friend,” and her desire to learn a new hobby. At this point in time I had no reason to believe she had any other intentions.
She asked me questions about my business and I shared with her some of my plans to create a collection of items using the particular craft. In my excitement, I talked about the designs I had in mind and said that I was taking my time to develop the designs. She asked me business advice about her totally unrelated creative business venture, and I shared some business insights with her. Over time I thought we were connecting with each other as friends, women, mothers and fellow creatives. Knowing she did not have anything set-up in her own space at the time, I invited her to teach a class at my studio when she was ready to launch her business. Over a period of a year, I provided advice and continued to extend an invitation for her to teach her craft as a guest instructor.
During this time she said that she did not feel ready to teach, and did not have the confidence to teach a class. I tried encouraging her, and told her I understood her concerns. I shared my experience designing the class she had taken with me; stating how it had taken me a long time to develop and took a lot of research and time to design the patterns and other materials for the class. As further assistance, I even offered to help her develop a class to teach her craft. I started to feel like something was off, when she asked me about my wholesale resources for my materials. I pondered her questions and did not share my wholesale contacts with her. Days later I saw where she shared and acknowledged another artist who she credited as helping her; then it hit me that more was happening. Yes, it took that long for me to see where this was going. Yes! I did not want to believe that this person was never a friend.
Soon after, I saw a post about her teaching the same class she attended at my studio. She was going to teach at a local shop in the same town. I contacted my lawyer and took his advise to contact her in writing. I sent her a letter by registered mail and followed with an email. The letter and email both addressed my concerns (without angry words), and asked how my pattern and class information might be used by her. She then sent me a dismissive email saying it was never her “original intent” to take my course and I was quickly blocked from her social media.
I will like to think that this was just some big misunderstanding, but given her actions I do not believe so. I will also like to say that this was not a case of racism, but it was. Racism is not something that just happens to you, it is something you feel and the feelings are unmistakable. All this happened and the N word was never directed towards me. Racism is not just about the words used, it is about actions, one’s intent and the way one human being treats another. It is about the value people place on each other. It would be great to say that I followed up with my lawyer, but I did not. I walked away from the situation for more reasons than you have time to read. But at the center of my decision to walk away was how I started to feel inside. I did not like how I felt and I was not going to let her actions change who I am.
As a creative entrepreneur and creative business consultant for over twenty years, I am no stranger to issues around intellectual property. Some of the responsibility is on me for trusting this person and for sharing more than I should have. For a long time I was left with the feeling that I could and should have done more. I also blamed myself for not recognizing someone who saw me as a prey. However, this situation also speaks to a deeper social issue.
Something is wrong when someone knows they can do something unethical like this and no one will care. It feeds into a bigger and darker problem. Events like this can seem unintentional; but, they are at the root of how some people treat other human beings and speaks to a sense of entitlement.
I have blocked this person on all my social media and I have made no attempt to contact her. Our husbands no longer talk to each other, and this experience has had a negative impact on several other friendships. Experiences like this can be disguised as many things, but they come from the same place. I was left with feelings of fear and mistrust. I also felt heartbroken, because no one in our friend circle said anything.
This person did what she did, because she knew she could. She knew that no one, not even our friend circle would call her on it. She also knew that I would have to spend thousands of dollars in legal fees to recover very little if anything. Some time later another of my husband’s friends said to him; “if you teach me guitar and then I decide to start teaching guitar, isn’t it the same thing. What’s the big deal?”
What Is The Big Deal
As an artist and small business owner, I have spent years developing a curriculum and designing a product line. When I work with clients I provide patterns and other materials that are for personal use only. This is the same disclaimer that some large pattern manufactures place on their products and packages.
I also clarify with my clients if it is a hobby or professional training they are seeking. My price is different if someone will like professional training. I do not offer a $85.00 class developed for a hobbyist, so someone can set up shop the next day and become a direct competitor. The idea that someone would pretend to be my friend, while plotting to take my business was not foremost in my mind.
I am excited when my students develop their craft. I have worked with many students to transform their skills into viable businesses. Many have taken what they have learned in my classes and have made it their own. They have found their own niche. I have formed friendships and positive business relationships that shine brighter than this experience. However, wrong is wrong. When no one speaks up, then this person and many others like her continue to benefit from their actions.
It is on me for not sharing more about this experience when it happened. I lost faith and the love I had for this particular aspect of my work. After this happened, I would start a project and would be reminded of this negative experience, so I would stop working. I gave up on the collection I wanted to create, and indirectly made room for this person to highlight themselves. These are the kind of events that breaks us down, and sometimes it can take years to recover.
How You Can Help
I am honoured to be a citizen of both Canada and Trinidad and Tobago. My dual citizenship, means that I have an opportunity to provide my children with an immersive experience in both cultures. I have close friends and family members that live all over the world. I also lived in the United States as a teenager.
What is happening in the United States is not just “their” problem. It is not a political issue, though politics can help to change it. It is a human rights issue. I struggled with if I should write this blog post. After some discussion with my family, I decided to move forward. It has been a way for me to organize my thoughts, process some of my feelings on the issue, and share my experience.
I have been reading and observing social media accounts that are providing support for this issue. However, a question that I see consistently is; How can I help? A simple and easy way, might be to identify and stop supporting the type of values that prevents positive change from happening. You can also help by remembering that this is not a suffering competition. It is about human rights, creating a better world and giving voice to everyone. My speaking out about my experience, does not diminish someone else’s experience. You can also take the time to learn about the people and businesses you choose to align yourself with. I also think that everyone should hold themselves and those closest to them (friends, family, neighbours) accountable for bad actions, because the biggest change is often the one we make in ourselves.
Be a good friend, be a good neighbour!