Scrapbooking isn’t just for white people

(Kate Medley | The New York Times) A sample of scrapbook from Azzari Jarrett, a photographer and designer, in Wilmington, N.C., July 19, 2020. People of color who craft are done being overlooked as customers and designers.

Tazhiana Gordon describes herself as a messy, mixed-media kind of scrapbooker. She uses brightly colored inks and stamps and stickers to layer compositions on paper for personal albums, photos of which she shares with a close-knit online community of fellow crafters.

In early June, in response to the killing of George Floyd by the police and the national protests that followed, she broke from her usual social media posts of scrapbook pages filled with cheerful phrases and family photos. Instead, Gordon, 29, who is a nurse, wrote about joining the crowds in New York and her thoughts about the reckoning with Blackness the country must face.

She lost 30 followers on her Instagram account — a sting that gave her pause. Although some of the loss could be attributed to the normal fluctuations of follower counts, she said, she suspects it was because she had simply said that Black Lives Matter.

“I made people uncomfortable,” Gordon said by phone from her Brooklyn home. “That’s the thing about navigating a white space: You’re OK until you start asserting your Blackness, and then that becomes a problem for some people. I actually had people DM me outright and say, ‘I didn’t follow you for this. I followed you for the scrapbooking.’ And to those folks, I said, ‘Well, go with grace.’”

White is not a default

Certain hobbies conjure a certain stereotype. Scrapbooking is one of those for which it is hard to shed the mental image of a white, middle-aged woman. But as the industry and community that is built around this craft has learned in the last few months, whiteness in scrapbooking is not a given.

Scrapbooking “feels like a radical act of self-care, to write the words of my own life,” said Gordon, who is Black. “No one can take this from me, even if they burn all my albums 20 years from now.”

(Kate Medley | The New York Times) Azzari Jarrett, a photographer and designer, adds to her scrapbook in Wilmington, N.C., July 19, 2020. People of color who craft are done being overlooked as customers and designers.

The anti-racism protests this year have had well-known brands including Nike and Gushers Fruit Snacks scrambling to signal their support for Black consumers. A similar response is coming from small scrapbooking companies and individual designers.

Ali Edwards, a designer and scrapbooking workshop star in Oregon, shared the books she was reading to learn more about racial inequality and invited her followers to join her.

Kelly Purkey, a designer with a shop in Portland, Oregon, shared how she was documenting protests she was attending through the pages of her personal scrapbooks. She also began offering Black Lives Matter-themed stamps, stickers and cards, designed by the artist Salomée, with proceeds going to charity.

But many of the biggest companies in scrapbooking initially remained silent or struggled to respond appropriately.

One of them was Studio Calico, which is beloved for its monthly kits packed with trendier scrapbooking tools, like washi tape patterned with rose gold moons or leopard spots.

When Azzari Jarrett, a photographer and designer in Wilmington, North Carolina, noticed that Studio Calico had been silent about the anti-racism protests, she commented on one of the company’s Instagram posts, asking why there was no message of solidarity for the company’s Black customers, no commitment to work with Black designers or anything else about standing with Black employees. (Jarrett, 41, was featured on the Studio Calico blog in 2018 and said that she has been a customer for seven years.)

Her comment went unaddressed. Then, it was deleted by the Studio Calico account.

“By the next morning, I had so many other women in scrapbooking supporting me and saying, ‘Hey, Studio Calico, you’re silencing your customers. It’s not right,’” Jarrett said. “I did get an apology, but then I responded with, ‘If you do feel this way, then what? What are you going to do to change it? Do you know how many Black employees you have? How many Black designers do you have?’

“They probably don’t even know how many Black customers they have,” she said.

Gordon saw all of this unfold and “called them out, like, immediately,” she said. “If you don’t want to post anything that says Black Lives Matter on your feed or anything about what you’re doing to commit to diversity, that’s your prerogative. But when you start actively silencing Black voices that have been marginalized, that’s where you get called out.”

April Foster, CEO of Studio Calico, said in a statement that “the conversations happening in our communities right now are important and impactful, and we’re listening and learning.”

The company, she said, was reevaluating its processes and products. “We’re intentionally featuring inspiration that lifts up diverse creators, intentionally reaching out to even more diverse designers and creators for our creative team and product designer,” she said.

Jarrett and Gordon said they found support from others in scrapbooking communities, but the disappointment the two women shared felt squarely within the experience of being a Black person in a space deemed “white.”

That reality is reflected in how little scrapbooking ephemera there is on the market that shows Black or brown faces or hands. Purkey, who is Asian American and a 15-year veteran of the industry, said she has worked at some of the biggest companies in scrapbooking and “never worked with a Black co-worker anywhere in any company.”

Jarrett, who is Black, said she began scrapbooking about seven years ago because she wanted to document the birth of her third daughter, and a traditional baby book wasn’t quite her style.

She discovered a style of documenting called pocket scrapbooking and, she said, she “hasn’t looked back.” (Pocket scrapbooking involves using plastic protectors that are divided into segments to showcase cards, photos and ephemera of different sizes.)

Jarrett’s profile in the scrapbooking world began to rise as she posted some of her spreads onto Instagram, where albums, layouts, process videos and tutorials proliferate.

“I just wanted to share a different perspective,” Jarrett said. “You know, someone brown.”

Jarrett became known for her minimalist style, but she said that was partly out of necessity. A page from her scrapbook was recently shared by someone else on Instagram to highlight Black scrapbookers; on that page, she’d used a stamp depicting women’s faces and had colored the faces brown herself.

Seeing her own work again, Jarrett said, made her realize “I didn’t think twice about having to paint a brown face because that’s how I move through the world.”

“I want something that’s reflective of me,” she said. So she recently released her own Black Lives Matter stamps and cards for pocket scrapbooking. One depicts a woman with curly hair; another says, simply, “melanin.”

Scrapbooking design teams for the big crafting companies are often made up of a handful of high-profile customers who, for a period of a few months or a year, receive products before the general public. In exchange, they are typically encouraged to post layouts on social media or on their blogs, if they still have those.

In early July, American Crafts, a Utah company that oversees about a dozen scrapbooking brands, announced its newest design team — about a dozen women, all seemingly white.

Lydia Diaz, a crafter and lifestyle vlogger, called the exclusion “a huge letdown.”

“When it comes to how ignored and how invisible we can feel as Black people in America, and the crafting community is one small slice of the pie, and even there, we’re not represented,” she said on Instagram. “There are so many amazingly talented and creative Black people thinking outside the box, doing big things in this community, and you wouldn’t know it if you were looking at some of these large crafting brands. You wouldn’t see our work, you wouldn’t see our hands on the table holding a craft we just made, you wouldn’t see our faces smiling in one of their online courses, you wouldn’t see us on the ambassador team.”

American Crafts apologized and removed the post, adding that it would soon add more Black women to its team. In late July, Gordon and a longtime scrapbooker named Victoria Calvin were added as well as several other women of color and a man. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

(Kate Medley | The New York Times) Azzari Jarrett, a photographer and designer, adds to her scrapbook in Wilmington, N.C., July 19, 2020. People of color who craft are done being overlooked as customers and designers.

Exclusion is bad for business

Throughout generations, all types of people have kept photo albums, commonplace books and scrapbooks, including free Black people and former slaves who documented the Civil War and their postwar lives.

But scrapbooking boomed as an industry in the late 1990s with the help of companies like Creative Memories, in Minnesota, which hosted Tupperware-style parties for scrapbooking all across Midwestern suburbs.

Purkey recalled that she started scrapbooking after attending one of these parties as a kid. “Those parties and the scrapbook stores back then were all in these nice, rich suburbs,” she said. “It was all for these rich suburban women.”

The scrapbooking industry also has ties to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has a well-documented history of relegating Black members to second-class status until the late 1970s.

Mormons, as part of their faith practice, prioritize documenting family history and genealogy. In the 1970s, a Mormon woman named Marielen Christensen from Spanish Fork, Utah, began showcasing the way she preserved photos and written stories at record-keeping conferences. In particular, she pushed the use of binders and more durable materials, like acid-free papers, that would lead to better scrapbook preservation.

In 1981, she opened Keeping Memories Alive, a shop and mail-order catalog dedicated to helping others document their families’ stories, and it became a destination for scrapbookers. Other stores copied the model, and within about 10 years, scrapbooking was a full-on craze.

Through the decades — and the proliferation of digital cameras, then higher-resolution camera phones and social media platforms where scrapbookers began sharing their work — the craft inevitably made it to a broader audience of people who enjoy playing with paper, stickers and stamps.

Today, social media plays a significant role in fueling the idea of who scrapbookers are, but status is signaled by which customers are chosen to be on the rotating company design teams. It’s rare to see a design team with more than one person of color on it.

“There are some days where that’s a lot to carry, being a visible person of color in a community that” doesn’t seem diverse, “like, at all,” Gordon said. “And then there’s some days where it just feels like a badge of honor, because if I can get women who didn’t think that this community was open to them, or if I could just get somebody else to tell their own story, then I feel like I did my job that day.”

Before starting her own company, Purkey had been on a number of design teams. When she broke out on her own, she said she wasn’t specifically thinking about guaranteeing diversity as a cornerstone in building her own teams, but it happened organically.

“I didn’t think about, necessarily — diversity — but I knew I wanted people represented. Like, I knew I had Asian customers. I knew I had, you know, moms of boys,” Purkey said. “It wasn’t specifically about race. It was just, like, making sure that we were kind of showing examples for everybody that shopped in my store.”

After Jarrett (who has been on one of Purkey’s design teams) released her own Black Lives Matter-themed scrapbooking cards and stamps this summer, she said she was surprised when so many people voiced their support.

“So many people reached out to me or in my DMs and on Instagram to say, ‘Hey, thank you for this; scrapbooking is always seen as such a white craft, so it’s good to see other products,’” Jarrett said. “I just — I’m floored. I’m happy to see other women of all races document these stories and that they matter.”

She wasn’t surprised, though, that her Black Lives Matter stamp and “Brown Girl” stamp set have sold out. “There is clearly a market for these types of products,” Jarrett said.