Turkey on My Mind

A kilim in the author’s home.

A kilim in the author’s home.

What, as an American with an ethnically diverse background, is Thanksgiving without having a little cultural appropriation thrown in your face? A few, little, microaggressions? Some casual racism?

As a kid, this all used to come in expressions of what an “exotic beauty” I was at family functions on my paternal side of the family. I heard my grandmother say, “She’s our little exotic bird! Just look at her move!” to a Thanksgiving guest once. I was nine and I was very confused. Why was I exotic? Why did my movements warrant any kind of observation? What did it mean to be exotic? This was before 9/11 and consequently before I was made painfully aware of the stigma of being muslim or having any sort of muslim heritage. Before I started getting pulled out of security queues at airports (at the age of 11! on my way to Disney World!), before that same grandmother would point at videos of Afghan women in burquas on television and ask me if that’s what my mother and other grandmother wear to go to the mosque (they didn’t go to the mosque), before my own father told me I should never use my Turkish names. Back then, being Turkish was being white and that was the end of it. I was shades paler than even my Norwegian side of the family, and my Turkish side of the family, though of muslim heritage, hadn’t practiced since the 1920s. The only thing that set me apart was that I travelled to Istanbul once a year (admittedly leading to childish “haha you’re traveling to see a bird!” comments) and thought a lot of American food was bland. By those standards, I wasn’t any different from my French classmates.

Whether that was ever true or not or whether I was just in my blissful childhood bubble until 9/11 is beyond me. Since then, I’ve heard my mom’s stories of growing up in New York with Zeynep as her first name, of being told she came from a line of barbarians by her second grade teacher. I experienced almost two decades of watching Americans butcher her and my grandmother’s names and understood what my mom meant when she told me she had wanted me to have an international name. I know it was never easy to be Turkish in America, no matter how white or how privileged. I went to a French school and, once we hit our teens, was (verbally) harassed by French boys, being told Turkish women were prostitutes used to being beat up by men. (And then obviously told by the school that they were boys being boys when I complained.) I dealt with accusations that all muslims were terrorists, watched a kid I cared about even pretend to “blow up all the muslims!!” with his toys, and, defeated, I retreated into myself.

Once I started spending more time in Europe, I got it even more. “Oh Turks are such good workers!” I’d hear when a person I’d just met would learn that I was Turkish (as if I ever thought of saying “Your people make such good croissants!” to any random French person). I got hate mail on my blog telling me I was a parasite like all the other Turks in Europe. I learned slowly that maybe it really was best to hide the Turkish side of my identity. Of course I was wrong, but I was tempted to hide in safety, away from casual racism, and having the privilege of visually being very white, it was easy for me to do.

This year’s Thanksgiving battle with American cultural appropriate and microaggression came early and unexpectedly. A friend linked me an Instagram post advertising kilim slippers and a guide to Istanbul. Of course, it made my friend think of me and my aesthetic, and of course, it was on point. I love slippers and I love carpets. But my instant “Ooooh! Mood!” reaction changed quickly. Why was the carpet I played on in my childhood bedroom on a pair of slippers? Why didn’t it have a Turkish or at least a Turkic name next to it? The brand was touting an Istanbul connection, but kilims are Turkic creations, after all. Why was an Istanbul guide involved when the brand had a name linking to Greek mythology? None of it fit together.

I started reading up on the brand and the more I read, the more upset I got. The brand is founded and run by a “designer” who was “inspired” by kilim shoes and accessories she found in Istanbul. I put “designer” in quotation marks here because all the items featured on her site are of traditional Turkish design, and I don’t really see what she’s designing other than a plan to make cultural appropriation sound as appealing and as subtly offensive as possible to her target audience: readers of the Wall Street Journal and Town & Country (that the success of the brand in these publications is included in their About page says a lot). The items in her shop are supposedly made by Turkish artisans, but she doesn’t include any of them on her staff features page. She does, however, look to provide a little background in case a few alarm bells go off in your head and you ask why a blonde woman from Massachusetts is “designing” and selling Turkish crafts. After all, you can be white and blonde and still have Turkish heritage. Half of my Turkish family is blonde. My name is American. There’s nothing like that to be found on their site. Her only connection to Turkey is that her family went there at the beginning of the 19th century and was similarly “inspired” by Turkish carpets and “brought the craft back to the United States” to open their own carpet factory. So you can now set your worries to rest because her family’s been in the trade of exploiting Turkish artisanship for centuries! #heritage

(Since writing this piece, I’ve also discovered that the designer’s mother has a line of jewelry that… you guessed it, also appropriates Turkish culture.)

And of course the brand is successful because it’s sanitized the “ethnic” aspect of the craft as much as possible. She’s nowhere near original in her products, and Turkish women have tried to make Turkish slippers cool many times before. They’ve managed here because they’re headed by a blonde American woman from Massachusetts selling a colonial, paternalistic business to other posh, white Americans and Brits who eat this type of thing up. “Oooh it’s made in Turkey!” and then the authenticity and ethics are taken for granted. (And like okay, can I honestly say I would have started reading about the history of the brand if this was from another culture I didn’t know well, but maybe that’s the point, because how many of us dig into the background of any of the things we’re sharing?)

It doesn’t end there. The further you go into the site, the worse it gets. The site prides itself on having “Flying Carpet” clubs and guides, etc., and they even have a shoe that somehow both whitewashes and exoticizes an existent style of Turkish shoe by referring to it as “flying carpet slippers,” thereby turning to some of the most offensive terminology possible to exoticize Turkish culture. I don’t want to even get into explaining that because it makes my blood boil.

Then, of course, the slippers are sold for upwards of $250. Bags for more. The irony here is that sure, the brand claims to be helping artisans, but how much are they actually paying the people who make their items? There are no statements on the site saying that all profits go to the artisans that are supposedly making their pieces, except for a line of raffia items made in Morocco to help the women who make them. Which is great! But then what about the Turkish artisans who make their products? The site touts Istanbul as its place of origin, but kilims and the style of slippers in question come from rural Turkey, influenced by Turkic culture, and are now popular in places like Gaziantep that are near the Syrian border and dealing with refugees and displaced peoples (Syrian, Kurdish, Turkish,…) who take up these crafts.

What’s more, these items cost far less in the regions. A custom, handmade slipper in buttery leather (a material far more valuable in the regions of Turkey these slippers come from than “recycled” carpets that would be thrown away) costs a fraction if not a tenth of the inflated price. Then, the brand supposedly uses recycled kilims, which means that they aren’t even paying carpet designers in any way. Which could be fine in itself, as it is a common practice. But the pieces are consequently being wildly inflated in order to contribute to the brand's prestige, to make it worthy of Town & Country and co. while giving very little concern to the actual cultures it’s exploiting.

I didn’t go to sleep until well after 4:30am, thinking all of this over with the feeling that I wanted to cancel Thanksgiving altogether thanks to the familiar feeling of injury and micro aggressive attack on behalf of my inherited culture that I used to associate to the holiday. I couldn’t deal with the fact that a part of our culture was taken from the hands of Turkish artisans so a blonde woman from Massachusetts feels good about herself and is paraded as some sort of creative genius. I woke up four hours thereafter, my sore throat even more grating than before, and the feeling hadn’t gone away. It’s eaten away at me all day, angry at white American culture, angry at white privilege, angry at the levels to which colonial attitudes and orientalist fetishism and micro aggressions are embedded into our cultures, where white women can create brands like this to paint themselves as wonderfully aware heroes while actually paternalistically exploiting the people they claim to be helping.

I told my mom about it over breakfast, and her anger quickly mounted as well. We’ve talked of little else today.

Often, white people will ask what they can do to be more sensitive to people of color and people of different backgrounds. We’ll cover that more soon – we have another piece in the works thanks to Lauren – but one easy thing is to take a moment to stop and reflect, especially whenever you come across something like this. It’s something I too need to do, and this has been a wake up call for that. If a brand is selling products from another country or another culture, how did they get them, how are they crediting the people who made the items, honoring them without fetishizing them? If their entire identity revolves around that, then who is running the company and what is their connection to it? “I went on holiday and was inspired!” is never enough. How have the people who produce the products benefited from it? “We’re helping people earn a living!” is a colonialist answer. Finally, how is the culture being represented? Throwing language about “flying carpets” around is beyond casual racism.

Then, think before you share with a friend from the culture in question. Do they have a specific interest in what you’re sending them? Or are you assuming they must have a blanket interest in every single thing from their culture? Because if you are, then that’s a microaggression. You may think you’re reaching out, but what you’re doing is giving them a tiny little stab. They might be happy about it! I have a well-documented love of both slippers and carpets, and so I would have been thrilled if this had been a company run by a Turkish woman! But it can easily go wrong.

Then, think about the impact your comments might have, about the emotional labor your friends feel they need to do to protect you. Nicole Chung wrote a great article for The Toast two years ago on microaggressions at the Thanksgiving table, “What Goes Through Your Mind: On Nice Parties and Casual Racism,” and the weight put on people who are targeted by them, who feel a responsibility to keep the peace because it’s a holiday. I feel that article whenever any casually racist comment is thrown at me at any event – when for instance, someone jokingly tells me they love kebab as a way of relating to me (I’ve never been to a kebab shop in my life) or assumes I must know the quality of every Turkish restaurant in town – and I felt it today. I almost didn’t say anything to the friend who sent me the link to the brand because it’s Thanksgiving and I didn’t want to ruin anyone’s day, but I was lucky, because I knew she would want me to speak up.

So, finally, when people speak up to you about micro aggressions, listen to them. If they tell you something is bad, don’t get defensive! If they tell you something or someone is offensive to them and their culture on social media, immediately unfollow the source. Learn from the experience. Grow from it. Think of it in the future. Don’t unknowingly trust a white woman because she’s a woman. White women are not all right. White women got us Trump. White women keep electing the GOP. 

The irony of my being hit with this on Thanksgiving isn’t beyond me. It’s affected a day I took a decade to redefine as a holiday that, in my family, celebrates different cultures and examines cultural behaviors, celebrating family but also diversity and yes, admittedly a few of the good foods from the half century we spent in America… but it’s also been a good reminder that microaggressions and casual racism pervade American culture. Thanksgiving was built on the back of horrible crimes, and we need to think about that, about how that continues today – how something that began with a brutal attack of Native Americans continues against them and worsens every day, spreading against every single diverse group in the country.