A few weeks after nationwide protests erupted over the police killing of George Floyd, Julie Muller looked for something positive she could contribute to the movement from her Houston home.
The 67-year-old white woman, who has been selling homemade cookie-decorating kits online since March, decided to offer one with a Black Lives Matter theme. The kit comes with cookie cutters imprinted with former President Barack Obama’s face, sprinkles and icing in red, black and green — the colors of the Pan-African or Black Liberation flag.
Other examples of homespun BLM merchandise include wine stoppers and even garden gnomes — objects more often associated with white suburbia. The white sellers insist they are not trying to make light of racial issues or widen their profit margins. But to many onlookers, the sales through the crafts marketplace Etsy may straddle an uncomfortable line between supporting the movement and exploiting it.
Muller’s three children were the first to warn her she might appear to be capitalizing on racial unrest. But that’s partly why she wanted to act.
“I’ve been thinking about what’s systemic racism and what is racial profiling,” Muller said. “It’s more about doing my part. What can I offer?”
The protest movement ignited by Floyd’s death in May under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer compelled businesses large and small to declare publicly that they were “woke” to the pain of Black people. Manufacturers soon began making BLM T-shirts, face masks and signs.
It’s not surprising that independent merchants wanted to express solidarity too, said Patti Williams, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
To demonstrate sincerity, sellers should commit to making these items permanently to show their efforts are not just an attempt “to jump on a fad,” she added.
There’s also potential for the items themselves to be seen as offensive or tone-deaf.
Ashleigh Boutelle, 45, of Twin Peaks, California, custom paints garden gnomes as a side business. After making gay pride gnomes, he decided in July to try painting a Black Lives Matter gnome. The yellow-and-black-clad gnome — a nod to the colors used on a Black Lives Matter website — wears a “BLM” hat. He also painted it with a darker skin tone.
“I was just trying to be very careful and present something that you might say is neutral,” Boutelle said. “Hopefully, someone who sees it is not offended.”
He has since gotten a few orders for either Black Lives Matter gnomes or African American gnomes. Boutelle hopes people don’t question his sincerity because his support is displayed on a mythical figure with a pointy hat.
“I like the idea of offering it to someone who might want to put it in their yard to make a statement — a cute statement, of course,” said Boutelle, who has not chosen yet to which organization to donate $10 from every sale of the $60 gnome.
Kate Mayer, 37, of Cincinnati, decided to offer a Black Lives Matter wine bottle stopper among her dozens of handmade wine stoppers. She understands critics may dislike the link between rosé and race relations. But her Etsy shop is her biggest platform.
“I can only hope that they would understand that I’m trying to come from a good place,” Mayer said. “I’m just trying to do the little bit that I can do. If everyone does that, it adds up to a lot.”
She gives 25% of each sale to the Black Voters Matter Fund. She has sold 15 of the $17 stoppers.
“I’m really not making a profit on these,” Mayer said. “It’s more of just a show of good faith.”
Both independent creatives and companies should be donating profits to demonstrate solidarity, said Fresco Steez, an activist with Movement for Black Lives and co-founder of Black Youth Project 100. And it can’t be just a percentage. Otherwise, businesses are essentially benefiting from the social struggles at the heart of the protests, she said.
“If you keep your production costs and explicitly say all of the profits are going to doing the work — that feels ethical to me,” Steez said.
Crafters can also do other things, like donate an item for an organization’s fundraiser or event, Steez added.
In Chicago, Jasmine Renee, a Black legal assistant in her early 20s, recently launched an Etsy shop — Shea Butter Apparel — to sell Black Lives Matter-themed shirts, sweaters and accessories she designed. Advertising support for the movement on items like a gnome or wine stopper doesn’t personally appeal to her. She hopes those who find them appealing will also look at Black-owned businesses and that white sellers will promote Black sellers of BLM merchandise.
“It doesn’t really put the focus on you and your store or operation,” Renee said. “It returns some of the focus to the main goal of the Black Lives Matter movement, which is to say Black bodies are important. What we say and do is important.”
Ultimately, the offbeat creations could be a good way to touch a demographic that is sometimes out of activists’ reach. A wine stopper, for example, might initiate “upper middle-class conversations” about the marginalization of Black people and other groups, Steez said.
“My hope is when a white woman buys a Black Lives Matter wine stopper and potentially in the middle of the COVID pandemic has a dinner party and she sets it on a table — that a Trump-Pence supporter potentially wants to have a conversation and wants to debate,” Steez said.
Muller, a former teacher, would like to see her cookie-decorating kit serve as a vehicle to talk with children of any race about the movement and why it matters.
“I think you could make a little lesson around it,” Muller said. “I can’t believe anybody would say that would be unimportant.”