What with my becoming involved in the anti-racist and other social justice communities, and my ongoing work to call out privilege and prejudice within myself, I discovered I was tired of drawing white people.
Now, I’m white. And in art, as with writing, the repeated maxim is often “make what you know”. That’s one of the reasons I draw mainly women; I’m familiar with the way female bodies work on a deeper level from having inhabited one. (Also, they’re pretty. Though whether that opinion is a manifestation of internalized sexism is something I’m still working on.) And white women, well, again, I’m white. Plus I’ve recently realized going through my copious collection of naked-woman-photo books, almost all of them are white, especially the “photo reference for artists” type. Right there is a huge example of racism I never would have noticed a year ago.
Yeah, I was tired of drawing white people. And even more, I was newly aware of how problematic it was to make an unconscious assumption – not decision – to make the subject of my art white.
So this woman, I decided, would be black. A mild artistic challenge, since in black and white differences in skin color are not as apparent as they would be in color. But just approaching it with the mindset that she was black set off unexpected turmoil within me. Was I over-emphasizing her facial features? Was I sending a message by portraying a nude black woman that I wouldn’t send by portraying a nude white one? Did I even have the right to portray someone whose ancestors were enslaved, raped, and killed by my ancestors? By portraying someone constructed by society as Other, was I making this single person into a token, with every physical feature, gesture, and curve of limb somehow a commentary on her race as a whole?
Of course my first reaction was to explain it away, that I was just worried about what “people” would think, because “people” were unthinkingly racist, not me, oh no. But the sheer strength and volume of my internal reaction belied that explanation. I didn’t have these sorts of internal dialogues when drawing “Get it Out of Me“, despite my subject in that piece being significantly larger than I. The truth is I was being racist, and what’s more I was more concerned with the potential of being considered racist than with the art itself.
Our society is racist. We live and breathe racism every damned day, it’s embedded in our media and advertising and fashion and literature from the day we’re born. And as we are intertwined with our society, we cannot separate ourselves from the worst in it. The best I can think of to do is try to become aware of it, and to talk about the process. The silence around racism (unless it’s to decry it in other people or to declare America “post-racial“) is just as damaging as the racism itself, since it prevents us from moving forward.
The tagline of this blog is The intersection of art and activism. It isn’t just about creating pretty pictures to call out problems in the world outside. It’s also about the very difficult conversations the work creates within yourself, acknowledging that you’re just as broken as the society that made you, and trying to be better.
In conclusion, I should say that I am not posting this to collect anti-racist points, or to solicit validation from POC. I have done my best to talk about this in an honest and anti-racist manner, but I’m equally aware that I have probably fucked up in quite a few ways. I welcome commentary but do not expect teaching. The art in question I will post separately, as it ended up really being about something else entirely. (I’ve also decided it’s not, in fact, quite done yet.)
Edited to add: It’s done now, and posted here.