Color Studies (2004) brings together three works that question the construction of race as it relates to identity, skin color, perception, categories, and hierarchies in U.S. American culture. Gallery 111, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY.
Read more about the exhibition:
- Events that inspired these works
- The historical roots of the racial construct
- Related artists and their work
- Concluding thoughts and directions for future work
As a person of both Latino and Anglo heritage, defining my race has always been problematic. My ancestry is the result of immigration, both documented and undocumented, across ocean and land, the result of changing political and economic eras, and the pursuit of the “American Dream.” My father’s ancestors, following the name Gibbs, immigrated to the U.S. in the mid-1800s through an English man married to an Irish woman. My mother’s family, tracing the name De La PeÃ±a, emigrated from Mexico in the early 1900s. I am a third-generation Mexican American and a sixth-generation Irish/English American.
The first time I remember being asked to identify myself according to race, I was sitting in the library of San Pasqual High School in Escondido, California. I don’t remember which standardized test it was, but all of us were seated at arms-length to prevent students from cheating, anxiously waiting in fear to break the seal on our test booklets. The first section of the test was intended to be simple, but for me, it was the hardest. After being instructed to open the booklet, I slowly began filling in the bubbles on the green Scantron paper using my freshly sharpened #2 pencil. Name, Date of Birth, Social Security Number, Parents’ Level of Education . . . and then I paused. The next area was titled “Race.” The options were A) White (non-Hispanic), B) Hispanic, C) Asian, D) African American, and E) Native American. I knew that my father was classified as White (I use capitalized terms to reference the capitalization of terms on the original form) and my mother classified as Hispanic, but if I were half-White and half-Hispanic, which category should I choose? I was in a familiar test-taking dilemma. I did not know the answer to this question. I would have just marked answer “C,” as a typical test-taking guess, but I was fairly certain I wasn’t Asian. I decided to look for clues in order to solve the problem, and sure enough, I found one. It was the comment “non-Hispanic” in parenthesis next to answer “A,” White, the only clause in parenthesis on the list. Apparently the White category was harder to qualify for than any other category. Because there was no multiracial option, and I didn’t qualify to be White, I filled in the bubble for answer “B,” Hispanic. Throughout my education, I continued to mark “Hispanic” on similar forms, internalizing the idea that “White” was an elite category for pure Whites only.
Another incident that informed my perspective on race occurred in the months following September 11, 2001. On October 4, I was shooting video test footage in upstate New York. The skies were partly cloudy, the air was cold, but it was a beautiful autumn day for a drive. I drove round-trip from Troy to Albany on I-787, video taping from the window of my car. Four months later, my father called me saying that he had just received a telephone call from the FBI. An agent was inquiring about a report that a man of Middle Eastern appearance was seen photographing bridges in the Albany area using a car with license plates registered in his name. Recalling that I wear a short beard now and then, my father laughed and explained to the agent that I was an art student who made videos. After collecting more information about me, the agent ended the call. My father told me the agent sounded annoyed, as if he were following up on an endless number of false tips. On that brisk October day, an anonymous citizen didn’t call the FBI to report a tourist or an artist. The profiling patriot’s report matched a stereotype. The tipster assumed two things: that I am Middle Eastern, and that because I am Middle Eastern I am a terrorist. Being reported to the FBI as a terrorist would be terrifying if I were actually from a Middle Eastern country, but the implications of this incident were more complex because I am not.
What is the relationship of culture to race? Who is responsible for creating this system? Why did they use these particular categories and what do the labels mean? How has U.S. government power shaped race as it is today? How has the news media, entertainment, and commercial advertising affected race? These questions are some of the fundamental issues I was exploring while making the works that are the topic of this paper. Specifically, the various modes of identification — bound by an amalgam of myths, ideologies, histories and social structures — sparked questions for me about the racial construct and a history of which I had been taught virtually nothing.
With the economic demand for sugar, spices, and exotic artifacts growing in fifteenth century Europe, fortune finders set out in search of new trade routes. It was this pursuit of capital that lay the economic girders for the social context from which race was constructed. G. Reginald Daniel, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, describes the drive to accumulate wealth as the primary social force that led the oppression of Africans and Native Americans in the colonial context:
By the fifteenth century, the drive to accumulate more and more wealth had reached the point where Western culture was coming to view the entire world, including human beings, as objects to be used to create that wealth, or to be disposed of if they stood in the way of acquiring it. This view was behind the conquest of the Americas, the extermination of the Native Americans, the African slave trade, and the rise of plantation slavery in the American South. (Daniel 2002: 29)
The “explorers” (or should I call them pirates?) were not concerned with the lives and cultures of the indigenous inhabitants they “discovered” in the Americas. Nor were they concerned with the lives and cultures of the African peoples they transported and sold in the slave trade. They were so consumed by how much profit they could make from an expedition that they effectively rationalized the human sacrifice of Africans and Native Americans to further their monetary goals. Christopher Columbus, often inaccurately touted as the first sailor to reach the Americas, writes in his personal logs after meeting the Arawak Indians of the Bahama Islands:
They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance . . . They would make fine servants . . . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want. (Columbus as quoted by Zinn 1999: 1)
Columbus took some of the Arawak people with him on the return voyage to Spain, where they were considered to be animals because of their apparent lack of “civilization.” The practice of parading “natives” in Europe propagated ideas of European superiority in the global context. In her book English Is Broken Here, Coco Fusco, cultural critic and performance artist, writes about human exhibition and the ideologies it supported:
The profound phenomenon of putting indigenous people on display began with Christopher Columbus’ first voyage and ramped to its peak in the nineteenth century. The original ethnographic exhibitions often presented people in a simulation of their “natural” habitat, rendered either as an indoor diorama, or as an outdoor recreation. Eyewitness accounts frequently note that the human beings on display were forced to dress in the European notion of their traditional “primitive” garb, and to perform repetitive, seemingly ritual tasks. At times, nonwhites were displayed together with flora and fauna from their regions, and artifacts, which were often fakes. They were also displayed as part of a continuum of “outsiders” that included “freaks,” or people exhibiting physical deformities. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many of them were presented so as to confirm social Darwinist ideas of the existence of a racial hierarchy. (Fusco 1995: 47)
The representation of nonwhite people in the colonial context shaped the formation of race in a ranked hierarchy, naming Europeans as the highest form. Europeans were the power holders in the New World. Their dominance, albeit achieved through violent force, seemed to prove their “natural” position as superior to other people groups. Trinh T. Minh-ha, filmmaker and feminist theorist, in her book Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism, describes the birth of Eurocentism:
One can date it back to the immemorial days when a group of mighty men attributed to itself a central, dominating position vis-Ã¡-vis other groups; overvalued its particularities and achievements; adopted a projective attitude toward those it classified among the out-groups; and wrapped itself up in its own thinking, interpreting the out-group through the in-group mode of reasoning while claiming to speak the minds of both the in-group and the out-group. (Trinh 1989: 1)
Eurocentric ideology posited Europeans as the epitome of civilization, the highest form of culture and intelligence when compared to nonwhite people groups. Joe L. Kincheloe and Shirley R. Steinberg, co-editors of White Reign: Deploying Whiteness in America, link the separation of whiteness from nonwhiteness to post-Enlightenment rationality and science:
In the emerging colonial contexts in which Whites increasingly would find themselves in the decades and centuries following the Enlightenment, the encounter with nonwhiteness would be framed in rationalistic terms — whiteness representing orderliness, rationality, and self-control and nonwhiteness indicating chaos, irrationality, violence, and the breakdown of the self-regulation. Rationality emerged as the conceptual base around which civilization and savagery could be delineated (Alcoff 1995; Giroux 1992; Keating 1995). This rationalistic modernist whiteness is shaped and confirmed by its close association with science. As a scientific construct, whiteness privileges mind over body; intellectual over experiential ways of knowing; and mental abstractions over passion, bodily sensations, and tactile understanding. (Kincheloe and Steinberg 1998: 5)
Science was used to rationalize the cultural differences between whites and everyone else.
After three centuries of white control and nonwhite oppression in North America, it was assumed that blacks and indigenous Americans were naturally or biologically incapable of being civilized. At the same time, the power of the scientific image began representing the racial hierarchy as an inevitable fact of nature. Ignoring the sociohistorical context that prevented nonwhite access to education, technology, or freedom for those still enslaved, eighteenth century scientists blamed their “uncivilized” state on the biology of their races. However, definitions of the racial construct by the scientific community were inextricably linked to cultural perception. In Mismeasure of Man, Steven Jay Gould discusses the relationships between science and culture in developing racial hierarchies through the history of intelligence testing. One of the earliest methods was phrenology, later called craniometry, a “science” that measured the volume of the skull to determine one’s intelligence. Scientists quickly set out to show, through the objectivity of science, which race was the most intelligent. The results of their experiments matched the existing social hierarchy, Whites on top, Indians next and Negroes at the bottom. However, in re-measuring the original skulls and recalculating the data, Gould finds extreme prejudice in the original studies. The measuring methods were inconsistent, calculations rounded to shape the data in their favor, and the data samples were biased. Despite these inconsistencies, these original studies were published as truth.
Working from this foundation, eighteenth and nineteenth century scientists continued ranking races to match social hierarchies using everything from brain weight to abilities and aesthetics. Measuring intelligence functioned to describe a person’s value, potential, and worth in society. Scientific results were represented through visualizations, charts, and drawings that were assumed to be objective truth, but could not escape their cultural context. The representations of a racial hierarchy validated white supremacy, certified the social and political structure of slavery, and rationalized genocide against indigenous Americans. Ideas like “the survival of the fittest,” derived from Charles Darwin’s book, Origin of Species, were used to rationalize the cultural context and social hierarchy as a result of nature. However, in Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin questions these hierarchies, “If the misery of our poor people be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.” (Darwin as quoted by Gould 1996: 5)
Michael Foucault attributes his initial inspiration for writing The Order of Things to a passage from a “certain Chinese encyclopedia” as quoted by Louis Borges, which says:
. . .animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emporer, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies. (Foucault 1970: xv)
This passage magnifies how taxonomic systems develop within constructs of particular cultural domains. In the same way, racial categories defined by scientists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have ranged from three to more than sixty different races. Published categories varied from one publication to the next; some works published in the same year held no races in common.
Racial constructions were institutionalized in the United States as early as the US Constitution (1788), validating a standard of white normality and superiority. The institutionalization of race at the legislative level can be seen in the population data of slavery days, Indian Removal Acts, Immigration Acts, voting rights, etc., but also through lesser known court cases where ideas such as the “one drop rule” were used to determine a person’s race. The “one drop rule” suggests that if a person has one drop of nonwhite heritage, they are nonwhite. While the US Constitution proudly declares, “all men are created equal,” it is evident from history that all men and women have not been treated or categorized equally.
The racial construct developed over several hundred years within a global context dominated by whites. Race rationalized the segregation and dehumanization of nonwhites, defining them as inferior and in need of extra scrutiny. Today, race is primarily understood to be a cultural construction rather than a biological fact. Ironically, it was science that constructed lasting definitions of race and it is science today that unravels them.
Daniel, G. R. 2002. More Than Black?: Multiracial Identity and the New Racial Order. Philadelphia, Temple University Press.
Foucault, M. 1970. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. London, Tavistock Publications.
Fusco, C. 1995. English Is Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas. New York City, New Press.
Gould, S. J. 1996. The Mismeasure of Man. New York, Norton.
Kincheloe, J. L. 1998. White Reign: Deploying Whiteness in America. New York, St. Martin’s Press.
Trinh, T. M.-H. 1989. Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism. Bloomington, Indiana University Press.
Zinn, H. 1999. A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present. New York, HarperCollins.
I view my work as part of a growing field of cultural production that addresses identity politics in light of changing contexts. Many artists have and continue to confront racial issues, i.e. reinterpreting historical representation, racial and cultural hybridity, US American identity, advertising, discrimination, and marginalization. Here, I will describe several projects that influence my process and inspire future directions for my work.
Two pieces in particular utilize flesh tone as a statement and medium. Byron Kim’s Synecdoche (1991), a series of flesh tone paintings, questions skin color as identification. The work’s use of varied skin colors avoids using racial labels and creates a beautifully poignant representation of multi-tonal diversity. The title is a figure of speech that refers to both the process of representing a group through one part and representing one part through a group. Gabrielle Varella’s Untitled Series (1999) overlays text on strips of flesh tone colored paint samples. The colors gradate from light to dark and texts read, “My skin isn’t dark enough for you to think I’ve ever worked hard in my life,” “My name isn’t Mexican enough for you to know what I am,” and “The color of my skin makes you think I can’t be lucky.” Varella’s paint samples also draw our attention to the subtle gradations but display them in a hierarchy, lighter at the top and darker at the bottom. The use of commercial paint samples and texts connects skin color to both marketability and discrimination. Both the visual aesthetic and smart use of metaphor in these pieces informed the conception of Self-Portrait.
Nancy Burson’s interactive computer console The Human Race Machine (2000) allows users to transform their face by mapping facial characteristics of different races onto their own image. Burson’s goal with the technology is to move toward focusing on human sameness as opposed to focusing on diversity. The piece was advertised using six faces derived from one person with the slogan “There is no gene for race.” The green crayon in Crayola Monologues is motivated by the same goal: “Y’know every time someone asks me that, I tell them the same thing. We’re all crayons, 99% wax and 1% pigment. Why do we have to focus on the 1%?” Miguel CalderÃ³n appropriates the structure and style of the typical evolutionary stages from ape to man in EvoluciÃ³n del Hombre [Evolution of Man] (1995). CalderÃ³n poses in each of the six stages with a weapon, evolving into his upright posture as an armed Chicano gangster. The piece questions evolutionary representation and exploits stereotypes of Chicano violence. The brown crayon in Crayola Monologues metaphorically critiques the hierarchy inherent in evolutionary representation that uses a European male as the most evolved state: “It’s complicated, people forget, the primaries created the system in order to keep themselves on top, maintaining primary privilege.” Both pieces raise issues that are also questioned in Crayola Monlogues.
Reinventing pop cultural symbols is a powerful technique for creating an engaging critique. Alex Rivera’s video PapapapÃ¡ (1995) parallels the history of the potato and his father, a modern couch potato. The video traces the history of the potato to reveal metaphoric racism, only the whitest potato was cultivated in Europe, dark potato chips today are discarded because they are not light enough to make the cut. Rivera uses satirical links to pop culture, i.e. Inca Kola, Mr. Potato Head, Star Wars, The Brady Bunch, and Spanish language television network UnivisiÃ³n, to explore the complex relationship between identity and shifting cultural contexts from American colonization to cyberspace. RubÃ©n Ortiz-Torres transforms pop cultural icons into art objects that comment on cultural hybridization. His Power Tools / Herramientas de Alto Poder (1999), a leaf blower machine modified in the guise of lowrider car culture with gold-plating, velvet, and metal-flake paintjob, questions social hierarchy, definitions of high and low art, and the complex relationship between identity and expression. The ways in which Rivera and Ortiz-Torres use pop culture create a fertile ground for discussing problematic representations of race today. My work also uses pop cultural symbols to engage in this discourse.
Satire is another effective form of social critique. Nao Bustamante offers absolution for 500 years of white guilt in her piece Indigurrito (1992), a performance in which she invites white men on stage to take a bite of the burrito strapped to her loins. Created during the quincentennial year of Columbus’ arrival to the Americas, the piece combines religious, sexual, and racial politics to critique the idea that artists of color could only receive funding for work based on 500 years of oppression. In 2001, Keith Obadike attempted to sell his blackness on E-bay. The auction was taken down by E-bay because of its “inappropriateness.” In the auction, Obadike suggested that this blackness could be used for creating black art, scholarly work about blacks, comfortably laughing at black jokes, etc. He also suggested that his blackness not be used when appearing in court, getting a job, making serious art, or making intellectual claims. Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled (2000) explores how racism and misrepresentation of blacks in US American film and television has historically defined and continues to define black identity. The film features a fictional variety show where black actors perform in blackface. In Two Undiscovered Amerindians (1992), Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-PeÃ±a were exhibited at museums around the world in a golden cage as recently discovered natives performing “traditional” tasks from sewing voodoo dolls to working on a laptop computer. The performance parodies the historical misrepresentation of indigenous people as objects on display. This historical reference combined with the symbolism and satire placed within the museum context question the museum’s role in defining norms. I strongly believe the cutting satire in these pieces successfully raises more questions than they can answer. These questions open promising new considerations for addressing authenticity, race as commerce, and alternate contexts.
Even the design of the traditional gallery space is problematic. Pushing White Walls / 360 (1998) is a performance by Obadike in which he pushes against a solid white wall for three minutes and sixty seconds. He describes the work as a resistance study. This symbolic action reflects a personal struggle against the institutionalization of whiteness. The white wall symbolizes white neutrality, referencing the white interior of almost all museums and galleries. Documentation of the action reveals a stark visual contrast, his dark body surrounded by white walls. Fred Wilson’s Guarded View (1991) displays four headless dark-skinned mannequins wearing the guard uniforms of prominent New York museums. If the mannequins were a white or pink color the uniform itself would be on display, but using dark skin draws attention to the people who wear the uniform. The piece surfaces the marginalization of both artists and guards of color in the museum context. During an artist’s talk at the Whitney in 1991, Wilson greeted the group, shared lunch, and then excused himself, at which point he changed into a guard’s uniform and stood beneath a sign with his name to begin the tour. Ready to begin, the group was unable to locate Wilson. Although he was one of the few people of color in the room, he became invisible when he donned the uniform. The headless figures have lost their identity in the same way Wilson lost his when in uniform. These pieces motivate and encourage further investigation into the various contexts within which race remains firmly institutionalized.
Photographs such as Margaret Bourke-White’s At the Time of the Louisiana Flood (1937) and Pedro Meyer’s Mexican Migrant Workers, Highway in California (1986/1990) contrast the irony of billboard advertising and the people for whom the dream is out of reach. Bourke-White’s photograph features a towering billboard behind a group of blacks waiting in line. The billboard says “World’s highest standard of living, there’s no way like the American way.” Meyer’s photograph shows Mexican immigrants working in a field below a billboard that reads “Ceasars, free luxury service from your motel.” These photographs succinctly distill the sad irony of the “American Dream” as US American propaganda. These photographs represent a social divide that is perpetuated by this deceptive American myth.
These and many other artists bring a collective focus on the seemingly hidden contradictions in US American ideologies about race, culture, and identity. Burson, Kim, and Varella explore the loaded meaning of skin color in the United States and how it simultaneously dissolves hard-lined racial categories. CalderÃ³n, Ortiz-Torres, and Rivera twist pop cultural symbols to reveal how identity is expressed and formed through commercial media, stereotypes, hybridization, and changing social contexts. Bustamante, Lee, and Obadike exploit the conflicted role of people of color in mass media and art. Fusco, Gomez-PeÃ±a, and Wilson question the museum’s role in representing race. Bourke-White and Meyer amplify the contradiction inherent in the “American Dream.” This artistic production is a crucial and necessary method of destabilizing the corporate and government myth-making monopolies.
Each of these pieces adds to my ongoing exploration of how representation, skin color, perception, categories, myths, norms, and hierarchies affect racial identity in the US. I view these works as the beginning of my investigation into the formation of identity. Identity is an extremely complex construct. What is the relationship of race to the formation of identity? This paper and the art work are intended to motivate dialogue about the historical construction of race, representations of race in the media, and the shifting formation of identity within social constructs. I do not presume to provide answers through these works, but offer them as a vehicle to explore the multifaceted concept of race as it reveals privilege, oppression, and the social forces that historically and presently define race.
Despite the oppressive nature of racial identification in history, many people today embrace racial self-identification as a powerful political statement. Race is not a system that can be easily, or necessarily needs to be, dismantled. It has become a strong source of group identity and political power, allowing displaced minority groups to form a unified voice under the banner of race.
Identity in the United States is always shifting and evolving under the weight of changing social contexts. In this paper, I have avoided using the term “American” to describe the citizens of the United States of America. The United States has monopolized on the term “American” whereas many people from the continental Americas rightfully consider themselves Americans. To discuss American identity is to bring North, Central, and South America into view. In order to narrow the field of discussion I have focused my work on identity within the United States. However, American identity in both the continental context and within the United States is affected by the military presence of the United States in Latin America, global economic issues, and the “American Dream.”
The critical cultural artistic production and research represented in this paper mirror my personal reflections on racial identity. Self-Portrait takes a personal approach, framing my identity within a complicated signifying system of color, culture, perception, and the limited resolution of racial categories. In Crayola Monologues, I am the metaphoric Yellow Orange crayon. The Race Cube epitomizes the contradiction I experienced choosing a racial category on standardized forms. These pieces also ask the viewer to reflect on their own position within the spectrum of human diversity defined by social constructs. These three works represent both a struggle to resist identification and an acceptance of the inherent complexities of identity formation that rely on identification in our current social context.
I created the pieces discussed in this thesis as potential teaching tools for discussing race. Since our identities are determined by our experiences, our choices, what we have been taught, and how we interpret our histories, I feel it is crucial to maintain a continuous dialogue about race in public schools, after-school programs, higher education, in the mass media and the art world. Ignoring the past does not make it go away. In fact, ignoring the past is a dangerous decision that leads to further ignorance of historical injustice and how that injustice has shaped US society. In addition, the lack of hard facts about specific topics like white privilege encourages me to explore more didactic modes of production.
In my future work, I would like to explore the use of visual representation in the historical formation of race as well as modern manifestations of racial representation. Using everyday objects that viewers relate to, such as free paint swatches, video, crayons, or toys, allows a broad audience to relate to the work. I will continue working with video and animation to explore the relationships between US advertising, Hollywood film, the “American Dream,” global history, and American identity.