Artist Nate Hill is always picking at cultural scabs. Whether it’s drug addiction, violence, alienation, sexism, or race, he’s poking his finger in wounds that solicit reactions by intentionally provoking his audience with deadpan directness. His latest project, “Lightskin or Darkskin,” adds colorism to the mix with a Hot or Not–style rating system that asks people to place images of black people on one side or another.
Coined by writer Alice Walker, colorism is not a modern phenomenon, but it has a particularly powerful effect on African Americans, who continue to endure the legacy of white supremacy. Walker defined the term in 1982 as the “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color” and she warned that “colorism, like colonialism, sexism, and racism, impedes us.”
Hill, who is biracial, feels its effects. “[The work is] a response to discrimination based on color, and an example of how not to think. It’s about blacks, because I’m half black. I like making wrong things sometimes, so I can be corrected, and we all win,” he told Hyperallergic.
Launched this morning, Hill explains that his goal is simple: “For me, I’m interested in finding that black person out there who scores a perfect 50/50 (50% lightskin / 50% darkskin). Where can we agree the line is, and what do they look like?”
The issue has been on his mind since he and his wife, who is also biracial, had a child. “I had a son 4 months ago, and we’re trying to figure out why he is so light. I’m embarrassed to admit yes, we talk about it from time to time like it’s a blessing. Still, the pediatrician told us, if we want to know how his color will turn out, look at his testicles.”
“Race mixing is increasing of course, so it’s becoming harder to even tell what people are anymore, and harder to accurately deliver some prejudice,” Hill says. “If we’re speaking about ‘black on black’ skin tone prejudice, but I can’t tell how much black you have in you, then how can I judge if you are ‘lightskinned’ or ‘darkskinned’?”
He intends for the project to continue indefinitely, or, I assume, until colorism ends.