At first glance, I appear white. I could pass so to speak and being a person of mixed race, I identify with not one but all of the components of my racial makeup. However growing up in an all-white town, there was a tendency to be pigeonholed into one category. And in my case since I was not completely white, I was black. I knew I was different in comparison with the kids I grew up withcoarser hair, larger lips, and a year-round tanand if I myself didn't already know that, my peers would actually let me know. Society wasn't much different. To see blond haired, blue-eyed beauties grace the pages of magazines initiated my early insecurities. They were constant reminders that I was different, even odd-looking. These lingering aftereffects remain to have a profound impact on the way that I view myself today. It triggers the question in my mind whether or not I measure up in society's eyes. That's something I'm still working on.
My art is a way to cope with an issue that remains taboo to the average American. There were times that I would try to explain to friends how I felt when I had to check only one on standardized tests or what it was like to be called a racial slur. They never understood why I retaliated or became so sensitive. While in college, I had to choose a theme for my senior project in studio art, so I decided to pick something that I was familiar withracial classification. Any creative block that I had before ceased and with every picture I completed, a weight was lifted. I was able to share my experiences with people in a way that they could understand. My friends may not have been able to comprehend what it was like to be called a half-breed, but they definitely could recognize the pain on my face depicted in my pictures. Similarly, one may not know what it's like to have your facial features picked apart as being more black than white, but everyone, especially women, is able to relate to the pain of being scrutinized solely because of their physical attributes.
Women, more often than not, are judged on their physical appearance. They are often identified as the cute one or the pretty one; they are then labeled which not only characterizes them but becomes their identity in the minds of others. These labels may appear innocent in nature but can carry on a life of their own and even cloud a woman's perception of herself. As a result, she may only see herself through the eyes of others. As women, these exaggerated descriptions or labels that we are given, may blind us making it more difficult to overcome.
American women have been fed this idea that they are only as good as they look. They are judged solely based on appearance rather than their accomplishments or more importantly, the person that they truly are. There is so much emphasis placed on our culture's perception of beauty today. Many Americans believe that they know a person's life story just by looking at them. Women are led to believe that they must be beautiful to succeed in life and yet they are also told to work, find love, raise a family, and do it all with a smile. This creates both a confusing and difficult dichotomy for the American woman almost as if she must strive to become this superwoman. However, it correlates with W. E. B. DuBois' double consciousness theme that was used to describe how blacks adapted into American society. The idea of double consciousness is almost that of a double identity, that blacks wanted to remain attached to their roots, retaining cultural aspects of their forefathers and yet adopting &$147white cultural traits so that they could more readily assimilate into white America. It is having your foot in two different worlds but not completely belonging in either one.
I felt the best way to tackle the questions that had forever been implanted within me was to face them dead onto look at myself as the average white American would from the perspective of someone who grew up in an all-white town. Growing up in this town, some people believed that I was adopted because I didn't quite look like my white mother. They knew when they saw my father. Suddenly, I was given excuses as to why I could outperform the other kids in sports. I would be asked questions if my dad was in a gang or could speak ebonics. With blacks, I didn't experience the same type of animosity that I did from whites. Blacks were sometimes unaware of my racial heritage. While with others who were aware, it was more of a curious nature, such as why my hair wasn't kinky. In other ways, some blacks believed that life would be easier for me, unknowing that I had to deal with two racial divides, in between both, not belonging fully to either.
Some may argue that my depiction of how others see me is too harsh, even wrong, but through my own personal experiences I would say that it is only an exaggeration of what people believe through their upbringings and American culture but has been suppressed and internalized because it has been deemed politically incorrect by society. Regardless of whether or not people vocalize their beliefs about certain races, the stereotypes remain and ignorance among the races is still as prevalent as ever. Rather than discuss these issues of race, people choose to sweep the topic under the rug because it really is such an uncomfortable issue to tackle. Race becomes an uncomfortable issue when fear takes hold. People develop an I don't care mentality for fear of acknowledging their own insecurities. That type of fear is colorblind which prevents us from communicating with each other solely as humans. Communication is not strictly verbal. Humans are inherently visual learners and artwork can serve as a bridge between the races. Art is not as confrontational as the issue of race, but it can cause controversy. As an artist, I want people to talk, have them open their eyes and talk about something that they normally would not. I want them to look at this issue in a different way. Regardless, I want them to see what I feel.
One of the ways that I am able to openly discuss my own issues with race is through humor in my art. I like to lighten the issue since humor is a part of my personality. I am proud of my biracial identity, but my place in society does bring out my insecurities, and more so because I am a woman. But my art transcends those insecurities, allowing me to speak without any fear. At first glance, my drawings are far from humorous; they are a somewhat sardonic view of my experience as a multiracial female in a predominantly white, male dominated society. On more than one occasion, self-effacing words are used to describe myself but that is the biting sarcasm that I have used to best cope with the pain in my life. Do I view myself this way? Certainly not, but it is the best way for me to both divulge my struggles and to handle the vulnerability that comes with sharing my innermost pain.
Although there were several sources for this pain, I noticed more often that people tend to make their judgments based solely on physical appearances. That was the issue that I tackled in one of my first portraits entitled Scrutiny. In the picture, two unrecognizable figures in lab coats and rubber gloves are poking at an unclothed woman wrapped in a sheet. This woman, though not a self-portrait, serves as a representation of how I felt every time someone felt the need to dissect and label me. There is this sense of vulnerability and a shedding of one's self when we are put at the mercy of one's belittling.
When I first decided to openly discuss stereotypes, I researched the history of racism specifically in the United States and applied it to my personal experiences. Surprisingly, similarities abounded and many of the same issues prevail today. It was through my research that I came across historical posters about slavery, physiognomy and phrenology, and the depiction of black women in American culture. Again and again, I came across the popular belief that women of African descent in America during the 18th and 19th centuries were placed in one of two different categories: the mammy, or the sexual being, also referred to as the jezebel.
The mammy is what is often deemed the Aunt Jemima stereotype. Often the house slave, the mammy is painted as the overweight, unattractive, and asexual female who caters to her authorities. The jezebel, on the other hand, is quite the opposite; she is the sexual being, the temptress, and serves only to please the visceral pleasures of her masters. I saw a piece of myself in both of these stereotypes and it was something that was not limited to me being biracial but the fact that I was a woman. As a woman, I sometimes feel the need to be the everywoman, keeping up with housework and chores, being mindful of others at all times, and yet maintaining this level of attractiveness to which women today are bound to by society.
Although I believe that these thoughts are somewhat archaic, they are still fed to women everyday as some sort of bar that must be reached in order to attain a more perfect you. It seemed like second nature to use this theme in my worksspecifically, this dichotomy that women face everyday. For me, it was common sense to address the stigma of race at the same time. When I first started doing the portraits entitled Mammy and Jezebel, I used myself as the model in order to physically place myself in the roles that I felt I was so familiar with already. In each of the portraits, I am depicted alone, a reminder of the isolation that I have felt throughout the years.
Similarly, the backdrop of the pictures is reminiscent of a studio portrait photograph. It comes from the idea that the focus is on you. You are the center of the attention and are being singled out even if you do not want to be. In Mammy, I am shown in my role, holding a spatula and a serving tray, remaining expressionless. In Jezebel, I stand alone in a slip, wringing my hands uncomfortably, guarding myself, and yet my face remains expressionless. In both portraits, I am conveying the age-old belief that we are supposed to fulfill our roles without asking questions or complaining. I am rigid and stoic, an innate quality that I believe women possess.
However, I was not satisfied with just these two portraits and felt that I needed at least one more to complete what was to become the faces of my inner self. As mentioned, I tend to approach situations with humor in an attempt to please others, lighten the mood, or cover up my own pain. I saw a direct correlation between my present-day role and that of a person in blackface. I tend to compromise myself just so that I can make people laugh, even though I walk away from the situation feeling that I have sacrificed a piece of myself.
I drew myself alone, emotionless, standing in the spotlight as an almost androgynous creature waiting to be humiliated with no say, no power. I appear tired and worn thin whether it be through humiliation or the loss of one's true selfthat is up to the viewer to decide. The Clown, as part of this triptych portrait series, sums up the exaggerated view of myself through other people's eyes. These three portraits though not entirely similar represent the idea of trying on different roles, different hats, except unlike playing dress-up, these roles have a visage of the past, one which we will eventually put far behind us. If my work can serve as a catalyst for change or even evoking new ideas, I am for it. Because in my mind, it would not hurt to change people's views as how we embrace other's differences. Though I may be considered an advocate for others, nevertheless, I am still an artist.
Misty Ericson holds a BA in English & Comparative Literature from San Jose State University, California, and an MA History of Art from University of Leeds, UK. In addition to her work on HerCircleEzine.com, which she founded in 2005, Misty enjoys painting in her studio and restoring her home in the English countryside.