Addressing "Racial Ambiguity" in my Work

A few months back, someone e-mailed me to ask why I drew racially ambiguous women. In my head, they are mostly black, but I realize other people aren’t seeing them the same way I do. I actually met someone who went through each of my pieces trying to identify the race of each one (which I found really irritating and unnecessary). But it’s made me think, and that’s always a good thing. So here are my thoughts:

Growing up, I almost exclusively drew white girls. It’s such a weird thing, that a ten-year old girl would write and illustrate stories about white girls only; that in my childhood, I didn’t see myself as worthy enough to be the center of my own stories. I drew my first black character in the sixth grade and gave her light skin, light hair and light eyes. In high school, I thought I was making a huge stride by drawing “black” people. I would draw the same generic face and decide afterwards what shade of brown I wanted to colour them. By university, I realized I had to change more than the skin tone to change someone’s race—it wasn’t enough to draw a white girl and simply colour her in brown. This is why I write in my artist bio that I’m “learning and unlearning” what is beautiful to me. With each new drawing, I try to challenge myself to draw diverse features, explore different types of beauty and celebrate brown. If some of my older work appears “racially ambiguous”, I understand. But I’m pretty surprised if people have those comments to make about my newer work, which brings me to my second thought…

We need to stop stereotyping what black people ought to look like. I can’t think of a more diverse group of people. Yet, if the nose isn’t a certain shape or size, the hair isn’t a certain texture or length, or the skin isn’t a certain shade, suddenly the image is not of a black girl. The woman who took it upon herself to racially classify each of my drawings didn’t see the image below as black, though it was referenced from a photo of a black girl taken by Mambu Bayoh. The only one that was “black” enough for her was the drawing based from a dark skinned model with short hair and a flat nose. That’s really not my problem. So as much as I’m learning and unlearning, others need to make the effort as well.

I think I’ve come a really long way, though I know I still have more unlearning to do. It’s a conscious effort to see beauty in things you were taught were ugly, to celebrate a part of yourself that has been shamed and to recognize that there is diversity among every group of people. I’m making the effort; I invite you to make it with me.