Married couple Danielle and Kevin McCoy are used to being treated differently based on the color of their skin — not only because they are each African-American, but because her skin tone is lighter than his.
“Dani being fairer-skinned, wavier-textured hair,” Kevin McCoy said, “and me darker, more coarse, as we say nappier hair — I was not the ‘safe’ black person.”
He said people they encounter, both “in the black community and outside of the black community,” appear comfortable with Danielle but view him as “aggresive.”
This led them to create the work in “Color-ism,” an exhibition that opens at the Gallery at the Kranzberg Arts Center on Friday and remains on view through Sept. 3. Put simply, colorism is the preference for lighter-colored skin, even within communities of color.
“I think it’s important for us as a light-skinned, fair-skinned person and a dark-skinned person to address this,” Danielle McCoy said.
The McCoys make art and graphic design under the name WORK-PLAY. After the killing of Michael Brown and the ensuing Ferguson uprising, they took a turn from “feel-good art,” Danielle said, to work that actively confronts social issues.
The roots of colorism in the United States go back at least as far as the preferential treatment white slaveholders sometimes gave to their mixed-race offspring. But it’s found around the globe — like in East and South Asia, and Latin America — and practiced by white folks and by people of color, according to Kimberly Norwood, a professor at Washington University.
“The statistics still show that the lighter your skin, the likelier you are to go to college, to graduate from college, to get a good job, to get married, be healthier,” said Norwood, author of “Color Matters: Skin Tone Bias and the Myth of a Postracial America.”
Norwood said There have long been waves of resistance to colorism among African-Americans, from the “Black is Beautiful” movement to more-recent protests against magazines using Photoshop to lighten the appearance of black models’ skin tone, said Norwood, who was a lead organizer of a conference on colorism at Washington University in 2015.
But it is pervasive. It even seeped into her home, Norwood said. Years ago, her then-5-year-old daughter remarked that she wished she had “the cool skin.” When her mother asked her what she meant, she said lighter skin.
“That really shook me because I live a life of pride in my African heritage. [I wondered] where did this come from,” she recalled, “how was this happening right under my nose?”
When they thought about creating art inspired by their personal experiences with colorism, the McCoys also looked at how it shows up in popular culture. One of the pieces in the show depicts some of the words found in the definition of the word black found on Dictionary.com: soiled, hostile, threatening.
Another features a quote from Kanye West’s song “Everything I Am” screen-printed onto a black background: “Be light as Albi or black as Chauncey/Remember him from Blackstreet/He was as black as the street was.”
“Why that narrative,” Kevin McCoy asked, “why that comparison? It’s the reason we wanted to focus on it. Why does that description need to be there, and where does it come from?”
A centerpiece of the show is an installation based on the infamous “brown paper bag test,” a method some African-American social clubs used in the 20th century to decide if someone was light enough to be a member. It includes a collection of brown lunch bags, with text printed onto them in various shades of brown: “Am I accepted now?”
“It’s our way to kind of critique that whole system of who has access, who has privilege and who doesn’t,” he said.
That piece caught the attention of Adrienne Davis, a law professor and vice-provost at Washington University, where Kevin McCoy is pursuing an MFA. Davis, a noted collector of African and African-American art, remembers being “rattled” as a teenager when paging through her mother and aunt’s yearbooks from Howard University dating to the late 1950s and early 1960s.
“I would look at a page and for one of the sororities it looked like they were almost white women with blonde hair,” she said. “And then I’d look at another sorority’s page and it would be women that probably looked like me. I’d look at another sorority and they were women that were all darker-skinned. You could see that the women had come together socially around how they looked.”
Davis said the use of actual, brown paper bags in the McCoys’ show is “really smart” and emblematic of a movement among local African-American artists to engage with racial issues in creative ways.
“This is what I love seeing in the St. Louis artists right now. They’re really taking up these historic issues of race and they’re putting it in a contemporary context and they’re just challenging us. They’re kind of blowing everything up.”
Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @JeremyDGoodwin
Kimberly Norwood is on the friends of St. Louis Public Radio board.