Race is something more than meets the eye.
Born to parents from the West Indian island of Nevis, Canadian artist Stacey Tyrell grew up calling herself black. But her family's heritage is also a mix of Irish, Scottish and English — identities others often overlooked because of her skin color.
Now, she has created a fantastic photo project, "Backra Bluid," that delves into the quagmire of racial identity through a series of portraits in which Tyrell poses as white women — ostensibly representative of her ancestors — essentially performing "white face" to dismantle rigid conceptions of both "whiteness" and "blackness."
"As a black child attending a predominantly white school there were often occasions where I would sit and listen to my classmates proudly lay claim to their Scottish, Irish and English heritage while I would silently acknowledge my own," Tyrell wrote on her website.
"In many parts of my family on both sides you will find many men from Scotland, England and Ireland. As an adult on the odd occasion when I do mention this part of my heritage I am often met with uncomfortable looks from whites and knowing nods from blacks. I feel that this is due to the fact that with the very act of mentioning such ties I am inadvertently reminding them of the brutal system of colonial African slavery and its legacy that has brought about such connections."
The portraits, Tyrell continued, "are an attempt to interpret and explore these relatives from the past and present that I know are out there."
Thinking of the world in terms of simple black and white, Tyrell told Mic via email, "leaves little room for the reality that the majority of people in post-colonial societies are generally hybrids of its past and current inhabitants."
Indeed, our skin color actually says very little about who we are.
Backra Bluid: "The term 'Backra,'" Tyrell explained in her statement, "is an archaic Caribbean slang of West African origin meaning white master or white person and 'Bluid' is the Scotch word for the blood of men and animals as well as kin."
The binary of "black or white" frames much of our general understanding of race, especially in America. The issue Tyrell addresses is not just that black and white oversimplifies someone's identity but also that these categories, when you think about it, make no sense: They ignore complicating elements of individual's racial, ethnic and cultural histories.
Tyrell's project flips the racial binary on its head. "By merely changing my skin color and making subtle tweaks to my face I want to show how easily on a daily basis we all tend to go no further than skin color when we encounter other people," she said.
Despite their superficiality, rigid skin color categories create classes of privilege reliant upon old, dehumanizing theories about racial differences. "I hope that through this project I can help show that even though there may be slight physical differences, racially all of us are more interconnected than we think."
Tyrell said racial identity is "a polarizing subject for many people," but "in order for there to be some progress with the way that race is spoken about a lot of old and ingrained systems of classification need to become more plastic and allow for a new inclusive paradigm that addresses the fear, reluctance and weariness that tends to be attached to this topic. With the images that I create I want to show that all of us are more intertwined than we realize and that there is more to the physical appearance of a person than meets the eye."