When I first saw Nate Hill's latest photography project, Trophy Scarves, on his website (WARNING: NSFW), I immediately focused on its shock value. My reaction to seeing the sexualized naked woman dangling around his neck was visceral. While the racial implications of the project did seem intriguing — "There are people who see certain races as status symbols, and someone had to comment on that," said Hill in a recent VICE article — I wondered if curating a project on racism justified using women like pieces of meat.
Take a look at the pictures for yourself below, or on his Instagram.
[WARNING: Images below are NSFW].
Other people responded just as viscerally as I did.
But what made me react this way?
Am I against the use of shock value?
Not at all. I once was an intern at VICE, where shock is the trick of the trade, and where I put together a highly ironic how-to guide for men on how not to get their penises cut off: "How to Protect Your Package From Lorena Bobbitts" (in case you couldn't already tell, NSFW).
Was my article gross and disgusting? Yes. It was shock value through and through.
But in doing in-depth research and reporting (yes, actual reporting) on penis-cutting incidents to write the piece, I made it a commentary on the fine line between giving women rape prevention tips and victim-blaming. For me, the issue with projects like Trophy Scarves isn't so much whether a piece of art, an article, or a performance relies on shock value. The real question is, does the shock value come with nuance?
I didn't come to Trophy Scarves looking to be shocked, but its shock value was initially too off-putting for me.
But the piece soon made me come to a very uncomfortable realization: I reacted differently to the sexualization of white women versus the sexualization of women of color.
Now, I'm a woman who learned about Martin Luther King in the second grade. I worshipped Harriet Tubman in third. I devoured stories about the Underground Railroad, and to this day, Toni Morrison is my favorite fiction author of all times. I have several black friends, though I know full well from articles and more articles that "having black friends" doesn't stop you from being racist. Colorlines and Racialicious are my jam. I'll reread books from my college comparative ethnic studies class any day.
And still, I was shocked by Miley Cyrus's tongue-wagging and her butt-twerking against Robin Thicke, but when she simulated analingus on the black back-up dancer and then spanked her, or used black women as props in that performance (just like in her "We Can't Stop" video), I had no visceral reaction, just bemusement. Only after some of my black friends broke it down for me and explained why it was degrading to black women did I even start to understand what was going on.
When I've seen women (typically black women) in rap videos, I often roll my eyes, and laugh a bit, but I'm not usually shocked. Watching "Tip Drill" when it came out years ago, I thought Whoa a few times, but I didn't disdain Nelly for it. "Let them do their thing," I thought. [WARNING: Video is NSFW]
Still, despite reading that the women in Trophy Scarves had willingly draped themselves around Nate Hill's neck, had even enthusiastically volunteered to do so, my reaction was immediately negative. I denounced it the moment I saw it.
Because guess what? I'm not immune to racial prejudices. And neither are you.
You can say, "I don't see color" or "I'm blind to race" all you want. Here's a fact: No one is color-blind. By continuing to insist we are color-blind, we shut ourselves off from examining the subtle prejudices we have that might already be second nature to us. Many studies support this claim.
My last name may be García-Vargas, my birthplace may be Colombia, and my mother language may be Spanish, but my skin and features are white. And it took me seeing a woman who looked like me being objectified to really understand — in the most visceral, shocking way possible — just what the shock of Nate Hill's project was intended to do.
He's not only making a statement about using white women as status symbols. He's making statement about about the internalized responses we have toward white women, and toward men of color like him.
Next time you see a performance, read an article, or see a picture that really draws a reaction out from you, remember — maybe your shock doesn't say something about the artist. Maybe it says something about you.