By Kathleen McHugh
“Who am I?” and “where do I belong?” are questions we all ask. Some of us have to think of our skin color whenever we try to answer that question, because how we perceive ourselves is always held up against how others perceive us.
The Realization of Whiteness
The first time I had a sense of self-perception was in high school when an African American friend invited me to spend the weekend at her home. Our school was mainly white with a small number of students representing various races and ethnic groups. She lived on a military base. When I got on base, I noticed an immediate reversal of skin color. Rarely did I see a white person. Her father was a military officer. In both the officers housing and enlisted areas of the base I was surrounded by shades of brown and black.
That was the first time I ever had the self-conscious thought “I’m white” inside my mind for a protracted period of time. It was a strange feeling. When we went to school the next week, I looked at her differently and wondered what it would be like to live inside brown skin that is always surrounded by white skin.
Recently I recalled that high school experience when I saw an African American art student paint a small brown oval surrounded by a sea of peach colored paint. She was completely engrossed in what she was doing. She transitioned from using a brush to paint a shape on the paper to using her hands to mix layers and layers of skin tones into a tertiary gray, which she then transferred to her hands and forearms.
Her experiment became the inspiration for the collaborative art project I did with Mr. Stowell’s 4th- and 5th-grade class at Northgate Elementary. I wondered how they would respond to the concept of creating self-portraits expressing their inner lives installed over a field of skin tones.
This video captures vignettes of youth considering identity and color as they situate individual images in art constructed environments:
About the Author: Kathleen McHugh is a Seattle-based artist. She has been actively exhibiting and teaching visual art since receiving her BFA from the Cornish Institute of the Arts in 1982. Themes of relation and identity are central to her work.