I came across the Humanae project recently (probably on reddit or something similar). Basically, photos of volunteers are used to extract a basic skin tone and display it as the background along with its Pantone code (which is practically an industry standard when it comes to color reproduction). Below are some example photos, but the collection includes women and men, young and old.
Here is an excerpt from their web site:
Humanæ it’s a pursuit for highlighting our subtle-continuous of our tones that make more equality than difference… our true colors, rather than the untrue Red and Yellow, Black and White. It is a kind of game for subverting our codes. The audience is free to read into it. The ultimate goal is to provoke and bring currently using internet as a discussion platform on ethnic identity, creating images that lead us to match us independent from factors such as nationality, origin, economic status, age or aesthetic standards. [I’m not quite sure how to read that last sentence, but you get the gist, right?]
As I browsed through the front-page gallery, I was overwhelmed by what I assumed was “whiteness.” I won’t deny the scarcity of dark-skinned individuals exhibited in this project.Where were all the dark people? However, as I looked closer, the ambiguity of both whiteness and coloredness really struck me. Where, in fact, were all the blonde, blue-eyed Northern Europeans? While I was on my crusade to undermine the project’s diversity, I totally missed a bunch of colored people whom I had lumped together with whites. That second inspection revealed the variety and subtlety of faces, hair, and complexions that led me to a few big questions: What really constitutes whiteness? How elastic are those boundaries of white and “other” and how easily do they get negotiated and redefined? How exactly does colorism get conceptualized at the intersections of skin tone, facial features, hair, age, and gender… and when are you white enough?
Of the women in Margaret Hunter’s study on colorism, “[n]early all of the dark-skinned women interviewed wanted to be lighter at some time in their lives in order to accrue some of the privileges of light skin. In contrast… none of the light-skinned women interviewed ever reported wanting to be dark.”1 In the context of looking at the tangle of browns, pinks, grays, and coppers in the Humanae gallery, I wonder who exactly is considered dark-skinned and who is light-skinned. Is it as simple as a paper bag test?
I think it’s debatable how attuned we actually are when it comes to discriminating between one body and the next, given the spectrum and complexity of skin color. Or perhaps subconsciously we are sensitive enough to discern minute color differences and as a result shape our interactions, attitudes, and beliefs accordingly. AND maybe we turn off these signals when we don’t need them. Say, when a friend comes back with a slight tan after a vacation. Or when all your coworkers have a homogeneous appearance. But then those signals get turned back on when you start thinking that maybe that one actress kind of looks off. The girl struggling with her homework sort of looks like she could be part Latina or something. That women at the front of the line is no pale-skinned redhead, but she is still so freckly.
On a final note, I don’t know how useful it is to decontextualize bodies like the Humanea project asks us to, especially within a discussion of race and beauty. Some might construe this project as a way of downplaying the existence of color and race hierarchies under the guise of buzzwords like “diversity” or “equality.” However, I would like to think of this project as another resource in our toolbox for thinking about what it means to be white or “other,” beautiful or not.
And by the way, matching up Pantone colors is SUPER difficult. I found three matches.
1 Hunter, Margaret, “The Persistent Problem of Colorism: Skin Tone, Status, and Inequality,” Sociology Compass 1, no. 1 (2007): 246.