Photographer Nate Hill says his new "Trophy Scarves" exhibit, featuring images of himself in a tuxedo with near-naked white women draped lifelessly around his shoulders like human accessories, is meant to make a statement.
"Well, there are people who see certain races as status symbols, and someone had to comment on that," Hill, who conveyed a similar message in his "White Power Milk," told Vice magazine.
There's no mystery about the artist's perspective. But, we wondered, what kind of person is comfortable posing as a living symbol of "status and power" in a project satirizing her own objectification and privilege? In this case, a person who's fully on board with the message and says it's women like her, as much as black men like Hill, who need to hear it.
We caught up with one such person, 31-year-old Janet Mercel of Brooklyn, N.Y. The part-time model and aspiring writer gave us her take on the project's message (and, yes, she actually had one).
The Root: Are you a professional model?
Janet Mercel: I modeled professionally for a long time 10 years ago. I left my full-time job six months ago, and I've been modeling part-time while I finish writing. I'm trying to finish a book, and I just found a publisher.
TR: How did you get this job?
JM: I found an ad on Craigslist.
TR: Do you remember what the ad said?
JM: I think it specified petite white girl, not verbatim but it certainly was something that you had to be somewhat small, and it did specify "white." But that doesn't necessarily mean anything [about a project having a racial message]. Then Nate and I started talking via email a little and then when I saw his name I recognized his work. He was totally forthcoming about his goal with the project. I'd heard of some of his previous projects so I thought it would be something wildly controversial.
But I trusted him completely when it came to his art, and I figured wherever he wanted to go, I was comfortable.
TR: And what's your understanding of his goal?
JM: He was trying to draw attention to a certain culture, this longstanding thing where successful black men think of skinny little white women as just another accessory as a bottle service or a car. Your identity doesn't really matter. One girl is the same as the next. You're just a white girl, and that's all that matters. So he was getting that across.
TR: Do you agree that that's common or that that's a fair characterization?
JM: Certainly not all of them, but I do think that's there, for sure. As I mentioned I was modeling and acting when I was younger, and there was definitely a certain kind of man who wanted to date, you and it didn't really matter who you were as long as under 100 pounds and blonde …
I did wonder, is this really a point that needs to be made? Do people still think about these things or care about these things? My husband was like, yeah, a lot of people are still racist.
TR: So do you consider it racist if someone's dating choices are informed by the kinds of priorities you mentioned?
JM: It's not necessarily racism. I see it more as classism, because there are a lot of men and women who do that and they don't have to be black. It doesn't have to be race. Something behind those choices that's deeper and possibly insidious. It doesn't have to be racist, though; sometimes that's just a personal preference.
TR: How will it hit people who are in interracial relationships like the ones Hill is scrutinizing with this project?
JM: The kind of person who does that is really not going to give a s—t anyway. They're going to be like "This is what I do, what?" If you're that narcissistic and vapid in choosing your partner, you're going to do it anyway.
I think it's more important that it hits those girls. Like if I were still that 21-year-old model … I don't think it's going to change men, it's going to change women being objectified.
TR: Interesting, I never thought of it being directed at or critical of the women.
JM: Well, I have the white girl's perspective because that's what I've lived.
TR: Speaking of what you've lived, what's your book about?
JM: The book is about how I was sick for a long time. I was a heroin addict, but I was very, very not the stereotype, or not what I thought was. I was a nice girl. I never lost my family and my friends. I almost succeeded in destroying my life even thought I didn't fall into any of those obvious junkie traps.
So I guess part of it was that I wanted to write something that let people know it's not necessarily how you think it is. Everyone has these stereotypes about drug abuse and the people who are drug users. But sometimes it's just the nice bored girl next door. Not super-poor, not super-rich. And I was able to heal with good food and a focus on health and wellness. I explain that in the book. So, like I said, it's just not necessarily how you think it is.
TR: "It's not necessarily how you think it is." So I'm sure you can relate to being stereotyped. Did you wonder how that black men who are in relationships with white women might stereotype as people who are simply seeking status?
JM: Yeah, I guess I can relate. I mean, maybe he really just likes the girls.
TR: Or perhaps even the opposite stereotypes about the way black women are perceived?
JM: I have no idea how I would feel if I were a black woman if I felt like my peers were choosing white women, and I was being bypassed. I have no idea. Probably pretty terrible.
I never did that parallel between the stereotypes I faced and the racial one. I never thought of that, but that's really an excellent point.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root’s senior staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.