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Nate Hill's 'Lightskin or Darkskin' Website Asks Users to Judge Skin Color

The artist's latest project explores the weird pigment-based prejudices we carry around in our heads.

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Nate Hill is nuts. The New York–based artist does things that make average people uncomfortable and sometimes angry. He was in the New York Times ​back in 2008 for hosting "Chinatown garbage taxidermy tours," where he showed people how to make grotesque art out of the mangled animal carcasses left in the streets of New York. And in 2013, he made waves with his Death Bear project, which involved him ​dressing up like a creepy bear and showing up at people's houses to take away items that incited regret or distress.


Lately, he's focused his weirdness on issues of race. He moonlighted as the "White Ambassador," wearing whiteface along 125th Street in Harlem shouting, "We are white! We smell alright!" to passersby. He created the viral and unnerving ​White Power Milk website, which promotes a fake service that sells milk gargled by attractive young white women. And he produced Trophy Scarves, a series of photos posted to social media that featured him with ​half-naked white women draped across his shoulders in an attempt to explore the complexities of interracial relationships and objectification.

Now the artist has set his sights on lampooning colorism in the African-American community with his project ​Lightskin or D​arkskin. Hill created a simple site that is reminiscent of the ​Hot or Not app that allows voters to pick whether a person photographed has light or dark skin.

This simple project tackles a division between black people that goes all the way back to the slavery era, when there was a distinction between house slaves, who were typically lighter, and field slaves, who were typically darker. The lighter slaves who worked in the house were often the mixed-race children of the rape (you can't have consensual sex with someone you own) of slaves by slave masters. On the plantation, these lighter slaves were given relatively better treatment, easier tasks, and higher status than their darker brethren who toiled away in the fields.


The impact of this division has been felt long after slavery. We see it with racial passing, which is when a black person is so light he or she can "pass" for white. We see it too in the "​paper bag parties" held by some upper-class black people who wouldn't let anyone in who was darker than a paper bag. Still a topic of discussion, this division has inspired the 2011 documentary ​Dark Girls and led to controversies over the lightening of the skin of stars like Beyonce and Nicki Minaj in magazines and ads.

I got kind of addicted to judging the pigment of black people on And then found myself questioning the other voters. How could 32 percent of people find this girl dark-skinned, when she is clearly beige? I shared it on Facebook. One friend thought it showed people's insecurities. Another couldn't stop voting.

But that is exactly what Hill wants—to open a dialogue and explore the reasons people consciously or subconsciously critique skin color. I spoke with the artist about his project and here is what he had to say.

​Nate Hill selfie from his Trophy Scarves project

VICE: What is the message you are trying to send with this project and how did the idea evolve?
Nate Hill: ​My wife and I have a five-month-old baby now. My wife is also mixed, black and white. So we didn't know what our baby was going to look like. So far, he is somewhat lighter than us. We just kind of chuckled about it like, Oh, that's good for us. We were happy about it. And that seems like such an embarrassing feeling to have. So then I started thinking. This is something that is within people and I wanted to comment on it. I wanted to make something that was satirical and absurd. The more I read the readouts of the percentages on the website, the more absurd it becomes to me.


Do you plan on doing anything with the data?
There will be someone that scored 86 percent dark and then there will be another person that scored 88 percent dark. I want to try to compare the two and see how accurate the website is. Is it consistent? I should be able to map it, almost like a color chart.

When I went on the site, I would see statistics calling, in my opinion, really light African American women dark-skinned and I wondered who is voting on these images?
Right now, I think it is mostly white people voting. I was first covered in an art blog and most of my audience is white, so I am afraid that it is mostly white people who have done it so far. But we have no way of knowing. And I don't know if that is really important, if it really matters who uses the site. And then I wonder about the white people that come to the site. Were they aware of this? Did some of them kind of learn what light skin is and what dark skin is through interacting with the site?

Who did you make the site for?
For black people, but I don't know if my reputation within the art world has that influence. When people think about black artists, I am not who comes to mind. But I always try to make things for black people when I get the inspiration.

I put a link to the site on my Facebook and got a lot of feedback from my black friends: confusion, annoyance, impartiality. What do you say to people who question your purpose and reasoning behind this project?
I feel like colorism, from what I've seen and lived, is still a problem in the black community and it's internalized. All you have to do is turn on the radio and listen to rappers talk about "yellowbone" this or "redbone" that or how they have a light-skin girl. I don't understand how it goes on without more people talking about it, honestly.

Where do you think that comes from?
It touches on the self-hate factor, how some people who are darker will just not like their complexion. It all ties in to the history of white supremacy in this country. And it's fucked up that it is still in our heads. We are still thinking about this shit.

Who do you want to visit the site?
Somebody who doesn't see a problem with it. Maybe they continue using it and then someone sees them on it and is like, "What the hell?" I want somebody to be changed by it. I am not just trying to preach to the choir. I made it to raise awareness. That is really what the piece is about. The site is direct. Some people call it shallow. I'd call it direct.

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