‘Trophy Scarves’: Who is Nate Hill Really Indicting?
My daughter’s beauty is beyond skin deep. She is compassionate, sensitive, and affectionate, always looking to cheer up those around her with a card, a handmade gift, or a hug. She has much to offer this world. I will never forget the moment I realized that not everyone values her. One morning she came home excited to tell me about a new student whom she had befriended in her pre-school class. Over the weeks, there wasn’t a day that passed, where these two were not together.
Then one day, I picked her up from school and noticed something different. She didn’t greet me in her normal vibrant and exuberant way. That morning before class, my daughter’s friend had told her that they could no longer play together. When asked why, the little girl said simply that her mother wouldn’t allow her to play with black people.
The news crushed my daughter, but perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the experience was the knowledge that she had no real context to process her loss. She didn’t fully understand that she was rejected based on a deeply rooted prejudice.
Initially, I thought it my job to protect her from the ugly objectification brought on by prejudice in our society. However the truth is, my daughter’s real shield was her innocence.
Color as status is a message we receive early in life. Twentieth century philosopher, Alfred Whitehead, once remarked that “the deepest definition of youth is life as yet untouched by reality.” As a child, you don’t understand the history of a society steeped in racial tensions. Children have a spirit of optimism and adventure, which lacks experience. As I grow older, I find my tolerance for the long-standing pattern of the degradation of women insufferable.
If African-Americans are on the deficit end of the color economy in our society, then African-American women bear the load exponentially. We are fed this message of diminished value on both ends of the spectrum: from the hip-hop culture of misogyny to pseudo scientific claims made by well-read magazines. Women of color are loathed from both ends, and pop media fuels this attack.
When I first saw Nate Hill’s performance art piece titled “Trophy Scarves”, my first thought was that of relief. At least black women’s bodies were not the targets of blatant objectification this go ‘round. For once the dehumanization of women of color wasn’t on center stage. I was just glad that black women were not being objectified.
For those that don’t know, Nate Hill is a street performer in Harlem, New York, making headlines for his evocative photos depicting white women clutched around his neck in an over-the-shoulder fireman carry. His recent collection of “Trophy Scarves” —a play on the term trophy wives— went viral last week to mixed reviews.
Some felt that his racy subject matter mocks interracial relationships. However, given the fact that Hill himself is the product of an interracial couple, I doubt that swirl-bashing is his angle here. After all, his photos exclusively depict white women. If he were bashing interracial couples, wouldn’t there be more variety in the collection of photos? No, Hill claims that his art points to something deeper.
Some have also questioned Hill’s choice of platform. He did not choose to display his work in a formal gallery setting, which would have given him more credibility. Instead, Hill’s scarves are posted on his personal blog and Instagram accounts, leading some to speculate that this is all a publicity stunt designed to generate views. Still some question Hill’s dedication to his message. He’s not showing up to the office Christmas partying donning a nude white woman. Instead, he is posting selfies online.
In a bare-all interview with Vice about his art, Hill simply responded, “Well, there are people who see certain races as status symbols, and someone had to comment on that.” He’s not critiquing interracial couples, only those in which black men see white women as status symbols. While some may not appreciate his approach, a few things struck me about Hill’s message.
It is a well-known fact that many wealthy black celebrities are dating or married to white women. Just look at the dating profiles for the men cast in the latest Best Man Holiday blockbuster. Three of the movie’s four leading actors appear with white wives at recent press releases for the movie. Many professional athletes’ dating profiles mirror this trend as well. Surely most of them have found true love, but one can’t help but wonder if they have married white women because of the anticipated boost in social status.
But what sets Hill’s commentary apart from other outlets shedding light on the black men/trophy wives phenomenon is the shocking imagery. Hill’s campaign doesn’t so much shame black celebrities, as much as he draws attention to the white women who allow themselves to be objectified by them. In this way, Hill’s art turns the trophy wife image on its head.
Trophy wives are traditionally framed in style. One might associate Donald Trump’s wife, Melania Trump, with the phrase. The trophy wife is refined, typically pictured wearing designer clothes, and adorned in fine jewelry. Her ensemble matters as much as her face. After all, what is a trophy if not polished? But Hill’s art doesn’t play to tradition.
The Trophy Scarves description reads: “I wear white women for status and power.” While trophies are symbols of power, there is nothing majestic about the women pictured in Hill’s collection. His subjects are draped in lifeless repose. In many cases they are nude or partially nude, their faces are cut off, and their characteristics are largely irrelevant. There is an eerie corpse-like feel about their frames. But of course they’re not people; they’re scarves. Get it? They are objects. Is it degrading? Yes, and intentionally so. You might be asking yourself, what woman would agree to being treated with such disregard? And isn’t that the point?
For the first time social media is being used to spotlight white women who allow black men to treat them with such disdain. Hill’s work is intriguing because he dares to remove the uniform usually assigned to trophies. In a society that usually reserves its indignation for people of color, where is the outrage towards the white women who willfully cast off their dignity like old rags? Sure, Hill wears the women, but the onus for this reduction falls squarely on the shoulders of the white women who allow it. Hill’s art sheds light on this discrepancy.
Now, the white community is angry because the unfavorable depiction is at their front door, but women of color deal with this all the time from networks like BET. In reality, we should all breathe a collective sigh of disgust whenever women of any race are objectified. Sinead O’Connor had the right idea in her open letter to Miley Cyrus, advising Miley to stand on her talent alone. Her poignant words are worth another look. She writes:
“ You are worth more than your body or your sexual appeal. The world of showbiz doesn’t see things that way, they like things to be seen the other way, whether they are magazines who want you on their cover, or whatever… Don’t be under any illusions… ALL of them want you because they’re making money off your youth and your beauty…which they could not do except for the fact your youth makes you blind to the evils of show business. If you have an innocent heart you can’t recognize those who do not. I repeat, you have enough talent that you don’t need to let the music business make a prostitute of you.”
For every Nate Hill, there are hundreds—if not thousands—of young women who line up to be his trophy. If we are to take anything away from Hill’s experiment, I hope we as women learn to stand in solidarity whenever any woman, whether she be of color or white, is objectified in any way. I hope to give my daughter the tools to avoid this trap.
There should be a public outcry whenever women are objectified. In the same vein, whenever we encounter prejudice, we should seek to change the status quo in our day-to -day interactions. If I could go back to that day when my daughter shared the disheartening news of her first encounter with prejudice, I would extend my hand, introduce myself, and attempt to build a bridge with the mom. I would not just walk away and accept things as they are.
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