Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Drawing the Race Card

Race is, sometimes, a hot button in the caricature industry. It's hard enough navigating the minefield of what a person thinks they look like, or what they might want to look like, but if you then add the factor of "otherness" into the mix--how they (and you) perceive their racial type and the physiognomy that goes along with it--things can get complicated! Behavioral patterns emerge in dealing with certain types, patterns that sometimes make me cringe. I have had quite a few California-raised young ladies of Asian descent exclaim "Omigod you made me look all Asian!" with pouty disgust as if Asianness were some kind of lesser state of being. I have had black, hispanic, and black-hispanic patrons ask for blue eyes and lighter skin. Granted, we in this business run into folks every day who ask us to erase their flaws: take off my wrinkles, don't get the double chin, make my ears smaller than they are . . . but when did one's RACE get lumped into the category of "flaw"? Or wait, that's a stupendously historically naive question. What I mean is: when will race finally NOT be considered a flaw?
Some folks have such a strong preference for bland, racially bereft caricatures
that they surgically turn themselves into one. 
White Europeans got busy early and went around spreading imperialism all over the darker-complected parts of the globe. Along with their diseases, their languages, their bureaucracies, and their measurement systems, they also imposed their idea of beauty. Darker races were measured by an imperialist eye: lighter-colored servants were favored, and children of mixed lineage who resembled the Caucasian side had a better chance of integration into the higher classes, or "passing." Now, we all like to think we're in a more enlightened time, those imperialist white guys were all racist jerks, and we live in a society where there is no preferred "racial type" when it comes to what is beautiful. But how deep does this notion really go?

As a pretty bland looking Caucasian gal myself, I do not have an insider's perspective on what it's like to own non-Caucasian features, but as a caricature artist I do have a front-row seat for people's insecurities. And emotional baggage over one's skin tone, lip size, epicanthic fold, etc. DOES still exist.

I work with an artist who is African-American in the accurate sense of the term. Chakamoi Laker-Ojok (we call him Chaka) was born in Uganda, the son of a native Ugandan and a white Midwestern gal, and he moved here when he was a young man of 19. Funny thing is, he's considered "white" there and "black" here. I've observed him interacting with black tourists and it's fascinating to see his dialect and mannerisms change depending on his clientele. He does not have an African accent when he speaks (thanks to his mom), so you'd never know where he was born unless he told you--but he can put on the cadences of a typical American black dialect with ease. When I asked him about this he told me it was something he learned quickly from hanging out with a wide variety of people. He said he remembered times when he would converse with his black friends in the living room, then converse with his mother in the kitchen, and though it was all English it might as well have been two different languages.
Chaka's self-caricature. This is a white
dude if you live in Uganda, and a black
dude if you live in Pittsburgh.

All good caricaturists seem to be mimics, or at least excellent observers, so Chaka's ability to blend right in with American black culture and dialect isn't surprising. And, he admits, he feels like his skin color gives him more freedom to draw caricatures that "celebrate the blackness" of his subjects with no holds barred. You just can't draw Jay-Z without having his lips take up half the page, he joked with me. Chaka and I have had a few neat discussions about race and caricature, and we share the opinion that "whitening up" someone should be seen as offensive. I mean, it should be, right? It's a dismissal of someone's actual color and racial features, as "too unacceptable to draw." But then, why do some people ask for it?

Chaka asked me if I'd ever heard of Willie Lynch and his writings. This West Indies plantation owner allegedly came to Virginia in 1712 to speak to slaveholders there on the best ways to mentally and spiritually break down the negro slave. Psychological warfare was employed, and slaves were manipulated to envy and distrust one another based on differences in age, status, gender and--yes--skin color. As Lynch put it, "I take these differences and I make them bigger."

Wait--hold on, Shit. Make differences bigger? I do that. I do that for a living. Shit. That sentence sure sounds like caricature. Shit shit shit.

Luckily for our art form, that's where the similarities end. In fact, a little more digging on the internet showed me that the whole Willie Lynch thing was regarded by nearly all historians to be a hoax (his infamous letter shows up around 1970 and contains too many anachronistic phrases to have been authored in the eighteenth century). Nevertheless, it is a letter that has resonated among the community and especially with rappers, and you can buy a book titled The Making of a Slave by Willie Lynch on Amazon for about four bucks. It is tagged as "required reading for various courses and curriculums on the plight of the African American," and reviewers suggest that it be presented as a fictional-but-plausible theoretical model that helps readers understand certain aspects of what the brutal practice of chattel slavery did to a population. Sometimes a story is worthwhile even if it's not true.

It is indisputable that light slaves were separated from darker-colored slaves, and it was far better be "lucky" enough to have light skin and get relegated to house duties than to have backbreaking work in the fields. It is also indisputable that slaveowners fostered a matriarchal society by separating families and selling off fathers in order to keep family bonds from forming and to skew the upbringing of offspring, weakening males from their early childhood. The Lynch letter advocates just that: "for FEAR of the young male's life, [the mother] will psychologically train him to be MENTALLY WEAK and DEPENDENT, but PHYSICALLY STRONG. Because she has become psychologically independent, she will train her FEMALE offsprings to be psychologically independent." Chaka brought up the fact that America's black population is highly matriarchal today, which has been touted as evidence that it takes a long, long time for cultural changes to occur--even when that "culture" was something harmful, imposed upon an enslaved people. Is that what we are seeing when we run into dark-skinned people who are annoyed by their color? A deep-seeded aesthetic holdover passed down generation by generation and still not completely gone? Is that one of the reasons why I can think of a dozen Hollywood starlets who are light-skinned black but have to
Grace Jones will kick your lily white ass.
wrack my brain coming up with a dark one? (And does Grace Jones even count as a starlet anymore?)

Now, again, as a Caucasian chick, it would be highly awkward (and condescending) for me to bring all this up the next time I draw someone of color who appears to be showing self-shame over their racial physiognomy. Plus it's not my job to be anyone's therapist or historian or cultural professor. Hell, I can't even comfortably do a blog post about it without referencing "my black friend" as an authority here.

But slowly, hopefully, we as a species are approaching the goal of celebrating differences rather than using them to fuel xenophobia or hate; and we are becoming more aware that erasing racial markers as a way to "beautify" someone is a bloody offensive thing to do. Did anyone else see that tidbit going around the interwebs showing
 Frida Kahlo photoshopped by some well-meaning but dimwitted person on Tumblr who bragged that he had "lightened her skin" and made other alterations to "beautify" her? A tumblr commenter named alisonofagun put it so well:
Frida gets an unwanted makeover.

"Kahlo's eyebrows and moustache were a purposeful rejection of white colonizer standards of beauty; she didn't just leave them on her face the way they grew, she groomed them and darkened them with makeup. Her appearance was beautiful, and it was intentional.

You lightened her fucking skin, what the fuck is wrong with you?"

Outrage--righteous outrage!--at the thought of throwing out Frida's markers of race, her pride and celebration of her heritage. Yet, would this defense-of-differences show up if we, as caricature artists, chose to Khalo-ize one of our average Latina patrons, adding emphasis to her unibrow and any moustache hairs we saw? Or would said patron beat us about the face and torso with their Louis Vitton bag while a crowd of onlookers muttered about the racist artist who draws rude pictures of people?

But, in my little tiny ways, I try to take a few steps to help folks of all races appreciate the things that make them who they are. No one becomes a good caricaturist by playing DOWN what makes people different from one another. I study features and try my best to be fearless about reproducing them in a nonjudgmental way. I try to encourage other artists to do the same. Learn how to draw and shade the texture for a believable afro. Learn how to color blend with indigos and purples so that you can capture the rich tones in a very dark-skinned black person without just making them muddy or a wimpy cocoa color. Look at how Asian eyes and nose bridges differ from non-Asian eyes. 
Study how some philtrums and lips on African faces differ from an average European one. Sometimes just being knowledgeable and nonchalant about physical features can give you an edge with patrons who have never studied anatomy and have no idea what the words philtrum and epicanthic fold even mean. Three Asian girls sat down once for me at a party gig, and they were laughing and talking about how everyone thought they looked alike even though they were "like totally not the same kind of Asian." They then asked if I could tell, saying flippantly that whites couldn't tell the difference. I wasn't completely certain, of course, but I made an educated guess and said "Hmmm, you're Thai, you're Filipino, and you're . . . Ummmm . . . half Japanese and half black?" And I had nailed it.
They were stunned, like I'd done a magic trick. No magic, just observation of slight average differences in face shape, eyelid folds, etc. as compared to what is typical for different populations.

And once you recognize these differences, DRAW them, don't ignore them. I won't lie, I often wrestle with how far to go with features that have become racialized. You are walking a tightrope, because you are working with a weapon that has been wielded to intentionally hurt and demean. And I'm not just talking about Willie Lynch's counterparts in the 1700s. Caricature has been used in the past to denigrate races even as late as the mid-twentieth century (look at the depictions of Japanese during WWII or the blackface cartoon characters that were in printed media and early cartoon shorts). Cartoonizing big lips, wide noses, slanty eyes, or a bandito moustache in a retail or gig setting is playing with fire--and if you want to run with something risky, your best safety net is a good rapport with your customer. The difference between an awesome, gut-bustingly accurate yet exaggerated drawing and a complaint to mall management is sometimes a matter of reading your clientele and talking to them--establishing a relationship.

Taking the risk to exaggerate racial features that seem taboo can prove very worthwhile. Depending on your client, you can often judge exactly how far you can go. I got a huge hug and a thrilled reaction from a heavy-set black gal who had bulldoggish eyes and an upper lip that started right under her nose, along with wild hair and a visible bra, all of which I certainly didn't cut corners on--because, as we chatted, I could tell she reveled in her lips and wild hair and uncontainable ta-tas. I once drew a trio of Asian college students who were teasing each other mercilessly, but with good humor. Two of them kept pointing out how super-tiny their companion's eyes were, and how they disappeared when he smiled. I decided to be daring and just flat-out left the eyes off him. When I turned the picture around, they HOWLED with laughter, loved it, tipped me, and had a really fun experience (yes, even the eyeless guy loved it). In both of these cases, I was lucky (or experienced) enough to read them correctly and, during the process of drawing, ingratiate myself with them to a level where they saw my drawing as a friendly joke, not a hurtful one.

Not every instance works out, and you have to take your lumps when you get them. My brother is happily married to a Puerto Rican gal who has skin on the darker side and a rather plump set of lips. When they were first dating, early on, they came to visit and I ended up drawing them. Since I can have a stunning lack of tact when I'm with just my family members, I simply blurted out as I drew, "Uh, do you consider yourself black or Latina?" to her. She looked surprised, a little confused and said, "I'm Latina" but not in a defensive way--just hesistantly, like she'd honestly never been asked. She probably hadn't. But I saw features on her that were certainly in line with the African-American population, and I was honestly curious. I later (much later) found out that her family had hated the drawing when they saw it, because she "looked too black." She told me this as she giggled, so it obviously didn't phase her a bit. My brother did well when he picked out his life partner. (I ended up drawing the two of them again later, for their wedding invitation, and I did find myself consciously trying to avoid over-emphasizing features that were associated with African American populations and skewing her drawing more toward the Latina category; I think her side of the family ended up liking it--they all came to the wedding, after all!) 

I would love to see an ISCA seminar on recognizing and drawing with an eye to racial features, as it is definitely an area newer artists (and seasoned ones) struggle with. But in all the years I've been a member, I've never seen one offered. The very notion of classifying people based on race is, understandably, a topic that can rub people the wrong way. Even at the convention, where so many no-holds-barred drawings pepper the walls, some topics are verboten. A member became enraged and walked out a few years back over what he fumed was an anti-Semitic drawing; the offending artist tried to explain it was an inside joke between him and his buddy, and the board members were perplexed at how to handle the situation. There really was no way to have it work out well. Someone was going to be offended, or someone was going to be chafed about being censored. Perhaps if a seminar was presented in a dry, straightforward scientific anatomy lesson, by an expert, it might go over well. Biology actually doesn't even recognize race as a real "thing," since genetic differences from individual to individual within a particular "race" far outweigh the differences between groups classified socially as races. If we focused on drawing various traits seen in several races and put up a big disclaimer that there is no one-size-fits-all way to approach drawing any individual from any race, maybe--just maybe--we could put on such a seminar without factions forming to shout "racism!" and "free speech!" From opposite sides of the room. Heck, perhaps my own insecurities about race are coloring how I imagine such a seminar might go. (Note to any board members reading this: I am not volunteering to give such a seminar, no way no how, ain't gonna happen).

Turns out this was from 1993. Dang I'm old. 
There was a TIME cover a decade or two ago that I remember because it depressed me. It featured a beige-faced woman, with the headline "The New Face of America." The woman was actually a computer-generated face with color, features, and bone structure assembled based on several races. She was the ultimate mutt: what humans would all look like if (or when) we bred the whole notion of race completely away. The editors, I think, meant the magazine cover as a hopeful futurist utopian kind of image. No race means no racism, right? But I found it depressing. Everyone ends up looking the same? What? No, I don't like that. And I suspect that (thanks to that biological fact that genetic diversity is far greater between two individuals than between two races) we won't ever see this bland homogenous future. Why, the blending of races has already produced some awesome faces that I've gotten to draw. Freckly kids with blond afros, or half-black half-Irish "chocolate gingers." My three step kids are biracial and one gets mistaken for Jewish, one looks vaguely West African, and one really takes after her Italian grandmother. There was recently a pair of twins born to a couple with mixed heritage, and due to the genetic Yahtzee cup spewing out a very unlikely (but completely possible) roll, one twin is blond and blue-eyed while the other is black with poofy more African-type hair.
Yeah, this was real. I checked on Snopes!

What an amazing array. And we get to study, draw, and make fun of this delightful smorgasbord of color and bone structure.

Penn and Teller have a very powerful bit they perform at their Las Vegas show. I've seen them do it at least a dozen times (yeah, I'm a fan), and it resonates every time. It's a beautiful  trick they developed back when legislators were trying to prohibit burning the American flag. Americans were offended by the notion of flag burning, they found it distasteful, and so they wanted to outlaw it. The trick Penn & Teller do involves "burning" an American flag in a magical flourish as Penn talks about the freedoms the flag symbolizes and how it's those very freedoms, the freedom of expression in particular, allow them to perform such a trick. "What if someone were to burn a flag," Penn questions, "not in disgust, but in celebration of those very freedoms that flag symbolizes?" Yeah, what if? That's kind of what I'm imagining when it comes to caricature. What if, someday, caricaturing a sloping Arabic nose, or African Lips, or narrow Mongolian eyes, or skin that ranges from white to wheat to pumpernickel, rather than eliciting a knee-jerk reaction of "that's racist," becomes instead a celebration of that diversity--a diversity present in all of our genomes but right now clumped into a handful of similar traits that pop up with more frequency in geographically separated populations that used to (how quaint!) hate one another because they looked different.

Yeah. That would be beautiful.


  1. First off, awesome post! Second, you'd better slip in some occasional silly meaningless posts from time to time, or eventually the pressure to meet the incredibly high standard of serious social commentary that you've set for yourself in this blog will crush you like Dolph Lundgren.
    I just left a caricature gig where we had many artists working all at once. In the middle of the gig, the client pulled me aside and told me that they were going to have to pull one of the artists if he did not immediately stop drawing offensive caricatures. When I asked for clarification, she said that he was intentionally insulting African Americans by drawing them all with big lips and wide noses. I know the artist's work, and he does no such thing, but he does draw in a more exaggerated style than most. What she saw in his drawing choices was, I'm guessing, more a reflection of her own concerns about what her guests' insecurities might be, rather than anything you could objectively find in the artwork itself. Frustrating.

    1. LOL! (I think I can guess which artist you are talking about! And he has some awards, doesn't he!) Mike, I agree, it's a constant "elephant in the room" when you're drawing a diverse crowd. JUST LAST NIGHT at my gig I had an African American woman sit down and immediately instruct me to not make her lips big. She had big lips. I stayed upbeat and replied "why not? Heck, you know how much money people fork out for collagen injections--be glad you have those babies naturally!" And she chuckled. I didn't get toooo exaggerated, but I didn't thin down her lips either. And she liked her drawing. I guess we just have to approach this business one set of lips at a time

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  3. Please write more , I think you are one of the best bloggers in the bis and your insights are incredible . I keep rereading them . You make me aware of things I've never considered . Thank you for your work