A Small but Mighty Gesture
The Do Not Bleach Project origin story.
Atlantic High School, sophomore year, I took my first photography class with Mr. Darin Roney. I had already personally dedicated my life to photography in middle school but could not get into his class until sophomore year since it was a popular elective. I was an IB student and new that my concentration would be on Art so from 10th — 12th grade I got to remain in Mr. Roney’s photography class.
Since I was in a magnet program, I had extra assignments including a paper which I ended up writing on ‘How Photography Changed the World’. Thanks to the PBS documentary “American Photography: A Century of Images (1999)”, which I rented as VHS tapes from my local library, I was quickly persuaded and convinced of how photography shaped and influenced not only American life but the world. If my affection for photography was a crush, it quickly evolved into head over heals love after this documentary. I wanted to share the good news of photography with others and dreamed of being one of the photographers mentioned in a future edition of such a documentary. I wanted to help change the world with my photography too.
My final year in undergrad, my new mentor and friend Endia Beal told me that the history of Black female photographers has yet to be written. She explained that very history was actively occurring. I felt as if there was space and time for me and it was inspirational to hear at the time. Endia is also the same person that told me, that at the end of the day I’m an artist no matter what medium I was working in. By the time I left undergraduate school in Savannah, I had already begun to loosen my constraints on my self-image from photographer to just visual artist. Eventually I would grow to call myself an interdisciplinary artist. After returning from work overseas in 2015, I became dedicated to making art by any means necessary in whatever medium and manner would best articulate my message to help change the world.
Do Not Bleach (DNB)
Subverting meaning in conceptual artworks is a commonality in my art practice. In 2017 I found laundry symbols to be a subtle yet widely familiar visual. I was curious to work with multiple laundry care symbols but after my 2017 trip to Ghana where skin bleaching is a health concern, I knew that I would begin with the “Do Not Bleach” symbol. Coincidentally, while in Ghana that summer a news report came out that officially banned the dangerous bleaching agent from being sold in the country. However, it will take several years to get them off the shelves of every store and outdoor market stand; additionally, there was no telling how long it will take for the psychological support of lighter skin to fade. For this reason, I decided to use the “Do Not Bleach” symbol to first make shirts. The shirts had potential to be easily shared, distributed, and displayed. Advertising on t-shirts is equivalent to walking billboards. Those who wear the shirt carry the symbol with them on their chest and consequently advocate for the symbol. I wanted people to advocate for their melanin by wearing the shirt and in turn take a step toward resisting the inferiority of brown skin. To accomplish this, I marketed the item for use by those who identify as a person of color. Later in a critique, I would experiment by putting the shirt on my white advisor and one on my Black advisor, then get feedback on what it meant to see a non-person of color in the shirt. This experiment reiterated my original thought that these shirts were to be worn by people of color for the full impact I desired. When a non-person of color wears the shirt, they just become a “fan” or “movement supporter” similar to the effects of a White person wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. This critique also solidified my choice of having the text, “Do Not Bleach” screen printed across the back of shirt for added impact.
“I’m rooting for everyone Black!” — Issa Rae
Black, indigenous, people of color have varying levels of discomfort and mistreatment due to something that have absolutely no control over, the color of the skin. We see this play out time and time again in countries across the West, the East, Southeast Asia, you name it. For many people with brown skin of any shade, they have a first-time story that reflects on the first time they were told or noticed their skin was different. That moment is often paired with a derogatory comment that informed the individual that their skin was a problem, inferior, or at worst a weapon. Colorism, dark skin inferiority, and Anti-blackness collectively is a GLOBAL unfortunate occurrence. As an enthusiast colorism scholar, it’s important to note that even though colorism exercises a discriminatory preference of lighter skin over dark skin, skin color discrimination negatively impacts all shades of brown. White passing or racially ambiguous Black people often find themselves in awkward situations where they are presumed to be white, mixed, or coerced to “validate” their blackness because they don’t have the assumed amount of melanin they “should.” We cannot always assume socially constructed race and identity by physical appearance. I had this in mind with the Do Not Bleach project. My husband faced similar issues growing up in New York due to his light skin despite having 2 Black parents and I know my two nephews who are bi-racial will one day face this as well.
Do Not Bleach is so much more than just about skin color and the literal act of bleaching. It demands do not bleach/whitewash my culture, my family, my ancestry, and my language. It declares do not bleach my status, potential, and character. It calls for people to come correct and recognize who I am and state that I am proud of it.
“Do Not Bleach shirts are my small but mighty gesture toward helping to change the world one art piece at a time.”
Do Not Bleach shirts are my small but mighty gesture toward helping to change the world one art piece at a time. The message on these shirts is what I wanted to tell others about myself. It’s what I wanted to tell my nephews. It’s what I wanted to tell my family. It’s what I wanted to tell my white colleagues. It’s what I wanted to tell my history books, employers, and educators. It’s what I wanted to tell movie directors, marketing companies, and toy makers. This message is something I wanted to share with every brown skinned child, teen, and adult I encountered in my travels. This message is my legacy and at heart of my art practice and research. It reflects the world I want to live to see.
I believe “Do Not Bleach” encourages others to be bold, outspoken, and declarative even in silence, just by their choice of dress alone and the words on the blades of their back, slicing truth into every room. It is the kind of thing you encounter and say “Yes, thank you” to or give a head nod to when affirming each other in passing like we do.
My mom has never easily been receptive to my art or even understood it, but somehow, she got this small gesture. Shortly after the June 2020 protests started up, she texted me to say: “Stephanie a thought just come to me the holy spirit said this is a good time for you to show your work of color and Tshirts…” I smiled. I was surprised at her comment, but agreed, but also quickly became weary to self-promote at such a time. My oldest sister sensed my discomfort and ordered 2 shirts out of solidarity. But if I’m honest this “such a time” is an unfortunate all the time for people who look like me and people who I originally had in mind for this shirt — Black people.
The Do Not Bleach project, this product, this art object is a small but mighty gesture that is bigger than me. It was my first art object created that I felt had the potential to be mass produced across the nation and eventually across the globe. A universal symbol that affirms and calls attention to the pressures and whitewashing of everyone/thing Black and Brown. I am grateful that this project has began as grant funded which has allowed it to be exhibited in multiple places and permitted the shirt sales to get re-invested into buying more inventory so that the work can be self-sufficient.
I want to support the global majority. I want to uplift the global majority. I wish to see the global majority step into their pride, their confidence, and uniquely not so unique skin. We let too many generations go by shaming our color, culture, language, spirituality, and overall existence. I am enough. You are enough. We are enough and should not conform for any reason at all. I encourage you to be your full self and seek spaces, employment, community, and a life where you can exercise your whole existence confidently, comfortably, and safely.
From Ann Arbor, Los Angeles, South Florida, Atlanta, and to my first solo museum exhibition at the Appleton Museum of Art, I have sold approximately 80-ish shirts and given away about 10 via pop-up shows, live exhibitions, and events where I knew I’d meet people of influence.
How the shirt is made: Back in 2017 at the University of Michigan when the project began I made about 15 shirts of varying sizes by hand to test out the process on different fabric types and make sure the screen size was somewhat universal. I now partner with a local screen-printing press that specializes in printing with discharge paste. Discharge paste is a heat activated substance that safely eats away at the pigment in a colored shirt. When applied to black cotton shirts and heat is applied it leaves a brownish tone in its place after. Ironically this honors the idea that even bleaching black still stays brown.
For every shirt sold: this artist(me) and the project’s existence is supported, the message is shared, the concept is duplicated, and another person of the global majority is affirmed.
Every time the shirt is worn: Another conversation starter is put out into the world and another opportunity to shift mindsets, perspectives, and exchange stories is presented. I’m grateful to all my models and supporters who have found value in wearing a DNB shirt.
Six ways to support the Do Not Bleach project:
1. Collect a shirt for you or a friend at www.createdbrown.com
2. Purchase a photographic print from the DNB series via Artwork Archive.
3. Share this article or website with your network.
4. Donate to help me maintain DNB inventory and packaging
5. Suggest this shirt be sold at a local store near you.
6. Connect me with investors via email who may be interested in facilitating or funding the expansion and reach of the project.