By GWEN OREL
Growing up in Montclair, Charles Williams sometimes said his dad was Cuban.
That’s not really true.
“When I was younger, I looked a little bit towards Asian, then black, Hispanic. Growing up, we really didn’t talk about race in my household, so I didn’t really feel it was an issue. Until my friends, they would ask me, what are you?” Williams said. “Your mom’s not black. You have a white name.”
His mom is black. She’s from D.C., and his father is a white man from Florida, with some Cuban in him.
“‘My dad does look Cuban,” Williams said. So saying his father was Cuban was a way of ending the questions of what are you? and where are you from? “You kind of get sick of it, so you say something to let it go.”
Today, people talk about race. Williams is exploring it in his new photography project, “My Racial Identity,” that he started during his first year at Parsons School of Design. Williams’ photography can be seen at charleswilliams.work.
Biracial actress Meghan Markle’s recent wedding to Prince Harry even inspired Williams’ mother to post something about Markle on Facebook.
When Williams spoke to the Montclair Local in May, he’d taken photographs of 10 people. He intends to expand the project and keep going, and do a film project on mixed race, interviewing biracial people in Montclair, which will also be called “My Racial Identity.”
While he aspires to get the photographs into newspapers and magazines, he will begin by posting some of the still photographs to Instagram.
He began taking photographs in high school, for the Center for Social Justice. He had been a soccer player, then one Christmas his father got him a camera. Williams taught himself to learn how to use the camera by watching YouTube videos. He dragged his dad to an exhibit by Jeff Koons at the Newseum, and surprised his father because it wasn’t an excuse to go shopping in the city, Williams said with a laugh. When he did a summer program at Parsons in photography, the teacher saw something in him, told him to shoot every day, and that he had what it takes. Two years later, Williams applied to Parsons and got in.
Doing the “My Racial Identity” project has helped Williams to embrace not only himself, but also others, as he heard their stories, Williams said. “One kid, his name is Joe, he’s black and white just like me. He has a tattoo that says, ‘Too black for the white kids, too white for the blacks.’ He has that tattooed on his arm. Growing up in middle school, kids would ask him, ‘are you going to be black today? or are you going to be white today?’ That to me opened up that I’m not the only one who’s dealing with this.”
Most of the stories he heard reminded him of his own, even if the racial makeup of the interview subject was different. Anya, who is Afro-Dominican, had a slightly different story than his. Growing up in Dominica, she understood she was supposed to be Dominican and nothing else.
“She didn’t really come to terms with it until she moved to the U.S.,” Williams said. For Anya, the U.S. was relatively accepting of mixed-race people. Most of the people Williams interviewed are around his age, 19, 20 and 21. He hopes to find older people, perhaps friends of his mother’s, to interview in the second part of the project.
Being both black and white, he also recognizes when he is treated differently because of how he is perceived.
“Whenever I see the cops in Montclair, when I’m with my five best friends, who are black, we get pulled over. When I’m by myself, I don’t. It’s the white privilege that I have. My mom gets pulled over. My dad doesn’t,” he said.
While the project grew out of his own experiences, the subject is important for the world, Williams said. In fact, for a final project at Parsons whose assignment was to make a short film on Doomsday, race and his project were the first things that came to mind.
“Race, especially with Trump as president, is something really big and talked about, and it could be the end of an era with everything that’s happening.” For that assignment, he included baby pictures, a voiceover, including voice memos from interviewees discussing what it means to be mixed.
“When my mom first saw it, she honestly cried,” Williams said.
He refuses to choose whether he’s black or white, “I embrace both sides of my family, rather than just my mom’s side, rather than my dad’s side.”