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Charles Williams of Montclair, 19, a Parsons School of Design rising sophomore, is creating a photography portfolio of mixed race friends, “My Racial Identity, Part 1,” and intends to dive deeper in Part 2.
ADAM ANIK/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

By GWEN OREL
orel@montclairlocal.news

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.

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“It wasn’t really fun. Wait it was fun sometimes but like I was a lot taller than all my Filipino family. I always looked more like that personal family trip bodyguard rather than a cousin or an uncle. But then also so I’m just tall in general. My Filipino side makes me look like Andre the Giant.” – Richie. COURTESY CHARLES WILLIAMS

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. 

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“I used to have this feeling that people from all cultures and backgrounds would brand me as ‘other’ no matter what clothing I wore, what music I listened to, or what food I ate. This is something that I struggled a lot with my youth, but in hindsight, I’m extremely grateful that I had this experience. As someone that’s mixed race, you aren’t provided with a cultural identity that society expects you to subscribe to” – Zak COURTESY CHARLES WILLIAMS

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.”

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“I truly don’t know what I’m fully mixed with. I say this because my mom is mixed with a lot of things. But she was born in America so it’s easiest for me to just say African American, she is also lighter than I am. My father was born in Guyana, which is in South American and his mother was also half Portuguese. So I’m mixed with a lot haha but not directly white and black. Many people look at me and just think I’m half white and half black because as a light skin that’s just what they assume. Growing up I struggled with race because the majority of my friends were white. Automatically causing me to want characteristics like theirs in order to fit in. For example, I damaged my hair so badly by constantly straightening it and struggled with loving it because afros had such a negative connotation. I was so afraid to wear my hair natural, I remember the first time that I wore it out but I got a lot of positive feedback and now you can’t find me without my ’fro.” – Raven COURTESY CHARLES WILLIAMS
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“It’s almost always the first question I’m asked: ‘what are you?’ I try not to let it bother me that people don’t think I’m black, because it’s true, I am mixed. What does bother me though, is that sometimes I can sense the ignorance behind the question so I’ll purposely answer with “I’m black” just to see where that takes the conversation. On a good day I’ll get ‘oh OK!; but on most days it’s ‘that’s it??’ ‘And what else?’ ‘You’re not mixed??’ ‘No way you’re just black.’ It’s offensive because those responses imply that someone who looks like me, a light skin black girl, couldn’t be pretty unless she was mixed. I am mixed. My dad is an Afro-Latino Puerto Rican, and he’s Chinese too. My mom is African American and Native American. I mostly identify myself as black because it’s the culture I was consistently raised in. Yeah my mom is mixed but she’s black, yeah my dad is mixed but he’s black too. Sometimes I’d tell people I’m only black because people almost never believe you when you tell them you’re a Native. My tribe is Shinnecock Indian and I’m not too connected with that side of my blood, but it’s in me. I used to leave out that I’m Puerto Rican because I don’t speak Spanish and growing up, telling people that I was black and Puerto Rican, I often got the response “black people always wanna be Puerto Rican.” When I was in middle school I found myself going hard to prove I was Latina. I started listening to Spanish music, I hung out with the latina girls at school etc. At one point I remember denying my blackness and only wanting to be known as Puerto Rican. It was bad LOL. The Chinese side of me is a difficult one to hide so I never even tried. My last name is Chinese, and I have Asian facial features. I love being Chinese, it’s a culture I wish I was more in touch with too. Up until my last year of high school, finding where I identified was hard for me. I never felt black enough, I never felt Puerto Rican enough, I never felt Chinese enough I never felt Native enough. There was no ground for me to stand sturdy on. It wasn’t until recently that I realized I don’t have to pick a culture to identify “the most” with. I’m made of all these ethnicities, and I’m allowed to be fluid in them all. I love being mixed, it comes with a versatility that people who are not mixed could never understand. I’ve learned to appreciate being a little bit of everything, it’s who I am.” – Noel. COURTESY CHARLES WILLIAMS

 

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