Samantha Isom considers herself mixed race. Her mom, white, and her father, black, Samantha had mixed friends growing up near a military base in South Jersey, where she said that most of the kids she knew were mixed. No one really claimed a race. After a while, things started to change. As she got older, she realized that mixed race people often felt the need to claim to just one race and often had issues in their lives that they choose to overlook. As a photographer, she decided to do a photo essay on mixed race people and interview them on their experiences growing up mixed in America. Her book, "So, What Are You Anyway," features 26 images and text of people ranging from Black and Asian mixes to White and Spanish and everything in between.
"So, What Are You Anyway?" A Shot of Being Mixed Race
Samantha does a self portrait on the right
So what are the origins of your family?
My family, so my moms white and my dads black. If you want to get a little bit more deep, my mom is half Irish, half german and my dad is creole. He gets mistaken for Dominican a lot, but his father was French and Indian and spoke both from what I remember. He's from Mobile, Alabama originally. American though.
Are your parents still together?
What was your experience being raised by your mother and father separately? Were there any stark differences in how people responded to you when you were with your mother as opposed to your father?
I think it was the same. We all lived together for the first ten years, split up when I was ten. Then they only lived 30 minutes away from each other. I honestly don't think there was ever a difference. It was in the 70s when I was growing up. I grew up in South Jersey, but it was off a military base so everybody was mixed. Everybody was married to a Filipino, a Thai, mostly Asian mixes.
So growing up around military bases, you went to school with many mixed race kids.
Yea, they looked like this book.
Do you have any memories at all recognizing that you were mixed race?
When I was little I thought it was normal. But then I didn't know my uncle on my moms side because he disowned us due to race issues. The only time I remember seeing him was at his funeral. Going down south, I knew there were issues. But we didn't have that so much where I grew up. When I was in high school, there was a girl, I went to get something out of the soda machine and she said she was going to knock the freckles off of my face and pull out my hair. I never knew her before or after the incident, so she might have been one of those transplants, maybe she experienced some real trauma. I'm not sure. I remember I had an english teacher one time told us how lucky we were and how fortunate she felt to be teaching at our school, which now really means a lot.
Why did she say that?
I'm assuming because it was so mixed. She actually said that. She said I don't think you guys realize how fortunate you guys are and its probably a good thing that you don't realize it.
When you were growing up, as a mixed race kid, what kind of music did you identify with?
Good question. That was where things were very segregated. It was like hip hoppers versus the head bangers. MTV came out in 81, so it was five years in. It used to be all music all the time. MTV raps didn't come out yet. So it was predominantly white faces you saw on MTV, all of the VJs were white. People called it white music. But I liked it. The Cure. But I liked Fab Five Freddie, too. The audience was told to separate. It was weird and I'm not sure who decided to do music that way. So at my school, I noticed that hip hoppers and head bangers were fighting. And the hip hoppers were predominantly black and the head bangers were predominantly white.
Did the mixed people you knew kind of back and forth with what they identified with or did they normally pick a side?
You know I would have to think about it. But predominantly, people with lighter skin tones would go towards the stuff you saw on MTV at the time. And the others would be listening to Power 99 or RnB stations.
Did you ever recognize browner people going over to the MTV side?
Not as often. I actually don't know anyone.
I went to an all black college. Before going, I was socially unaware of skin complexion and being mixed race in the black community because I grew up around white people. But at Hampton University, people still separated themselves based on their skin complexion- like School Daze. Why do you think that within races, people still find the need to further separate themselves?
Even within the Asian community this happens. There is a guy named Noel who I interviewed in my book who is half Asian and half Puerto Rican and he said that around his Asian family he was not accepted. Sometimes it seems like the browner you are, the more persecuted you are, whatever that degree is.
What were peoples reactions when you approached them for your photo essays?
I had one girl get really pissed off at me. She was Puerto Rican and was pissed that I thought she was mixed. But I'm very rarely wrong.
How many people did you interview?
Probably 30 something so far? Some of these people live in Hawaii. There are 26 images in the book.
Do you think that race exist or is it something that humans made up?
How many races of human races are there? Technically, there is one called homo sapiens with variations of skin types.
Do you think we put too much emphasis on race in America?
Well, they had to have a reason to come here and start scalping the Indians.
What was a common theme that came up during you interviews with mixed race people?
All the lightweight stuff came up a lot. A lot of the browner people said they were often mistaken for being some kind of spanish. Other than that people had their own experiences. Like, oh, I didn't have any trouble, and then you keep interviewing them and they tell you some strange weird story that they experienced in their life.