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Mixed-Race Woman Learns To Answer 'What Are You?'

"Growing up in a small community, I had a lot of people ask: 'Where did you come from? Are you adopted, did you come from an orphanage, what's going on right here?'" — Jasmine Westmoreland

Growing up in a small community, I had a lot of people ask: ‘Where did you come from? Are you adopted, did you come from an orphanage, what’s going on right here?’” — Jasmine Westmoreland

John Rosman/OPB

Jasmine Westmoreland’s mother is white, her father black. Her skin is a lovely light brown. And that makes many of the people she meets wonder.

“I get the question a lot — like, what are you?  People ask me constantly, probably once a week,” she said.

A lot of them will be like, ‘Are you this? Are you that? Are you Brazilian? … You dance really well, you must be Cuban, you must be this.’ And I’m like, ‘Nope, black and white.’ ‘No you’re not.’ ‘You’re going to argue with me right now?’

“They do. They will argue, what I am.”

Westmoreland, 29, spent her childhood in Coos Bay, Oregon, a city of 15,000 people on the Oregon coast — 90 percent of them white. She got the questions there, too, even though she was just a kid. 

Growing up in a small community, I had a lot of people ask: ‘Where did you come from? Are you adopted, did you come from an orphanage, what’s going on right here?’”

“There were not a lot of people that looked like me, and it was kind of depressing, because you don’t have that person you can relate to, someone you can talk about your experiences as a person of mixed race,” Westmoreland said.

Westmoreland moved to Portland about seven years ago. Since then, she’s spent more time with the African-American side of her family, and in Portland’s black community. Still, she’s marrying a white man.

“There was even a joke going around with my sister and that side of my family, the darker side of my family. They were like. ‘Who is the whitest person in the family? It’s totally Jasmine.’ And it is totally me. They say it in a funny way, but it’s also a little bit of a derogatory thing.”

Westmoreland has become an activist. She helps run Portland State’s black student group, and she’s participated in Black Lives Matter rallies. Her fiancé sympathizes, but doesn’t always empathize.

“We talk about race a lot, actually. And it’s kind of something we have to agree to disagree on,” she said. “… I’m like, ‘You do realize your child is going to be black, right?’ And he says, ‘ You do realize they will end up being more white than black, though?’

“One thing that has been kind of a funny little, like, argument, is I would like my kids to be close to my skin color, because I don’t want to look like the nanny.

“I’ve told him before that in a way I wish he was black so I could come home and we could relate to the same struggles. But then in another way, I don’t want to have to worry about his life when he leaves the house.”

Westmoreland offers up a familiar story when asked if she’s ever experienced overt racism: She’s in a mall, she’s being followed through a store. But her version is a little different. She was with her mother when it happened. Her white, blond mother.    

“There was one lady who worked there, and she asked if she could help with anything, and we said no. She proceeded to follow us through the shop. We’d look at something, pick it up, and she just followed us. I would look at her like, ‘Can I help you? Did you need anything?’ ‘No, no.’ My mom was like, ‘Wow, that’s never happened to me before.’ Yeah, it’s awesome.”

Still, Westmoreland says she doesn’t experience racism all that often, at least not compared to friends or classmates. She thinks that’s because her skin is lighter than theirs.   

“My mom’s always said she loves that I can move back and forth, fluidly. I’ve started to kind of embrace that. Sometimes it’s kinda fun. Occasionally I wish people would be like, ‘Oh she looks mixed, black and white.’ Give me what I actually am.”
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