He was raised in an all-black neighborhood; his mother was the only white person on the block.
"I interchanged between saying I am biracial and I am black," he says. "The culture I live in is black. I felt black because black people considered me black. That was because of the one drop rule."
But later, when he went to Ghana, the locals thought he was from Lebanon. Kids called him "Oburoni," the word for a white man.
Bartlett felt as though he were being told he was not who he really was even before he could interact with them, as though they were taking away his black identity.
"It put me on the complete opposite side of the coin," Bartlett says. "The first reaction was to put me in a box."
In America, people thought of him as a lot of things but not usually straight-up white.
"It's difficult for me to separate race and identity," says Bartlett, the newly named executive director of the Museum of Contemporary Diasporan African Arts in Brooklyn.
He is black, he says, because he didn't grow up with white privilege. What is that? The freedom, he replies, to not have to address race.
"I definitely didn't grow up with that," he says.
Being white in America is also knowing that people who look like you are always representing your interests in institutions of power.
"That is the essence of white privilege," he says. "Regardless of changing (demographic) percentages and numbers, racial representation is going to remain out of balance for quite some time."
In some ways, Bartlett says, he has been more attuned to race as a light-skinned black man than he would have been had he been darker.
Bartlett feels white people in America are threatened by the tide of color across the nation and that it will give rise to an us against them" mentality.
"I think blackness will change, too," he says. "The biggest change in the near future will be the end of blackness as a diametric opposite to whiteness."
"I never wanted to distance myself from my black ancestors," says the creative writing graduate student at Dillard University.
"They are the ones who claim me."
In her light skin, Robinson understands the insidious ways of colorism, a system in which light skin is valued more than dark skin.
"Colorism is a major problem within the Creole community and the black community," she says. "It's underdiscussed. It's perplexing and vexing how to work out this idea. I can see how the one drop rule is why we have so much colorism in our society.
"One drop is a lie," she says. "Black plus white doesn't equal black or it doesn't equal white. It equals black plus white."
She calls herself black. But other people think she is from India or the Middle East, especially in her academic work environment, where she does not have black colleagues.
"The assumption is I am not black," she says.
Ultimately, she believes environment plays a big role in identity.
Few people, she says, think that of her sister. One reason may be that her sister has more of a button nose. But another reason is that she works in a field with more black people, whereas Robinson finds herself in academic settings where she is the sole black woman.
Robinson acknowledges her lighter skin gives her privilege in a color-conscious society.
"But in those situations where you have to identify yourself and you choose to identify yourself as white - there's a big denial going on there.