On Monday, Nov. 27, a Kensington Palace report announced that Prince Harry of Wales had proposed to Meghan Markle, his girlfriend of over a year, launching various factions of Twitter into a morning and afternoon-long debate about blackness. Over on Twitter, people lamented that Prince Harry’s choice for a bride was a "disgrace" to the British monarchy, while on the other side, people rejoiced that there would finally be a black princess (though she technically won’t be a princess) in the palace. Sewn into the discussion were both questions and assertions about whether or not the soon-to-be duchess was actually even black at all. Soon enough, Meghan Markle's race was at the center of her proposal story. Many people online stated aggressively that referring to the future royal as black was inaccurate, opting instead to call Markle mixed race, or white passing. The internet was throwing around labels like "bi" or "multiracial," some even using terms such as "mixed breed" and "half-caste."
Markle was born to a Caucasian father and a black mother. Her dad, Thomas Markle, is of mixed European heritage and her mom, Doria Ragland, is African-American. Which would, in fact, make her biracial. That said, does this, somehow, make the statement, “Markle will be the first black wife of a British Prince” untrue? Using the basic facts we have about Markle and her family — and those she has claimed as true herself (Markle identifies as half-black and half-white), it seems, in fact, wrong to not celebrate her blackness.
There are a number of reasons why people would find the label “black” so objectionable. First, because race is a social construct, there is a lot of gray area about what personal race identification actually means and represents. This, of course, varies significantly from country to country, but because of slavery and the one-drop rule in the U.S. — which once legally stated that even a "drop" of black heritage in your blood makes you black — it becomes even less clear. If the world sees you one way, but you see yourself another way, which way is most likely to impact you? Sadly, in America, it's usually the way you are seen by others.
I was born to a black mother and a Filipino father. My grandparents were pillars of the Filipino-American community; they founded the Filipino American National Historical Society and their work was eventually recognized by both the Smithsonian and the White House. My Filipino heritage is something that I honor and feel connected to. My grandparents’ legacy is a source of great pride for me. And still, I identify as black. This is a personal preference, based on how I feel as an individual and in no way is a rejection of my Filipino ancestry.
Still, this is regularly met with interrogation and skepticism. "What are you mixed with?" is a question I've grown increasingly disdainful of. On occasion, the inquirer will be another Filipino person, who recognizes my features or name, but mostly it's men, who generally follow up with something like, "we'd make beautiful children," making this question particularly cringe-worthy. Whenever I hear it, my past experiences train me to expect some creepy comment to follow. If it's a fellow Filipino person looking to connect, I don't mind so much; the latter, however, is nausea-inducing.
I began to notice, though, and became troubled by the fact that I don't think it would have mattered at all what my answer was to those who asked. I could say I was half-Laotian, half-Venezuelan, Creole, part-Cherokee, whatever. No matter what I said, the bearer of the question would have what they wanted: approval at my confirmation that I was "more than just black." From my experience, if someone was asking me what I was "mixed with" they were generally searching for a justification for something, most typically a physical attribute that they found favorable, but didn't associate with blackness. I can recall so many instances, especially in college, of people telling me they didn't think of me as black, and they always thought they meant it as a compliment.
The Idea Of Being "Black Enough"
Another reason I found that people were unhappy about Markle being called “black” is the always depressing, “black enough” argument which, without fail, makes me want to stick my head in the sand and leave it there until it’s over. This "you can't sit with us" argument implies that there are certain requirements (which can be wide-ranging) that a person must meet to be considered "black," regardless of their ancestry. Often, this is applied, not to say that person isn't racially black, but that they aren't culturally black — as in, they don't act black. In Markle's case, she'd fall short of these parameters presumably based on her physical features, as she's what some people would call "white passing." Though many on Twitter disagreed with that notion as well.
Markle, who (when forced to label herself) generally identifies as half black and half white, has dealt with and spoken out about the difficulties she encountered — both personally and in Hollywood — as a biracial woman with fairer skin. Beginning at a young age, the Suits actress remembers when one of her teachers insisted that she check the box for Caucasian, to identify herself on a form they were filling out in class. Why? Because she was pale and freckle-faced and that, according to her teacher, made her white, she told Elle magazine in a July 2015 interview. But even at young age, with encouragement from an authority figure, she remembered feeling like it would be wrong and it would betray her mother.
When the Suits producers selected Wendell Pierce, a black actor who is much darker than her, to play her father, Markle was unpleasantly surprised by the reactions of fans. “They ran the gamut,” Markle wrote in an essay with Elle magazine, “From: 'Why would they make her dad black? She's not black' to 'Ew, she's black? I used to think she was hot.’” Similarly, in a 2014 tweet from a woman insisting that Markle wasn’t black, Markle responded, “my mom and I would certainly disagree.”
The impassioned, sometimes downright vitriolic, responses to Markle being labeled “black,” when the actress herself doesn’t object to it, serves as a reminder of the murky sensitivity that will likely always be attached to discussions of race, particularly when it involves black people. Is it wrong to say that Obama was our first black president because he had a white parent? Is this more of an issue for Markle because she’s so fair-skinned? There are valid arguments on this end about colorism and the widely-practiced erasure of black women with darker skin, but who has the authority to decide that the daughter of a black woman is not also a black woman? While Markle acknowledges and identifies with her biracial background, she still takes umbrage with people saying that she’s “not black.” Doing so is her right.
Ultimately, people will choose to identify how they want to. Barring extreme cases (ala Rachel Dolezal. No, she is not black. No, transracial is not a real thing. Just, no.), the best thing to do would be to let people identify with what feels comfortable to them and accept what they choose. The unfortunate reality is that discussions about race, particularly for black people, will always feel relevant, as issues surrounding privilege and representation continue to impact us so heavily.
This particular bit of news on the royal engagement, however, didn't warrant this discussion. The news should have been met with elation or indifference, not hostility. Considering the current state of our mainstream news, that energy would be better directed elsewhere.