Like so many people around the world, I watched Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. As a Black woman married to a white man, I was particularly interested to hear the couple’s experiences dealing with tabloids bent on a negative portrayal of the Duchess. I had observed – like many Black women and people of color – the racial dog whistling in anti-Meghan articles in British tabloids and stateside in outlets like Fox News; I knew intuitively that much of the negative press existed because she is a woman with Black ancestry who dared to pave her own way in an ancient institution.
I hoped the interview would touch on this fact and perhaps also spill some royal tea. And boy, did it deliver. The royal couple spoke about Markle’s struggle with the pressures of enduring constant racially-tinged attacks from the British press and the lack of support she feels she received from her new family. The couple also shared their familial challenges, including the revelation that launched a thousand Oprah memes: an unnamed member of the royal family wondered aloud how dark the couple’s firstborn child’s skin would be.
Like Oprah, I was astounded – not that a royal family member would think such a thing, but that they would say it out loud, and say it to the father of said child.
But the reactions to the interview from Black authors I admire surprised me even more. Some suggested that Markle was racially naïve and, as a woman identifying as biracial, disconnected from her Blackness. These reactions seemed steeped in the One Drop rule, a centuries-old racist and patriarchal American practice that held that “one drop” of Black blood made a person Black and thus barred them from the rights of full citizenship.
I wondered: Why are we still using a racist paradigm to define Blackness, and does a person’s decision to identify as biracial mean they’re disconnected from their Black heritage? With three biracial children, I felt particularly invested in the answer.
Why are we still using a racist paradigm to define Blackness, and does a person’s decision to identify as biracial mean they’re disconnected from their Black heritage?
Meghan Markle and proximity to whiteness
The question about who gets to decide Blackness formed in my mind as I read think pieces from Black authors who write regularly about race. I saw a similar argument emerging that boiled down to this: Meghan Markle thought her proximity to whiteness and her light skin would protect her from discrimination. Some pointed to the fact that Markle, despite having a Black mother, refers to herself as “biracial” or a “woman of color” as evidence that she is not connected to her Blackness and therefore entered her new marriage with racial naiveté.
Here’s a sampling of some of these thoughts:
From a March 9 Instagram Post by Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want to Talk About Race and Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America:
“If there is one important lesson us light-skinned folx can learn from what has happened to Markle it’s this: when we bank on our proximity to whiteness we are (sometimes literally) marrying ourselves to our continued oppression, and that when we are the only Black person in the room, we will be treated like the blackety-blackest person in that room, no matter how light our skin.”
From a March 8 Instagram TV post by Sonya Renee Taylor, author of The Body Is Not an Apology:
“For Meghan Markle to have not known that she was walking into that level of racism, speaks to the ways in which Meghan Markle was detached from her own black identity to begin with. Because anybody who’s connected to their black identity knows you’re getting ready to walk into the monarchy and be treated like a nigga. And if you don’t know that, then you’ve been benefitting from some serious proximity to whiteness that has obscured your blackness in such a way that you haven’t had to think about that shit. And so, you know, one way or another, the world will always wake you up and remind you you’re Black, no matter how far you try to run.”
And from a March 8, 2021 Refinery29 article by Kathleen Newman-Bremang titled “During Oprah’s Interview, Meghan Markle Shared The Moment She Realized Whiteness Wouldn’t Protect Her”:
“Throughout the Oprah interview, it became clear to me that the past few years have likely been the first time Markle has been faced up close with the reality that white supremacy is the foundation of certain systems, and that whether you call yourself “biracial” instead of “Black” or say and do the “right” things, speak the “right” way, or have “good hair,” you are not immune to its oppression. Yes, Meghan Markle is light-skinned. She is the most “palatable” kind of Black woman — a fact that might even be related to why she was deemed desirable enough to date by Prince Harry — and still, even Markle’s proximity to whiteness couldn’t save her from the royal family’s commitment to anti-Blackness. What got her into the family (her “acceptable” Blackness and beauty) is also the reason she was forced out of it.”
I found myself surprised at the amount of projecting that was happening. To my knowledge, we have no evidence of what Meghan Markle’s racial thoughts were when she married into the royal family, much less that she thought that being a light-skinned woman of color would protect her from discrimination.
And by all accounts, the royal family accepted her initially, until she says she basically went from pet to threat (the phenomenon when your boss adores you then dislikes you when you unapologetically own your confidence and competence – a phenomenon with which many women of color are keenly familiar). If anything, Markle seemed to believe that what would protect her was being a member of the royal family, which has a habit of protecting its image, no matter what.
Undergirding much of the criticism of the Oprah Winfrey interview was Meghan’s identification as a biracial woman of color, rather than as a Black woman. For some authors, this seemed to imply that she doesn’t acknowledge her Blackness and her Black heritage – that she is disconnected from it.
The thing is, she doesn’t seem disconnected from her Black heritage. In fact, as an active royal, she seemed to constantly be reminding people of her Black ancestry. Remember Bishop Michael Curry preaching a distinctly Black sermon and the Black gospel choir singing “Stand By Me” at the royal wedding? Remember her Black mother in the royal photos after Archie was born? Remember in South Africa when she referred to herself as a “woman of color”? Even during the Oprah interview, Markle and her husband reminded the world that she has Black ancestry and was treated differently because of it. It is as though she is constantly reminding people – in particular, white people – that, despite having married into a historically white institution, she is not white.
‘Because that’s how you look, Meghan’
In her 2015 essay for ELLE magazine, we see that Markle has often been asked to deny her Blackness, but that she has no interest in doing so. She recounts a story about how, in seventh grade, she was asked to fill in her race:
“…you had to check one of the boxes to indicate your ethnicity: white, black, Hispanic or Asian. There I was (my curly hair, my freckled face, my pale skin, my mixed race) looking down at these boxes, not wanting to mess up, but not knowing what to do. You could only choose one, but that would be to choose one parent over the other – and one half of myself over the other. My teacher told me to check the box for Caucasian. ‘Because that’s how you look, Meghan,’ she said. I put down my pen. Not as an act of defiance, but rather a symptom of my confusion. I couldn’t bring myself to do that, to picture the pit-in-her-belly sadness my mother would feel if she were to find out. So, I didn’t tick a box. I left my identity blank – a question mark, an absolute incomplete – much like how I felt.”
In the article, Markle also discusses witnessing racial abuse directed toward her Black mother, as well as microaggressions she experienced as a person with Black ancestry. Specifically, she recounts watching as her mother was called the “n” word by an irate driver in a parking lot, growing up in a Los Angeles that was still processing the Rodney King and Reginald Denny cases, and, while an actress on the television show Suits, seeing the racist reactions from certain pockets of the show’s fandom when her character’s father was cast as a Black man – making her character biracial and not white, as some viewers had assumed based on Markle’s appearance. She notes in the article that the U.S. “has perhaps only placed bandages over the problems that have never healed at the root.” These musings suggest that Markle wasn’t, as Newman-Bremang suggested, under the impression that “she was immune” to oppression or unaware of racist systems. In fact, Markle seems very much aware of the pervasiveness of white supremacist thinking. And, though Markle has undoubtedly received privileges as a light-skinned biracial person, she doesn’t seem interested in either denying her Blackness or emphasizing her whiteness.
This insistence that Meghan is Black – and therefore should publicly identify herself as such to avoid seeming as though she is disassociating from Blackness – is rooted in a complicated racial history that centers on the “One Drop Rule.”
What the One Drop Rule has to do with it
As F. James Davis writes in Who is Black? One Nation’s Definition, the One Drop Rule held that “a single drop of ‘black blood’ makes a person a black” and is an example of a hypodescent rule, which holds that “racially mixed persons are assigned the status of the subordinate group.”
That last part is important. The One Drop Rule was established to protect whiteness, preserve white male power, and stigmatize Blackness. It was reinforced by legislation and enforced with violence. The rule allowed white human traffickers to rape enslaved women and not only deny responsibility for the resulting children, but also gave them the legal right to enslave their own children. After slavery, the same rule allowed white men to continue to rape Black women without consequence, and, buttressed by anti-miscegenation laws, often prevented white and Black people in consensual relationships from pursuing legal unions.
The One Drop Rule was established to protect whiteness, preserve white male power, and stigmatize Blackness.
Black people came to define Blackness by this rule, too – I believe, in many ways, to declare that Blackness is not something shameful that should be hidden or avoided. Whereas white society used the One Drop rule to exclude people from whiteness, Black people used the rule to include people into Blackness. When Black people claimed their Blackness despite having white ancestry, they were saying there’s nothing wrong with being Black – as the rule implied by its very existence – that being Black is worth being claimed and celebrated.
Placed in this historical context, I think this is why, to some Black people, when biracial people don’t identify as Black, it feels like an affront. It can feel for some as though they’re saying they’re ashamed of their Blackness, that being Black is something shameful that should be hidden, and that whiteness is more desirable than Blackness.
But I don’t think that’s what Meghan Markle has done at all. She seems very much aware of her Black ancestry – both when she was an active royal and before, as her ELLE article confirms. In the article, she voices her “pride in being a strong, confident mixed-race woman.”
The freedom to choose
I don’t want my children to deny either side of their ancestry, but to acknowledge them both…Practically, it means that our goal is making sure our kids are just as comfortable two-stepping to Willie Nelson as they are doing the cha cha slide at a fish fry.
By describing herself as mixed-race or biracial, Meghan Markle is exercising her freedom to define herself absent the One Drop rule. This is the freedom I want for my children – to define their identity not by a centuries-old rule created to elevate whiteness and stigmatize blackness, but by their own understanding and identity. I want them to connect to both sides of their family tree because my husband and I both exist in their lives. I want them to connect to both sides of their family tree because having a Black mother and a white father doesn’t mean their whiteness has been sullied by Blackness, and it doesn’t mean their Blackness has been improved with whiteness (as some well-meaning, but racist people imply when they say “Biracial kids are so cute.)
I don’t want my children to deny either side of their ancestry, but to acknowledge them both. Acknowledging this history means my children know they are descended from enslaved people as well as enslavers, from good and bad and complicated people, from people who were white and Black and brown and all the hues between. Practically, it means that our goal is making sure our kids are just as comfortable two-stepping to Willie Nelson as they are doing the cha cha slide at a fish fry.
When we ask our kids how they identify racially, they rarely answer the same way twice.
As a toddler, one of my children looked at their light brown skin and, seeing that it was the same color as their white father’s tan, figured they must both be white. During the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the death of George Floyd last year, the same child, a few years older now, proudly said, “I’m Black, and Black lives matter.” The very same child casually told another kid that same year, “I’m bi-Rachel. That doesn’t mean that I’m by a woman named Rachel, it means I’m Black and I’m white.”
I hope all my children can continue to define themselves in a society constantly trying to define them by erasing or elevating one parent or the other. If they choose to identify as Black, I hope they do so because of their own identity, and not because they feel chained to the One Drop Rule. However they identify, I hope they can each say, as Meghan Markle wrote in 2015, “I am enough exactly as I am.’”
Editor’s Note: Ijeoma Oluo later edited her March 9 post to add the following note: “it was rightfully pointed out that I incorrectly have used ‘white passing’ here as Markle has never tried to hide the Blackness in her heritage. While I do think she has knowingly traded upon her racial ambiguity in the past (and to my knowledge has long identified as a WOC or mixed, not as a Black woman) she has always been very open about her parentage and is openly very close with her mother. There is a painful history with passing in our community and I should be more careful with my word choice. Thanks to those who brought it to my attention.”