Racialisation by default
It may make a difference, says Joseph, that Markle has a black mother and a white father, rather than the other way around. People become racialised in different ways, she thinks, and a distinct type of racialisation occurs when mixed-race American children have an African-American mother.
“When you see mixed-race families where the kids are going blindly into the world, that’s often where there is a white mother and a father of colour and the kids might have been told, ‘You’re growing up on love’ and, ‘There’s no such thing as race.’ But there is a different type of work that mothers of colour or black mothers do with their children, so I wonder about the conversations about race that Meghan might have had growing up, or might have seen through her mum, and how her mother might have been treated when her parents went out.
“For example, did people understand and acknowledge that her parents were together? Or did people see her mother and assume she was a nanny, which sometimes happens with children who pass as white and who have a mother of colour?”
DeVere Brody says racial conditioning by black mothers may be a legacy of the historical law that the child of an enslaved mother was also enslaved, regardless of who the father was. “So the idea that your mother might shape identity also has a legal history of producing blackness in children.”
At least some of the racist abuse that Markle has faced since her engagement to Prince Harry relates to the possibility of African-American ethnicity being added to the royal family’s gene pool.
DeVere Brody is not sure that Prince William, whose children follow directly after him in the line to the throne, would have had the same choice Harry had to marry a woman of colour. For William to marry a commoner was fine, “but the perception that they are white matters, and the questions around bloodline have a very different meaning in Britain than they do in the US”.
DeVere Brody agrees that race is complicated in the US. “There are many ways in which Meghan is a contradictory figure and the many ways to read the meaning of their relationship are inextricably connected to questions of race and reproduction.”
Joseph says any offspring of Harry and Markle “will be scrutinised for any signs of blackness” and conversation will focus on what this means about the monarchy. Such questions, Joseph says, reflect an anxiety about blackness.
“My book is about the anxiety of seeing blackness in mixed-race bodies and [people] thinking about the way in which mixed-race African-American bodies would be so much better if they were able to transcend their drops of black blood.”
Harry’s choosing a mixed-race bride “means something” but exactly what it means is hard to say, Joseph says. Equally, it means something when monoracial people have relationships with other monoracial people. “That’s probably not an accident; that’s a political choice. And when you find yourself in an interracial relationship, that’s a political choice, too.”
The idea that love is blind is a ridiculous notion that neuroscience has debunked, Joseph says. “We know that implicit bias is real.”
She will watch to see whether Markle uses the platform she now has to promote issues of racial equity. “What is she going to do with this stage that she’s been given?”
This article was first published in the May 19, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.