What Meghan Markle's racial identity means for the monarchy

by Joanne Black / 19 May, 2018
Meghan Markle. Photo/Getty Images

Meghan Markle. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Meghan Markle racial identity

The importance of racial identity to Meghan Markle is being closely watched in the US ahead of this weekend's royal wedding.

African-American actor Whoopi Goldberg was indeed whooping on the day the engagement was announced between Prince Harry and the United States actor Meghan Markle.

“Markle would be the very first biracial American royal in the UK,” Goldberg told ABC’s daytime talk show The View. “The hue of the royal family is about to shift, which is kind of interesting. It’s kind of wonderful. All you kids out there, all you little girls who say, ‘That could never happen to me,’ I’m telling you, stuff’s happening all the time.”

It seems more than a little regressive that little girls are still being encouraged to aspire to marry well, but many people share Goldberg’s instinct that Markle’s ethnicity matters. It is almost certain, says Jennifer DeVere Brody, director of the Centre for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University in California, that if Markle were white, she and Harry would not have been named in Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2018.

“There is a long history of British men ‘rescuing’ brown women and I think their relationship feeds in to an idea of Harry as open, exceptional and modern,” DeVere Brody says.

Watch Harry and Meghan talk about their engagement:

Writing in Time, actor Priyanka Chopra gushed that her friend Markle “found her prince, fell in love and made a cynical world believe in fairy tales again”. However, as Harry’s complaint in the early stages of their courtship about the “wave of abuse and harassment” made clear, the relationship also attracts racist vitriol.

That experience is one way we understand that people are black, says Ralina Joseph, the director of the Centre for Communication, Difference and Equity at the University of Washington in Seattle. “Having to face anti-black racism means that you understand what it means to be African American.”

Race is complicated in the US, Joseph says: until the 2000 census, people could choose only one option (black, white, Eskimo, Hawaiian and so on) for their racial identity, but since 2010 a “check all that apply” option has been available. They can now be black and white.

Arguably the republic’s most famous biracial son is former President Barack Obama, who had a white mother and an African father. He identifies as African American and has said he chose that option in the 2010 census. By contrast, Markle, who has a black mother and a white father, has described herself as mixed-race.

“While my mixed heritage may have created a grey area surrounding my self-identification, keeping me with a foot on both sides of the fence, I have come to embrace that,” she wrote in Elle magazine in 2015, “to say who I am, to share where I’m from, to voice my pride in being a strong, confident mixed-race woman.”

She told Allure magazine last year that a university African-American studies class exploring “colorism” was “the first time I could put a name to feeling too light in the black community [and] too mixed in the white community”. Racial ambiguity was  sometimes a problem in her acting career. Until she got her break playing the role of paralegal Rachel Zane in Suits, “I wasn’t black enough for the black roles and I wasn’t white enough for the white ones, leaving me somewhere in the middle as the ethnic chameleon who couldn’t book a job.”

Barack Obama – pictured with wife Michelle and daughters Sasha, left, and Malia – had a white mother and an African father. He identifies as African American. Photo/Getty Images

Barack Obama – pictured with wife Michelle and daughters Sasha, left, and Malia – had a white mother and an African father. He identifies as African American. Photo/Getty Images

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.

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