Forget the frock. It was the media's embrace of the term "biracial" that cut across the coverage of both last weekend's wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
As Elaine Welteroth, former editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, pointed out, the use of the term biracial for a celebrity is rare. "Think about it: in the case of virtually every other “biracial” celebrity we know—many of whom marked historic “firsts,” from President Obama to Halle Berry—the media has used the term “black” to describe them."
As a woman of colour, what I’ve noticed is that people often respond to simplicity. Anything other than a one-colour-backstory generates questions. In this case how one should refer to Hollywood’s latest princess. Sorry, Duchess.
Beneath the ‘where are you from’ question, is a desire for something cognitively digestible, not a backstory that interweaves numerous places and races. When I say I’m Afro-Caribbean and Anglo-Irish, born in Guyana but raised in Australia, I know it’s too much information for some. And for others my whiteness lessens the complexity of a West Indian heritage, draws me back into something more accessible. Geographic placement is one thing, but validity is something entirely different, and this is why Meghan has for many people of mixed heritage, become a beacon of change.
Welteroth writes in her post: “Until recently, U.S. Census forms still asked us to check a box: black or white. This in spite of an awareness of the rise of interracial families globally. But, until now, it seemed we weren’t ready to acknowledge them.”
It’s true. Humans like boxes, and not just in the US. An essentialist approach to identity leaves many unable to tick either ‘black’ or ‘white’ on that administrative checklist. The idea that everyone else could simply fit into the ‘other’ box has always felt to me, like bureaucratic bigotry. But as Welteroth reiterates, race is largely is in the eye of the beholder: “While we know race is a social construct and racial identity is personal to an extent, in America, one’s lived racial experience is mostly dictated by perception.”
The fact that Meghan’s transcendence has encouraged many to unpack racial bias and prejudice, is also why people of all racial distinctions celebrated her arrival so enthusiastically
Perception yes, but also a long held apprehension about bi-raciality. While we rightly denounce the racial purists who trade only in fear and ignorance, I still remember growing up wondering if I would ever see a mixed race couple on American TV. Not during a one-off ‘social issue’ episode but as an affirmation that society at large was comfortable with what I am the product of.
Enter Meghan Markle, the actress on Suits. This is a show that conspicuously references her character’s biracial status. It’s one of the reasons why I watched it in the first place. Finally! That’s me up there, without the legal prowess and six inch heels. But in other ways, she’s definitely not me.
As Welteroth points out: "Your skin tone, hair texture, and other physical characteristics ultimately determine how you are seen, labelled, and treated in the world."
And this is where the tension sits with Meghan; reconciling her presence on screen as a biracial woman, but that aesthetically, she still leans into an Anglicised idea of beauty: light skin, an endearing sprinkle of freckles and straightened hair. I'd like to suggest that these are ‘gateway’ attributes that affirm the privilege of whiteness and provide a pathway into mainstream success. It’s still the game many women who advocate for equality, and the right to be black on their own terms, play.
Oprah for example (who attended the wedding) has almost always had her hair straightened, or stylistically curated. This isn’t a judgement about personal choices, rather an acknowledgement that whiteness is still observed as desirable and powerful. But the fact that Meghan’s transcendence has encouraged many to unpack racial bias and prejudice, is also why people of all racial distinctions celebrated her arrival so enthusiastically.
Still Welteroth acknowledges that “seeing a white-passing woman with her black mother as they are ushered into the royal family is an image that will have an indelible impression on us all—whether we verbalize it or not.”
I too got emotional watching them in the car. I can’t really say why, but I felt it. I was unexpectedly proud. But as Welteroth suggests this ‘white-passing woman’ makes many question whether a biracial woman was just that little bit more… palatable.
Although she’s previously situated herself as biracial, the African-American spectacle and glory at the wedding, tells another story; that of a proud black woman
With a name like Markle, there’s even an inference to a German heritage, which if you're really stretching for a connection, provides a tenuous cultural link to the British Royals. Interestingly, Meghan’s not the first woman of colour to penetrate Britain’s aristocracy. Emma McQuiston, a former model and blogger shifted the goal posts in 2013 when she became Viscountess Weymouth. While she is of mixed heritage, news reports at the time often referred to her as being black. I suspect it was more important for some to recognise her Nigerian ancestry, to make visible blackness and in doing so, validate Britain’s vast population of citizens with African heritage.
Like many biracial people, Meghan has struggled with self-identification. But the wedding ceremony, conspicuously embracing her African-American heritage, demonstrates her willingness to keep “a foot in both sides of the fence.”
Although she’s previously situated herself as biracial, the African-American spectacle and glory at the wedding, tells another story; that of a proud black woman. And I think that’s the point. For all the speculative inquiry, do we still demand that she recognise herself as one over the other? Welteroth’s final question nags at me too: "… if Meghan’s skin tone were a few shades deeper, or if she had worn her naturally curly hair, would we be making space for her biraciality? Would the royal family have been ready for its first unequivocally black princess?"
We are all to some extent, a contradiction of selves, amalgamating histories and experiences as we go. People will align with Meghan based on a number of denominators and expectations. How far will she push her feminist agenda? Will she also tackle the pervasive presence of racism or is this too hot for a newly minted Duchess to handle? No doubt she’s a game changer.
But once the confetti has settled, how will the Meghan effect really impact on race relations in the UK? The weight of history is too much a burden for any one individual to bear. But we’ll all be watching how she fares, and how far she leans into her biracial identity along the way.