All it took for Meghan Markle to “become” black was a proposal from a prince.
“Black American Princess. Palace about to be lit,” a black woman tweeted hours after an official announcement of Markle’s engagement to Prince Harry. Another posted, “So I’ve seen a black president of the United States, and now I’ll see a black woman joining the British royal family. What a time to be alive.”
There’s just one caveat: Throughout her public life, Markle, the daughter of an African-American mother and a white father, has referred to herself as biracial or mixed-race.
Without question, a divorced American actress marrying Harry marks a noteworthy shift in the British monarchy. The last time a royal (King Edward) fell for a divorced woman from the States (Wallis Simpson), he had to abdicate the throne in 1936 to marry her. Fifth in line to the throne, Harry has no such worries. Yet as Markle prepares to join one of most historically white institutions imaginable, nothing about her will be parsed more closely than her racial identity.
Scarred by slavery, our nation was born in racial strife. Naturally, any conversation about racial identity is just as fraught with rancor and misunderstanding, even as science is proving that the racial divide isn’t as impermeable as we tend to think.
Through those popular DNA testing kits, more people are discovering that their genealogy is far more varied than originally believed. Still, there’s an unseemly tendency to push those of mixed races to pledge allegiance to one side or the other. Often, it plays out like the lyrics from Curtis Mayfield’s soul classic, “Choice of Colors”:
If you had a choice of colors
Which one would you choose, my brothers?
Best known for her role on the cable series “Suits,” Markle refuses to choose. Two years ago, she wrote a poignant essay for Elle magazine about being biracial. She shared a childhood story about trying to finish an assigned census without a mixed-race designation. Her teacher told her to check the “Caucasian” box, “because that’s how you look, Meghan.” Instead she put down her pen, unwilling to “choose one parent over the other — one half of myself over the other.”
A biracial friend once told me the same thing. To call herself black, she said, would be dismissive of her white mother. With that, I understood that no one should be pushed to deny the fullness of his or her racial identity.
Of course, Markle doesn’t need to do that. In ways both celebratory and ugly, there are lots of people doing it for her.
Last year, Harry’s communications secretary released an official statement about “the racial undertones of comment pieces; and the outright sexism and racism of social media trolls and web article comments” about Markle and her family. It goes without saying that those comments weren’t anti-white.
Of course, bigots also do the opposite. When I wrote a column about what Barack Obama meant to me as an African-American, I got chiding e-mails saying, “He’s not black, he’s biracial.” One man even asked if I was as enamored of Obama’s “white side.” Yes, the former president is biracial, but also refers to himself as a black man. Of course, it’s not that these people sought racial accuracy. They only wanted to diminish what they perceived as my unnecessary pride, to snatch Obama from the black community that embraces him.
That’s what many African-Americans are now doing with Markle — embracing her and standing as a bulwark against an inevitable racist tide on both sides of the Atlantic. If she does not specifically call herself black, she never runs from it either. She certainly didn’t create a portmanteau — “Cablinasian” — like Tiger Woods, who seemed as eager to distance himself from blackness as to acknowledge his diverse racial identity.
It’s great to see Black Twitter’s rapturous response to the engagement news, and the memes about British fascinators versus black women’s “crowns” at the royal wedding next spring. I hope Markle finds this amusing, not reductive. By any definition, she is a woman of color, and looks more like our demographically changing nation than her fiancé does. In many ways, she can become different kind of “people’s princess,” one unbound by literal black and white labels that say more about those who still use them than those who increasingly refuse to carry them.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated to correct a typo.