[Photo Credit: Gwen Suehunu]
I admit, I am not the most informed when it comes to the love lives or latest gossip on England’s royal family. In fact, as I am starkly aware of the centuries of atrocities the British Empire has unleashed on the African continent, and continues to profit from, unless they’re talking about reparations, I couldn’t give two shits who they marry or are sleeping with. But then again, I’m African, so perhaps I’m a little biased. So imagine my surprise, when my social media timelines, that I purposely keep predominantly Black, were inundated with the news of the “royal engagement.” The reactions seem to be split down the line; there were Black people gleefully celebrating that “a Black woman” was joining the British Monarch, while the rest argued that not only was this not a win for us, but that Meghan Markle is not even Black. It was the latter argument that piqued my intrigue.
The news of this “interracial” engagement soon evolved into an engrossing discussion of Blackness—who is Black and what Blackness entails, and the difference between looking Black and being Black. The subject of who “looks” Black versus who gets to be Black has always been a very touchy topic for me, especially when the conversation centers around biracial or racially unambiguously people. So before I decided to pen my thoughts on the matter into words, I did a little research on Ms. Markle.
In 2015, Elle magazine published a piece written by Markle, detailing her experiences growing up as a mixed race woman. She shares a memory about filling out a census in the 7th grade:
“There was a mandatory census I had to complete in my English class – 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… My teacher told me to check the box for Caucasian. ‘Because that’s how you look, Meghan,’ she said. I put down my pen… I didn’t tick a box. I left my identity blank – a question mark, an absolute incomplete – much like how I felt.”
Markle spends a vast majority of her essay lamenting the difficulties of being “half Black and half white,” but this paragraph stood out to me the most because in this scenario she presents race as a choice. She agonized over having to choose one over the other, but ultimately affirms that she is not going to pick a side but instead forge her own path. While that’s fine and good for her, I couldn’t help but think about the millions of Black people in the world that are not able to oscillate across racial lines. Would the world be a more welcoming place if unambiguously Black representing people were to forego checking a box labeled “Black” on a census?
Of course not. There is your chosen identity and then there is what the world sees. When it comes to matters of race, navigating the world as a Black person is heavily predicated on how the rest of the world views you. I happen to be a woman of African descent, with a dark ebony brown complexion, a tightly coiled coif, and broad facial features. My look may not be the prototype of “Blackness” but it definitely dictates how I am viewed and embraced by society. I don’t need a check box to tell me what I already know. I am Black and I have never been mistaken for anything else nor questioned about my racial makeup. Although the physical attributes of Blackness comes in a variety of hues, facial features, and hair textures, you better believe there is in fact a “look” to Blackness. Pretending otherwise and making the Black identity a free for all and open gate for others to come in whenever they choose is not only offensive to me, but it further seeks to diminish a race that the world is already hell bent on destroying.
Looking Black has very real implications. In 2016, I went on a slew of job interviews that reaffirmed this fact. I interviewed at predominately white nonprofits, law firms, and even a couple IT companies. Sitting in the lobby of these places I often counted how many Black employees I could spot; most times there were very few to none, and they usually had lighter skin with hair much more loosely curled than my own. My Blackness stood out like a sore thumb and I was never surprised when I didn’t receive a call back. There are instances where no amount of smiling or code switching will make my Blackness more palatable.
In her article, “Race Is About Interpretation, Not Identity,” Marissa Jenae Johnson writes,
“The best way to think about your racial identity is to think about what happens when you walk into a room. We racialized people the moment we see them, even subconsciously. Skin color is touted as the primary marker of race… Facial features, hair texture, voice, eye color, and body type are all traits by which we racialize one another.”
Ignoring the fact that phenotype plays a large role in how we discern race is downplaying the fact that those of us that cannot outrun our darker complexions, tighter coils, and thicker, broader features get murdered by the state, imprisoned, economically disenfranchised, and even sold into slavery at higher rates than our lighter skinned and unambiguously Black peers. For example, a research study at Villanova University, found that darker skin Black girls are “three times more likely to be suspended than black girls with the lightest skin” and were perceived as having “boyish aggressiveness” and being less feminine. This highlights the fact that having darker skin—essentially “appearing Blacker”—automatically brands one as more aggressive, unruly, and deserving of harsher treatment.
Which brings me back to Meghan Markle. The fact that someone has a Black parent or Black ancestry alone does not give me reason enough to grant them unlimited access Blackness. Maybe there can be no “gatekeeper” to Blackness but there damn sure needs to be a bouncer, because far too many of us seem too ready to discredit the experiences of those of us who are more susceptible to anti-Blackness based on our appearance in favor of your light skin and unambiguous faves.
In my opinion, the fundamental difference in being biracial or ambiguously mixed race versus being unambiguously Black is that one is drenched in possibilities while the other is set in stone. One is flexible and socio-politically fluid while the other is more rigid. One group gets to “choose” while the rest of us just get handed the cards that are dealt to us. So while some of ya’ll continue to fight tooth and nail for those who sit at the fringe of Blackness as you simultaneously root for a decorative speck of representation at the same white table that has unapologetically devoured Africa for centuries, please understand why the rest of us are watching you with suspicion and resentment as we sit in the center of Blackness yet still get relegated to its shadows.
Meghan can marry and integrate her way into whiteness as she pleases, but don’t expect for me to stand cheering at the sidelines. The Meghan Markles of the world are not representative of those of us that need the most support in the Black community. When those of us who have kinky hair and crutches don’t have to battle racism and ableism to get a job, or those of us who are ebony skinned and transgender no longer have a mortality rate of age thirty-six, or maybe even if those of us with broad facial features without Anglican names finally stop being kidnapped into slavery, I will finally have something to celebrate.
Until then, Meghan, her prince, and the entire British monarch can kiss my unambiguously Black ass.