On November 27th, following Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s engagement announcement, Vogue.com tweeted one of its articles with the caption, “Black girls all over the world can finally look at the royal family and see someone like them,” to which Black Twitter responded, “LOL bye.” (Actual quote pull from the comment frontlines, because journalism.)
The tweet pushed to an essay by writer Tariro Mzezewa, in which she describes the significance of Markle’s entry into the British royal family. Mzezewa sees Markle’s engagement to Prince Harry as positive movement in an aging (white) aristocracy that has superficially promoted diversity but not fostered it within its own family tree.
Vogue’s tweet is a modification of the next line in Mzezewa’s essay: “What’s for certain is that for once, girls all over the world can finally look at the British royal family and see someone like them.” Someone added “Black” before “girls,” and readers (who maybe didn’t read the essay to see the contextual foregrounding or the fact that it came from a black woman) reacted. Fast.
Some of these ideas are valid, if we’re responding to generalizations that Markle represents the first time “black” and “royal” have intersected. But some users urged Vogue (or, really, the Vogue Twitter account) not to speak for them (again, we should marinate in the irony that the isolated sentence in question comes from one writer, a woman of color, not an anonymous/amorphous institution). They explained that black royalty already exists (Meghan’s official title would not be “princess,” but there is symbolic “princess” ideation here); that marrying into a British monarchy that enslaved and subjugated Africans for centuries is not a victory for black people. Other people began to evaluate Meghan’s blackness, and descriptions varied: from “she’s mixed” (read: not really black), to “she’s black but,” to she doesn’t look “like me” or “any of the black girls I know.”
This is where the conversation gets exhausting. It’s okay to acknowledge or identify (and even celebrate) Meghan’s blackness; it’s okay to still want dark-skinned representation in structures of power. But to question the validity of her blackness, to put it to a scale and say “this much, not that much” falls into the complex “blood quantum” of being mixed—and more broadly reveals the scars of colorism in minority groups. Side-eyeing Meghan’s blackness or trying to hack it into black and white percentages can be just as problematic as a tweet dictating a universal model for black excellence. Vogue, again, tweeted a slightly modified sentiment from a black essayist, but other publications are falling into dangerous (or at least eye roll-inducing) territory—either brandishing Markle’s blackness as something that will keep her from truly being part of the British monarchy, or using it to create a romanticized black princess narrative that both exoticizes and others her.
Strawmaning Meghan Markle as “not black” to upend the latter solves nothing. You can tell publications founded by white institutions that they can’t speak for us, that they can’t make markers for who black women see themselves in. But let’s not equivocate her blackness, or measure her skin color (there’s a Fenty Beauty shade for us all), or analyze her hair follicles and which parent she looks like. The arguments over Markle’s blackness echo the arguments white Americans who clung to Barack Obama’s half-whiteness made to deny him the achievement of being America’s first black president. (Aside: why do we see black and biracial as mutually exclusive identities?) Of course, marrying a prince isn’t really an achievement. But Markle is an activist, actress, and writer who has done more to be admired. People are scorning her for a construct—black princess—she doesn’t even claim to be.
Whether you see her as black or mixed, whether or not you understand the one-drop rule and its traumatic origins, whether her skin is lighter or deeper than yours—she’s a woman of color and she deserves our support.
I’m calling out to anyone who is measuring Meghan’s blackness: Can we stop? Can we have a moment to be really happy for a woman of color who is motivated, intelligent, and successful falling in love with the right man for her? Her ethnic background should not be excluded from the conversation but should not be its sole focus either, especially when outlets are using “black” and “biracial” as clickbait terms, and scrutinizing her mother’s hair and home, and asking us to see her as a mysterious, exoticized object instead of as the woman she is.
I’m happy that a woman of color is entering the forefront of a powerful, previously all-white institution. I’m happy for Meghan and Harry. I’m happy to see me in a woman who has many qualities that are easily admirable—and who is black, biracial, both.
Update (December 4th, 2017, 10:58AM): After reading some comments on social media, I wanted to address an evident hole in my writing. There is inherent privilege in being racially ambiguous, in having light skin. While I don’t think that racial ambiguity negates or disqualifies a biracial woman’s blackness, I do hear and feel the arguments from women of color who think that certain privileges aren’t being legitimately engaged in the larger conversation. I stand by the message of my story and the directness of my headline, and I thank all of you who are offering thoughtful responses to this piece, which was gut-reaction writing to something I noticed on social media. Obviously, there can be more in-depth analysis when it comes to how people and the media at large are framing, discussing, denying, or celebrating Meghan’s blackness. This story takes a look at something small (a Twitter thread) and tries to understand the motivations behind it. — NA