A lot has been made of the potential for Meghan Markle to disrupt the status quo for women, and black women, in particular.
No sooner did we learn her new title—the Duchess of Sussex—than she was playfully nicknamed the Duchess of Success. But success for whom, I wondered? Resulting in what?
Meghan Markle and the Larger Scale
In the midst of #MeToo #TimesUp and the unapologetic return of feminism in full force, it felt oddly off-kilter—all this fuss over a very traditional wedding hyped in fairytale talk of a “commoner” bride being elevated by marriage to a prince. So, like many, I was skeptical. What would Markle’s marriage into the royal family really mean on a larger scale, if anything? Wait and see, I thought. Well, yesterday, I did.
From the first glimpses of Markle and her mother, Doria Ragland, riding toward St. George’s chapel together, there was nothing common about the bride or the way she showed up. At 36, a child of divorce who was previously married herself, I was struck by her composure and self-containment, and I was transfixed by the whole affair.
Why was I suddenly so caught up? Not because it was lovely (although it really was) but because the surprises abounded, from the bride’s “something blue” being the soles of her Aquazurra shoes to far more compelling notes that made this royal wedding something strikingly new.
I was moved by the image of Ragland, beautiful, solitary, and clearly emotional, over her daughter’s shoulder as she recited her vows. I wished she was seated with a loved one, someone to hold her hand. She held her own, with enviable grace. Who could resist the children, the pageantry, the Kingdom Choir, the brilliant young cellist? But what impacted me most in the midst of #BlackRoyalWedding was how the bride was consistently referred to as biracial – as if it was a normal, everyday thing. Except that it was not. At least, not before this wedding. And certainly not in this country, her native USA.
In America, You Have to Choose
Biracial was not an acceptable descriptor of choice when Barack Obama made history as the first black American president. Nor when Halle Berry was hailed for being the first black woman to win an Oscar for a lead actress role. Actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Mariah Carey, both of whose mothers—like Berry’s and Obama’s—are white or other, are also routinely referred to as black. In both cases, it wasn’t where they began when their celebrity status first hit. (At one time, being part Pacific Islander, was more Johnson’s public focal point.) But it’s how they’ve evolved. Because, in America, you have to choose.
Drake, Misty Copeland, Lenny Kravitz, Alicia Keys, Colin Kaepernick, Jesse Williams, J. Cole, Jussie Smollett, Faith Evans, Sade, Bob Marley… the list of prominent celebrities who are biracial but identify as black is long. The list of biracial “commoners” is longer. Why must they self-select into one race and, in so doing, out of their other?
The reasons behind it are ancient and current, complicated and painful, as is everything in our country involving race and color. Which is why we avoid confronting those reasons—still—even in a year when it seems everything is being thrown on the table as the call-out culture revs.
Markle has never been confused about her identity. As she married a white prince on the most public day of her life, she rather boldly celebrated her innate blackness but she does not refer to herself as black, or white. Even as a child, she resisted the pressure to choose one of her races over the other, and she’s been crystal about the reasons why.
In a 2015 Elle magazine article, Markle recounted her first confrontation with having to check a racial box on a form in the seventh grade. Her teacher told her to check the Caucasian box. “Because that’s how you look, Meaghan,” she said. “I couldn’t bring myself to do that,” Markle wrote, recalling the sadness she knew her mother would feel if she did. Instead, she drew a small question mark then put down her pen, devastated.
When Markle told her father about it, his instructions were liberating: “If that happens again, you draw your own box.” And so she has, steadfastly refusing to be labeled as anything more limiting than what she is, a mixed race, or biracial, woman.
It seems so obvious. In an age of heightened sensibilities about micro-aggressions, in an era when #representationmatters and we have created a new nomenclature for people to self-identify a full range of previously unacknowledged gender and sexual preferences, how ridiculous is it that we can’t get comfortable with people owning all that they are racially?
The sad truth is, particularly in American culture, where white and black have been at odds for so long, and where the dividing lines have in some ways deepened in recent years, nothing is as simple, as rational or right as it should be.
If a biracial person is white-leaning in their identity, they are accused of trying to pass. They are more likely to identify black because their appearance (regardless of skin tone) largely dictates their experience, and there is no confusing the black American experience with any other. But those who choose to identify as mixed, are suspect and often seen as being disloyal. We see them as somehow attempting to deny what they are—the black part, specifically—instead of affirming all that they are.
Perhaps that’s why yesterday’s royal wedding was the perfect platform for this moment. Because on such occasions, even the most cynical among us tend to get drawn into the shimmering beauty and hopefulness of it all. And it helped that it didn’t take place on American soil. Maybe from this distance, we could see that when Markle walked down that aisle, toward her African American mother on one side, and her new royal in-laws on the other, she embraced and embodied all of it and, by extension, all of us.
Markle gave us a storybook wedding, but her handling of the details shows her keen awareness of its larger impact. She knows that monarchies and their marriages are all about safeguarding the future of the lineage and this lineage will now be definitively multiracial. She is doing her part to create room for her biracial children to have a different experience than she has.
Whatever else Markle has achieved in her life so far, it is no small feat that the massive worldwide press bowed to her will yesterday, embracing her multiracial identity, and labeling it as precisely that.
Her newly royal status offered her the ability to compel that shift in a way that even her TV celebrity, frankly, never had, and she seized her giant moment on the world stage to make it happen. Having power is one thing; knowing how to use it is another. Perhaps Duchess of Success is already a fitting moniker, after all.