This week, I wrote a column celebrating the engagement of Meghan Markle, a biracial woman, to royal cutie patootie Prince Harry.
“A woman of color,” I wrote. “A 36-year-old, divorced American black woman has straight-up landed herself a real-life prince.”
The response was real.
Generally, black people and those of you with biracial children shared in my joy. We know this marriage won’t completely solve the racial divide, but the impending royal nuptials offer a glimmer of hope that a woman of color — whether biracial or full-blooded — can become a full member of a European monarchy. Not a servant, not a subject, not a concubine to be stowed away.
There were also, however, those who let me know in no uncertain terms that they were none too pleased with my referring to Markle as a black woman.
Why do black people refer to biracial people as black? readers asked me in dozens of emails peppered with question marks and exclamation points. Some of you even informed me that Barack Obama was not the first black president of the United States, because of his mixed-race parentage.
It was as though many of you thought I had insulted Markle — as though I bruised her soul — by referring to her as a home girl, a sisterfriend, a black woman.
Let me be the first to say that if Markle is offended by my #blackgirljoy, I apologize to her. I get that people don’t like to be called outside their names.
Yet I’m pretty sure that Markle, like many other biracial everyday folk and celebrities — Halle Berry, Colin Kaepernick, former President Obama, and even Tiger “Cablinasian” Woods — are well aware of their blackness because they experience life as a person color in America every day.
(For the record, the black experience is not only one of abject poverty or lack of education. There is an understanding that at any moment you could be shot by someone who doesn’t value your humanity. )
So relax — referring to biracial folks as black is not pejorative.
That said, I’ll move on to answer the burning question that so many readers had: Why do black people claim those who have a black and a white parent? Technically speaking, they are both black and white, not either/or.
It’s because, historically speaking, white America couldn’t, wouldn’t, and didn’t claim biracial people as their own.
Check your mirror.
During the years before Emancipation, biracial children (mulattos) were counted among the enslaved — after all, they were property — and this unfair and generally accepted way of thinking was passed down through generations.
The race-based splitting of hairs didn’t stop there. From reconstruction well into the 20th century, those who were one-quarter black (quadroons) and one-eighth black (octoroons) were also considered black people. That was because of the one-drop rule — an accepted legal principle that said any person with any bit of African heritage was black. That is why those who were fair enough to “pass into white society” lived in fear of being caught.
Black people didn’t make this rule, but it ruled our lives.
This is why skin tones in African American families range from the darkest of ebony to the milkiest of white. These mixed-race people are our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, lovers, and children. We’ve heard them talk about how hard it is to live in a black world where many feel they don’t fit in entirely and in a white world that is loath to acknowledge their very existence.
This doesn’t mean biracial folks weren’t a part of white families. It was just that if a baby had a “touch of tar brush,” it was a closely guarded secret. It wasn’t talked about and “black” family members blended and eventually disappeared.
After my previous column, readers — many of whom told me they were white — reached out in an effort to school me: Markle wouldn’t really be the first person of color to join the British monarchy. That colorful prize went to Queen Charlotte, the 18th-century German wife of King George III for whom the largest city in North Carolina is named. It’s rumored that Charlotte was a descendant of the black branch of Portuguese royalty.
Look, Queen Charlotte may very well be part black.
But we don’t know that for sure. Why? Because if Charlotte’s blackness was revealed to the masses in the 1700s, it would have been pure scandal. Instead, her possible black heritage was hinted at and whispered about, so more than 300 years later it is hard to confirm it, which says more than the pictures of the fair Queen Charlotte with her seemingly coarse hair swept into a fuzzy updo.
The beauty of Monday’s announcement of the royal engagement is that Markle’s heritage is not wrapped tightly in a secret of black shame.
That’s because Markle is proud of her heritage. We know that from the many pictures of her smiling with her mom, Doria Ragland, a black woman, and her dad, Thomas Markle, a white man. The Crown is behind Markle: It was her Prince Harry who condemned those who attacked and harassed Markle using racial epithets via social media.
It should go without saying that by rejoicing in Markle’s status as a woman of color I am not denying her whiteness. But we’re not guessing about her blackness either, and that’s a big deal.