Olivia Woldemikael discusses the differences in how Meghan Markle and Barack Obama present themselves racially and asks what it means for blackness as an identity
The exclusivity and purity of the racial categories, black and white, is a myth, and a destructive one. Yet, it is continuously perpetuated in national discourse and family conversations. As the personalities of celebrities and politicians continue to be venerated in America, the racial identity of public figures such as Barack Obama and Meghan Markle are important sites for changing our ideas about race.
It’s no surprise to me that Barack Obama was considered America’s first black president and Meghan Markle is considered the biracial princess of England. The two are similarly “light-skinned” in racial parlance. Yet, the manner in which each of them has constructed signifiers of their race explains the difference in public perception. While perception alone does not diminish either’s proximity to whiteness and privilege, which may help explain their success. It does, however, draw attention to the way individuals are able to exercise agency in determining their racial identity, undermining the monolithic American racial ideology. The divergent public personas that Obama and Markle have cultivated demonstrate the fragility of racial categories and hierarchies, as well as highlight the need for a paradigmatic shift in the way we discuss and represent race in the media.
In many ways, Barack Obama is equally as biracial as Meghan Markle. Obama was raised by a white mother, lived abroad as a child, and attained not one, but two Ivy League educations—an almost impossible feat for black Americans. No one contests, however, that he is America’s Black President. This was not necessarily a given. Instead, Barack Obama made choices in his life that strengthened his connection with African-Americans and bolstered his claim to American blackness: marrying the darker-skinned Michelle, organising in black communities of Chicago, checking “black” on the census. On the other hand, the self-presentation of Meghan Markle: her straightened hair, her mainstream American role on the television show, Suits, and her choice of husband—the whitest of Prince Charmings—allows Meghan Markle to edge towards whiteness. Instead of “passing” or trying to hide her blackness, however, she is outspoken and exudes pride in her heritage. She insists that blackness is a stamp of honour rather than a stain on Windsor and has taught the American media a new word: biracial.
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As a biracial person myself, I feel indebted to Meghan Markle for pulling the term and notion into the mainstream. It is a term infrequently used, although other well-known black public figures, are in fact multi-racial:Halle Berry, Jordan Peele, Kamala Harris to name a few. It’s not only prominent black people who are more racially mixed than we think they are. Whiteness is not as pure as it pretends to be as figures like Rashida Jones, Vin Diesel, and Troian Bellisario reveal. While there is a phenotypical component to why we see Halle Berry as a black person and Rashida Jones as a white person, non-genetically determined heuristic devices can be much more informative. If anything, the infamous ‘trans-ethnic’ Rachel Dolezal, has clumsily demonstrated how socially-derived race is. We take cues from language and manners of speaking, chosen community, clothing and hair style, among others. Although it would be hard to say blackness is a choice, blackness is certainly a political identity. It’s not one that anyone can adopt, as again, demonstrated by Rachel Dolezal, however, it is one the growing ranks of the racially ambiguous can choose to lean into or away from.
The shift towards a conception of race as a social and transcendent identity rather than a biological destiny is significant. It is the first step to eroding America’s iron-wrought binary in which one drop of blackness is quantifiable, polluting, and absolute. Many of the public figures I listed appear on myriad articles with titles including, “16 Celebrities You Didn’t Know Were Black” as if blackness is their dirty secret,” Twenty Celebrities Who Look White But Are Actually Part Black” as if the White Nation has been betrayed. There is a salacious quality to “outing” people who look white and seem white but aren’t really because their grandmother once had dream about a black man. While these websites are an extreme example, popular posts and public dialogue on race in America is rife with the policing of identity and pathologizing of blackness. News outlets, bloggers, and even academics in America are stuck in discourse embedded in the defunct genetic, ‘blood’-based conception of a race. In this framework, racial ideology associates outward physical traits with IQ and capabilities, morality and criminality, and family and sexuality, and is used to determine who belongs and in what position they belong in America. Further, in this narrow-limited, understanding of race, blackness is continuously defined by its stigma, by its undesirability, and as a contamination.
Racism and the magnifying effects of colourism, in addition to class privilege, cannot be ignored with regards to the black identity. However, one’s measure of blackness is much more than a sum of personal and historical experience of discrimination. Blackness is imbued with depth and joy, blackness comes with pride, blackness cultivates strength, resilience, and empathy, blackness creates culture, language, religion, community, food, identity, blackness is expansive and rich, and ultimately blackness is political. Blackness is not exclusive.
Black, white, biracial, American, African-American are not zero-sum identities. They are multi-layered. Anyone who is multiracial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, knows that each of our unique identities could not be represented by percentages in a pie chart. We navigate a reality that is more challenging and nuanced than a simple color line. We belong to complete families and entire cultures and whole worlds. We possess a fluency, comfort, and perspective that is broad rather than narrow. It is the language we have to describe this phenomenon that limits us. We’re stuck using terms that are reminiscent of the categorisations used by discriminatory laws of the American South: “half-white,” “half-black,” or “one-quarter Latina,” and downright nonsensical. We also must ask ourselves, what is the purpose of this quantification besides trying to track non-white racial and ethnic heritage as if they’re diseases we’re trying to eradicate?
America is need of a crucial awakening that as we’ve reached a breaking point: racist and xenophobic hysteria are causing the progress of the civil rights movement to backslide. Fear of the “immigrant,” the “black,” the “brown,” warping the national identity and sullying white national purity is driving a hate-filled politics that is threatening our democracy. And it’s a fear based on a myth. The racially coherent worlds of television families and identity discussions framed by singular racial descriptors (“black” or “biracial”) are fictions that uphold harmful racial hierarchies. Take for example, popular actors today who, in spite of their multi-cultural backgrounds, are trapped into monocultural “black roles”: Lupita Ny’ongo, born of Kenyan parents in Mexico; Zoe Saldana, a black-Latina; the Iranian-African-American Yara Shahidi. Even the descriptors themselves are unwieldy and incohesive muddles of skin-color, nationality, and ethnicity—they are not equipped for the cosmopolitan world we are already living in.
Media and representation are crucial in individuals’ socialisation, in the imagination of our society, and in reflecting and shaping American cultural values. I’m not asking that my fellow Americans, who consume on average four to five hours of television per day, be psychologically conditioned to endure a society with a racial make-up different from the one it has. I’m only asking for accuracy. Multiracialism is not threat and not the future: it’s already here.
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Olivia Woldemikael is is a writer and a former humanitarian worker with a passion for social justice. She is currently pursing a PhD in Political Science. Her work focus on migration, critical approaches to development, and African politics.
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