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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14 thoughts on “Why Barack is black and Meghan is biracial”
“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.” So, is the British media’s incessant comparison of Meghan to Kate not policing and pathologizing Blackness? I’d say that it is. This notion that the Black and White binary started in the US needs to stop. It started in Europe to align with the slave trade, and was systematized through with British and Spanish Colonialism. America simply modernized it. Historicization is crucial to changing hegemony.
This whole idea of skin color identity is ridiculous. The issue is cultural, not racial. If you are black and identify with the ghetto culture, you are going to be looked at one way. If you are white and identify with the ghetto culture, you are going to be looked at similarly, only maybe even worse. On the other hand, if you are black and rise above the ghetto culture, you are going to have a whole lot more acceptance, privilege and advantages. The bottom line is that the prime mover for racism is not skin color. Sure there are many difficulties that people of color encounter, but they would rapidly disappear if people of color would stop reinforcing stereotypes by BEING stereotypes, When was the last time you read about a mall wilding by whites? Of course you can’t just press a button and make the problems disappear, but you can at least address the root problem, i.e., racism is exacerbated by cultural differences more than melanin in the skin.
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Markle was black and had kinky hair when she was a child.She straightened her hair whiten her skin and did a nose job to hide her blackness But originally she was real black
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Why not claim ALL of your heritage instead of creating a non specific category? No one says I have some “biracial” on my mother’s side. They say German, African, Indian, etc. Biracial could be anything from Asian & Persian to Nigerian & Flemish. It’s probably the least specific way to describe having a multiracial background. Americans of African descent (Black people from US, Caribbean & Brazil) are some of the most multiracial people on earth. We are a mulatto race carefully curated by a racist system. So if we understand that black & white are insufficient classifications, how in the world would biracial be sufficient? Again, why not claim ALL of who you are?
obama is a true mulatto…his dad was black…not mixed. Meghan’s mom has some white ancestry…so…meghan is more than 50% white…thats why.
Where did you get that from? About Meghan’s mother having white ancestors?
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I’m biracial and always enjoy reading perspectives. Thanks. Good read
Barack Obama considers himself black, while Megan consider herself biracial, and describes herself as a “confident mixed race woman”.
” Instead of “passing” or trying to hide her blackness, however, she is outspoken and exudes pride in her heritage.” This is so dramatic, we are in 2018, not in 1850 anymore, why would she be ashamed of her being part black?
Jim Crow was after 1850.
Great Article…I’m Biracial but I prefer identifying as Black
I really enjoyed this post! Thank you for sharing!!!
A very good article. Makes one look at race in a different way. And how biracial persons present themselves. We should be over race but we are not. Interesting how two biracial persons present themselves diffently. Charles Rudolph
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I believe that the reason Obama is considered black and Meghan is biracial is that at the end of the day, regardless of what one’s racial makeup is, they will be viewed based on how they present themselves and in their phenotype appearance. Because Obama looked more African in his appearance, he identifies and relates more to the African American experience. As for Meghan, most people who heard of her name didn’t even know who she was at the time, and when they viewed a photo of her, they didn’t see a typical black woman–many said that she appeared Italian or Latina. It is the perception of what a person looks like, is how they are perceived to the world. I am a Hispanic biracial woman and that is how I appear to the rest of the world. I am not among those many American biracials who will simply fall in line with the usual narrative of self-identifying as ‘black’. It also has a lot to do with one’s upbringing as well. The environment of where a person grows up. I wasn’t raised in a black neighborhood, household or culture, therefore I don’t naturally identify with being black. I don’t assimilate to black culture, because I was raised in a Latin-Carribean family and culture, around other Latin Americans in my neighborhood, schools, and city. Biracials look differently from one another, therefore, their appearance will vary–some appear more black like Obama and some appear more white like Meghan. Being biracial or multiracial is a very unique and individual existence, one that can’t simply be categorized with one broad brush stroke. Each biracial person has a different experience, unique to only them, therefore it is more respectful to allow them to self-identify as how they are most comfortable–to simply label them as “black” or “black (or white) with multiracial background” is so wrong on so many levels. The correct ‘label’ should be ‘biracial’ or ‘multi-racial’. If there was an elimination of labels altogether, that would be the best circumstance!
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I agree with you, but that last part about “correct labelling.” The irony is there is no “correct labelling.” I’m not really black, but more like a chocolate brown. My kids and half-sister who each have a white parents, range from caramel to sand. But they are seen as Black by the world. Part of the issue is labels function to simplify at best, and at worst, erase the nuances of identity politics. I do think there are a few contexts where the simplification serves a purpose. Most people don’t want to list all the things they are if they are “multi-racial” as it’s put, because it is often intrusive and/or impractical. But like many descendant of enslaved Africans, I have about 5 different “races” in my ancestry but I still look Black. So that makes the Scottish ancestry of one of my white (rapist) ancestors irrelevant to my personal identity and, and yet an indirect contributor to my social positioning in a white supremacist society. But at the end of the day, if we’re meeting for coffee and trying to talk about art and cool things, it’s far easier to just say I’m Black, because that’s what is *seen.*