Last year, I started seeing talk of Prince Harry dating a Black woman on my timeline. White men with Black wives and girlfriends, or actually white people with Black partners regardless of gender dynamics, have never raised celebration in me, so I easily avoided the internet chatter about a member of the British royal family in love with a Black American girl. The absolute desperation of Black people, particularly Black Americans with no ties to Great Britain and the propaganda of nobility, fascinated that a white man, a member of an institution founded on all the principles — classism, elitism, birth entitlements — responsible for our global oppression, selecting a Black woman as a mate left me shaking my head, and eager to avoid discussions and debates that would devolve into my opponents accusing me of trying to be “too woke.”
This year, when I scrolled past a picture of Prince Harry and his girlfriend, Meghan Markle, I chuckled at how excited some Black people were over Harry swirling when he had obviously moved on to a new woman. Imagine my confusion when I was informed that in fact, the racially ambiguous woman I was seeing in the pictures with Harry was the sister I had been hearing about for more than a year. Say what, now?
“Oh, she’s Black?” I sarcastically captioned an article I shared celebrating that the Royal House of Windsor was going to have deal with “Black girl magic.” What followed was a few of the Black women I’m connected with on social media responding with pictures of Markle’s mother, explaining how they can see the Black in her and explaining how her Blackness has been passed down. And still, I ask, “Oh, she’s Black?” Then Markle’s engagement to Prince Harry was announced and instantly she became the Ambassador for Negro Culture to the British Royal House.
Two and a half years ago, when Rachel Dolezal was exposed for pretending to be Black, Black Twitter erupted asking, “How did they not know this was a white woman?” And now, we’re looking at a woman who is at best vaguely read as a woman of color, declaring that this is what Blackness looks like. We’re now challenging people who’ll never have to tell the world we’re Black over whether or not our perception of Blackness and the phenotype qualifies as expert opinion. Suddenly, Black doesn’t have a look, one varied but definable enough that we all couldn’t imagine how a white woman with a tan and Kanekalon extensions fooled so many into believing she was Black back in 2015.
Never mind that Markle describes herself as a “strong, confident mixed-race woman.” Never mind that this woman had to tell us that she has a Black mother. Never mind that while she acknowledges she has Black blood, she does not call herself Black. We, Black people, who gain nothing but claiming Blackness for someone who doesn’t wear it or claim it for herself, have decided that images of Meghan with her undeniably Black mother are enough to declare her Black by proxy. And to bolster claims that Markle is most definitely one of us despite the subject herself shying away from the label, we revert to the beloved and begrudged “one drop rule” from centuries back.
Certainly, if this were 1817 and Markle had been born to a mother who looks like her and a white enslaver, that one drop rule would make her Black. Two hundred years ago, people often lived their entire lives in the space. They could not escape lineage the way we can today. In 2017, though, attempting to use that one drop rule which functioned to keep the children conceived as products of rape in bondage to decide who’s Black is as ludicrously offensive as it is harmful.
Social capital matters. When I am pulled over by a cop, arrive for an interview or walk into any establishment, no one asks for my family tree. My Blackness is not something I have to affirm or declare for the world. It is assigned to me by any and all who see me. I wear it. So then, for a woman who looks like Markle, how can we assign Blackness to her based on what we know of her parentage only because she’s told us, when she moves through the world without the scarlet letter of Blackness attached to her?
Is she walking into Barney’s announcing that her mother is Black to ensure salespeople keep an eye on her? Before her fame, was she walking into interviews with a family photo in hand to ensure her potential employers knew she had a Black parent? When pulled over by the cops, was Markle reaching for her birth certificate to assure the officer that Black blood flows through her veins, so he should be sure to afford her the same second-class citizenship he would a woman who looks like Viola Davis or any other unambiguously Black woman?
Blackness is not really the kind of thing you get to decide on for someone else. Outside of family and community ties, Blackness is assigned by the world. And how the world views you inevitably shapes the way you view the world. I’m not assuming that Markle is completely ignorant to the system that oppresses people who look like her mother, but I’m also not assuming that going through life read as “exotic” and anything but a Black woman she understands how that oppression functions first and foremost based on looks.
I mean, if my parents both face the consequences of parenting a child with people who look unambiguously Black, and I, the product of their union live with the choices they made in selecting partners who the world is clear are part of the group the world has reserved most of its harshest oppression for, then I fail to see how Markle’s mother selecting a white man whose DNA also flows through their child’s veins and influenced his daughter’s looks has no bearing on not only how she views herself but how we view her. She is as much the child of a white man as she is a Black woman.
We cannot pretend that Blackness is indivisible and cannot be canceled. As spiritual as it feels, Blackness is not just some abstract concept we cannot nail down beyond feeling. Blackness is viewable, assignable and definable. And if one Black parent is enough to make you Black despite how you present to the world, then why isn’t one white person enough to make you white despite how you present to the world?
But even if I were to set all of that aside and concede that Markle is a Black woman, how would her marrying a British prince represent a win for Black people, more specifically Black women? What’s magical about a Black woman joining the Royal House which orchestrated, organized and monopolized the slave trading industry? Is the goal to free Black people from the system or just to have more of us participating in it?
Just a few weeks ago, Prince William, who will be Markle’s brother-in-law remarked that Africa’s rapidly expanding population puts wildlife in jeopardy. So Markle’s “come up” aligns her with a family that raised a man who has no problem blowing dog whistles about how Black people on their home continent are reproducing too rapidly while making no mention of how his family has profited from that same population for nearly six centuries. I’m missing the magical part of that.
I’m also missing how Black people in institutions that have been purposely and nefariously kept white for hundreds of years is progress. I’m missing how trolling white people who are doing their predictably racist thing is a sufficient reward for us. I’m missing why the Black collective’s chief aspiration seems to be not destroying the root of the disease, but learning to live with it.
Then again, I guess I don’t understand much about Black people who scream about the establishmentconsuming us only to claw our way into it, rising (or falling) to consumer from consumed. And I really don’t understand Black people being honored that a white man would choose a mixed woman who looks more like his folks than ours. And I definitely don’t understand Black people redefining Blackness to force anyone with a hint of Black blood into our folds.