Markle and the racial identity discussion
To many African Americans, Meghan Markle is simply black. So are Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, Halle Berry, August Wilson, Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington.
It doesn’t matter that one of their parents happened to be white or another ethnicity. African Americans are an embracing culture. If you have some of our blood running through your veins, we consider you one of us.
Maybe it goes back to the old one-drop rule. That was one of the Jim Crow laws passed in the South during the early 20th century to thwart racial equality and keep mixed-race people from passing as white. The law generally stated that if a person had even one ancestor of African ancestry — one drop of black blood — they were considered black.
It puzzles me why some white people get upset when Markle or Obama are identified in the media as “black.” I am often flooded with emails from whites insisting that they should be identified as “biracial.” I’m baffled as to why they care so much.
“Perhaps you can answer a question for me,” a reader emailed the other day. “In Britain, it seems, Meghan Markle is referred to as biracial. In the U.S., the press refers to her race (as) black. It was the same with Barack Obama. It strikes me that biracial is more accurate but wonder what you think? Or if you could explain it to me?”
Most of the emails I receive on the subject aren’t that polite. Some people are downright angry. I can only surmise that they feel like black people are trying to lay false claim to successful people who don’t really belong on our side of the aisle. It’s as if we want to hog all the credit for their success, without acknowledging the role the white side of them played.
Or maybe they are desperate to preserve America’s white majority, which is quickly being overtaken by people of color. Whatever the reason, it seems silly.
Most biracial Americans have no problem acknowledging both sides of their heritage, as they should. Regardless, they often are asked to choose. According to a 2015 PEW Research Center survey, the majority of multiracial adults — 60% — are proud of their mixed-race background. At the same time, 55% said they had been subjected to racial slurs or jokes.
Markle, who has a black mother and a white father, wrote about her experiences growing up in Los Angeles in a piece for Elle magazine in 2015. She once refused to follow a teacher’s direction to check the “white” box on a census form in her English class. While home on college break, she heard her mom called the N-word. “My skin rushed with heat,” she wrote. “I shared my mother’s heartache.”
During her first visit to South Africa last year, Markle spoke of her black heritage during a stop in Cape Town.
“On a personal note, may I just say that while I am here with my husband as a member of the royal family, I want you to know that for me, I am here as a mother, as a wife, as a woman, as a woman of color and as your sister,” she said as the crowd cheered.
Obama’s mother is white and his father is African, but he has no ambiguity about who he is. He is a black man.
Shortly after announcing his presidential bid, Obama appeared on “60 Minutes,” where CBS News correspondent Steve Kroft posed this question: “You were raised in a white household. … Yet at some point you decided that you were black.” Obama indicated that it wasn’t his decision to make. “I think … if you look African American in this society, you’re treated as an African American,” he answered.
Halle Berry, whose mother is white and father is black, identifies strongly with African Americans. And she wants the same for her daughter, whose father is white.
“I feel she’s black. I’m black and I’m her mother, and I believe in the one-drop theory,” Berry said in an interview with Ebony magazine in 2011. “I’m not going to put a label on it. I had to decide for myself, and that’s what she’s going to have to decide — how she identifies herself in the world.”
Maybe Berry was on to something. One thing we know from science is that there is no pure European race or pure black race. In America, the legacy of slavery has left our bloodlines intermingled.
All humans are multiracial. Maybe we’d be better off if everyone started looking at one another that way.
Dahleen Glanton is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.
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