Being Biracial Shouldn’t Be An Excuse To Be Racially Neutral
Whenever Meghan Markle comes up in the news, my mind immediately always comes back to this quote from her:
On the heels of the racial unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore, the tensions that have long been percolating under the surface in the US have boiled over in the most deeply saddening way. And as a biracial woman, I watch in horror as both sides of a culture I define as my own become victims of spin in the media, perpetuating stereotypes and reminding us that the States has perhaps only placed bandages over the problems that have never healed at the root.
I, on the other hand, have healed from the base. While my mixed heritage may have created a grey area surrounding my self-identification, keeping me with a foot on both sides of the fence, I have come to embrace that. To say who I am, to share where I’m from, to voice my pride in being a strong, confident mixed-race woman.
The reason for this is that Markle’s fame is largely based on her racial identity. Not only has she received a great deal of attention for her marriage to Prince Harry, but this attention comes largely from the fact that she is not white. As Funmi Olutoye wrote: “We’ve made it. I say ‘we’ because even though she’s mixed race, the world still looks at her as black.” The notion that the elevation of a single black individual represents black progress is misguided. This is a topic that I addressed when I wrote The Black African Crisis in the Age of a Black President to help dispel the idea that Barack Obama’s presidency in of itself represented collective advancement for black people. But beyond that, Olutoye invokes the one-drop rule to claim Markle for black people, despite the fact that Markle’s remarks demonstrate that Markle clearly regards herself as a biracial woman who stands on the fence between black and white. Markle does not profess to be a black woman.
Obama was hailed as the first black president not only because of the one-drop rule, but also because Obama consciously identified as black or African American. There was little racial ambiguity on Obama’s part. This is why David Kaufman wrote:
Barack Obama may have been a hero to “black America,” but for biracial Americans like myself, the former president never quite felt like the champion we’d waited so long for.
Early on, he seemed like he might be: As the son of a white mother and Kenyan father, Obama vocally touted his unique — and uniquely multi-cultural — background throughout his education, writing and early career. Finally, it seemed, folks like me had found a role model.
Yet when it came time for Obama to shift into “candidate” mode, he clearly calculated that positioning himself as black, rather than biracial, was the wisest way to secure the presidency. Little changed once he entered to Oval Office.
Whereas Olutoye positions Markle as a black woman to make her case that Markle marrying into the royal family is a game-changer for black people, Kaufman presents Markle as a biracial hero. Kaufman explains: “ By ‘owning’ her mixed ethnicity, Markle is defining her own narrative and inspiring others to do the same.”
I reference Olutoye and Kaufman to demonstrate that Markle’s racial identity is at the center of much (if not most) of the attention that she has received for marrying into the British royal family, and some of this attention has been centered around the arguments over whether Markle is black or biracial. This is why I always go back to the quote from Markle that I mentioned above.
Markle clearly identifies as biracial, meaning that she does not hold one racial identity above the other. In doing so, however, Markle also attempts to take a neutral position on racial injustices and this is the issue that I will address in this piece.
Markle explained: “And as a biracial woman, I watch in horror as both sides of a culture I define as my own become victims of spin in the media, perpetuating stereotypes and reminding us that the States has perhaps only placed bandages over the problems that have never healed at the root.” Nowhere in her remarks did Markle address the fact that police violence against African Americans combined with the dire poverty that African Americans live in were the reasons for the unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore. The conditions in Baltimore are so horrible that Sen. Bernie Sanders compared Baltimore to a third world country. Markle is so concerned about “both sides” of her culture that she has little time to think about black suffering in America.
This is the problem with using biracial identity as an excuse to be racially neutral. Doing so often results in ignoring both black suffering and the racist political, economic, and social structures which produce black suffering. Dak Prescott claimed that being biracial helped him in being a leader for the Dallas Cowboys because he can relate to both his black teammates and his white teammates. Yet, when it comes to the issue of kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality, Prescott opposed doing so. It turns out that Prescott’s views on the NFL protests are more in line with how the majority of white Americans feel about the protests, so on a very serious political matter which is black and white, Prescott is comfortably on the white side.
Keep in mind that the NFL protests were initiated by Colin Kaepernick, who is also biracial, but Kaepernick very firmly identifies with his African identity, despite having been raised by an adopted white family. Therefore being biracial does not necessarily mean that one has to ignore racial injustices or pretend to be racially neutral when racial injustices are occurring.
One of the largest uprisings against slavery in the history of the Americas was in Grenada and was led by a biracial man known as Julien Fedon. Imagine if Fedon decided that, being a biracial man in a society that offered certain privileges to biracial people, he was going to accept the status quo and not rebel against slavery? Would Fedon be remembered as a heroic individual in Caribbean history? What about Bob Marley? How would Bob Marley be remembered if he decided that as a biracial individual he was going to simply ignore the struggles of African people and instead make music about belonging to two cultures?
Individuals who try to keep a foot on both sides of the fence have typically not been individuals who have advanced the struggle against racial oppression in any significant way. I know some readers may try to interpret this as a criticism of Meghan Markle, but I am merely referring to historical facts here. One cannot be on both the side of the privileged and the underprivileged, and Markle clearly is in a privileged position because her wealth and fame have given her a level of visibility that poor black women simply do not have. Instead of using that position to speak out against racism, Markle has opted to remain neutral.
Markle has also engaged in apolitical charity work in African countries such as Rwanda, while ignoring the fact that the United Kingdom is one of the many Western nations that have supported Paul Kagame in Rwanda, despite some of his repressive policies. In Markle’s defense, she probably isn’t even aware of the politics of neo-colonialism in Africa, but this has always been the problem with celebrity charity work in Africa. It is conducted by celebrities who aren’t really interested in understanding the politics of why Africans are poor. This is especially more noticeable with Markle, who proclaimed herself to be a “sister” on a visit to South Africa. Markle relates to Africans more like a philanthropist foreigner than as a sister who connects with the African struggle.
Whereas Markle generally ignores the legacy of colonialism — a legacy embedded in the very royal family she married into — some have even gone so far as to use their multiracial ancestry to defend colonialism. An example of this is in Trinidad where some activists have been calling for a statue of Christopher Columbus to be removed because of the fact that Columbus enslaved and murdered the native people of the Caribbean. Eric Lewis, a multiracial man, defended the statue by explaining:
I have Spanish decent in me, I have indigenous Amerindian descent, I have East Indian and African. I am one person and if it is that one person can exist in oneself with happiness, joy and peace why shouldn’t the world exist in happiness, joy and peace among different faiths, among different beliefs and among different customs.
So taking that into consideration I myself personally have no enmity against Columbus, the Spanish, or against this and against that. I am a cosmopolitan individual and I think that is 2017, people need to understand we can live and coexist harmoniously without the fight.
Lewis seems to miss the fact that it is because people want peaceful coexistence than they want the Columbus statue removed because Columbus is a symbol of racism, oppression, and genocide. Lewis resorts to a statement about having Spanish and other different races in him, as if that somehow changes the historical reality of colonialism and slavery in the Caribbean.
Keep in mind that in the 1980s, Trinidad abolished Discovery Day and replaced it with Emancipation Day. Instead of honoring the day that Columbus discovered Trinidad — even though the native people had discovered the island long before Columbus — Trinidad now celebrates the day that African people were finally emancipated from slavery. Not only is Emancipation Day more historically relevant to the people of Trinidad, especially those of African descent, but Discovery Day is essentially the celebration of a colonial myth. But Lewis’ multiracial identity seemed to have made him unable to confront that myth.
In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela wrote about having to handle a case where a Coloured man was wrongly classified as an African:
I once handled the case of a Coloured man who was inadvertently classified as an African. He had fought for South Africa during World War II in North Africa and Italy, but after his return, a white bureaucrat had reclassified him as African. This was the type of case, not at all untypical in South Africa, that offered a moral jigsaw puzzle. I did not support or recognize the principles in the Population Registration Act, but my client needed representation, and he had been classified as something he was not. There were many practical advantages to being classified as Coloured rather than African, such as the fact that Coloured men were not required to carry passes.
Coloureds in South Africa were given advantages that Africans did not have and as such many Coloureds simply did not identify as being African, nor did they identify with the African struggle against apartheid. Anton Lemebede wrote about “those Coloureds who regard themselves as Europeans and look down upon and despise Africans and call them ‘kaffirs.’” I mention South Africa to demonstrate that America’s one-drop rule is actually unique. In most other colonial societies, mixed individuals were not classified as black and were able to escape much of the racism that black people endured. In some cases, those individuals developed the same prejudices against black people that white racists held.
I want to also bring attention to Martin Delany’s novel Blake or Huts of America. This novel centers around the main character, Henry Blake, who travels throughout the United States and Cuba to organize a massive slave uprising. The novel addresses the tensions between black people and mixed-race people. At one point in the novel, Blake mentions the Brown Society, which is an organization of mixed-race individuals who seek to prevent black people from obtaining full equality. Throughout his journey, Blake encounters mixed individuals who treat him with the same contempt that white racists do. In one encounter, a “mulatto” even threatens to have Blake captured.
Blake is also notable because the novel envisions a unity among blacks, mulattos, and quadroons in the fight against slavery. In Cuba, Blake recruits several mixed individuals, who are firmly committed to the cause of African liberation. As one character in the novel explains: “I never before felt as proud of my black, as I did of my white blood. I can readily see that the blacks compose an important element in the commercial and social relations of the world.”
The novel reflected some of Delany’s own views on race. For a more detailed assessment of how Martin Delany addressed the relationship between black and mixed-race individuals, see my ebook Martin Delany: The Father of Black Nationalism.
In conclusion, I will state that African people are oppressed globally and under such conditions there is no such thing as neutrality or being on both sides of the fence. One cannot look at the situation in Ferguson or Baltimore and properly conclude that it was merely an issue of black and white people becoming “victims” of a media spin. In Baltimore, protests were sparked because the police officers brutalized Freddie Gray so horribly that his spine was snapped and no one was held accountable for this. There is no way that anyone who truly cares about justice, biracial or not, can watch as things like this happen to black people on a regular basis and try to remain neutral about it.
Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.