By Liz Brazile
The royal engagement between Prince Harry of Wales and Meghan Markle has sparked a huge debate in the black “conscious” community about whether or not mixed people—in this context, having one black parent and one white one—are entitled to claim blackness. Some would say that Markle’s failure to publicly identify herself as a black woman means that she isn’t one, thus her imaginary “black card” is revoked. Others would say that the hundreds of racist, anti-black insults she has received following the engagement, along with her unambiguously black mother say otherwise.
While I’m not particularly concerned with defending mixed race people who don’t embrace their black ancestry, the Meghan Markle conversation has posed some much larger questions: can the parameters of blackness be clearly defined and if so, what are they and who gets to stake a claim? And can a person opt out of blackness by denying blackness? While I do believe that having lighter skin and greater social proximity to whiteness are privileges that mixed people need to acknowledge, policing their decision to embrace a black identity is wrong and borderline psychologically abusive.
For black folks who believe that biracial people should not claim blackness, I understand the source of your frustrations. A lot of them relish in their racial ambiguity and keep blackness at arm’s length. They flaunt their mixedness—or state of being not completely black—for social leverage and only use their black ancestry for cool points or as a get out of saying “nigga” free card. I also understand black folks’ desire to re-define and reclaim blackness, without abiding by the white supremacist “one-drop” rule. But safeguarding blackness from mixed people doesn’t accomplish anything.
Race is a social construct that has little regard for a person’s actual genetic makeup. White supremacists have never gone around giving spit tests to determine the percentage of African ancestry a black-passing person has. Nor have they done it to white-passing people, as a precursor to affording them white privilege. In fact, many white folks would be shocked to find they have traces of African DNA. Similarly, very few black Americans are free of European ancestry, making the concept of being “fully black” hard to define.
Phenotype may not be the only factor in the formation of our own racial identities, but it is the strongest qualifier for how we are racially perceived. And whether or not a mixed person—or perhaps a non-mixed black person—acknowledges their blackness, they cannot shred their black card and socially opt out of being black.
Personally, part of bringing my identity full circle was taking an ancestry DNA test. My results showed a 71 percent match for Africa, 28 percent for Europe, and one percent for West Asia. Genetically, I am not one hundred percent African. However, my black identity was not formed on the basis of ethnic percentages alone. I have always presented and passed as black, I was raised by a black family, and I have been in cultural proximity to other black people my entire life.
When we talk about biracial people, we often make the assumption that their DNA can be measured on a 50/50 basis—one black parent equals half black, and one white parent equals half white. But that scale isn’t so balanced when you realize that race is not such a concrete construct. Even with those of us who come from two black parents, there are various skin tones, hair textures, and facial features amongst us that may or may not align with any stereotypically black phenotype. Likewise, there are many mixed race individuals who present as “just black”, giving them even less skin privilege and ambiguity than some of their fully black peers.
Furthermore, we routinely criticize white parents who don’t keep their mixed kids connected to their black side. Yet, we have the audacity to strip these same mixed people of their black identities when it’s convenient for us. As though we didn’t emphasize Barack Obama’s blackness for the sake of making history or we don’t let J. Cole and Drake be black enough to drop n-bombs without consequence.
Skin privilege and white proximity are very valid advantages for biracial people to be aware of and unpack. But not all black people are subjected to the same experiences and treatment, regardless of ancestry. It’s extremely important for all of us to understand the intersections of our identities and know where we hold privilege. However, a mixed race person with a black parent has every right to identify with blackness. And to deny them of their so-called “black card” is to uphold a flawed concept of racial identity.