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.
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.
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.
Indeed, despite being having as much white heritage as black, Obama formally marked himself African-American on his 2010 Census form. The timing was important: That year, for the first time, the Census Bureau included a multi-racial category. I was thrilled to check the box—and had naively hoped the President would too.
Nearly a decade later, we now have Meghan Markle, the biracial future bride of Britain’s Prince Harry. Born in California to a Caucasian father and African-American mother, Markle is vocal about her biracial parentage. “I’m half black/half white,” she wrote in a piece for British Elle last year—six simple words that honor her background in a way the former president avoided.
Markle’s frankness should be applauded as brave in a nation that still fails to fully acknowledge the roughly 7% of us who claim multiple races. Indeed, either through erasure or denial, American media—both social and traditional—seem to insist that biracial folks like myself simply do not exist.
“Meghan Markle was born black and is gonna die black,” declared the writer Damon Young on the African-American focused site the Root on Monday. The Washington Post a few hours later compared her with “Britain’s Black Queen”—Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III, who was believed to be of African descent. You get the idea.
They’re hardly the worst offenders when it comes to oversimplifying racial identity. Twice in the past few months, The New York Times has produced lengthy features on high-profile biracial women—Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Elaine Welteroth and new BET late-night host Robin Thede—that never acknowledge their white parents. Both women are described, without elaboration, as “black.”
Of course for many folks, these women are black. Indeed, both Welteroth and Thede have never shied away from the descriptor and the Times writers likely followed their cues.
But the tendency to consider a person with any African heritage black is a relic of the most pernicious—and, yes, violent—racial tropes in US history, from the “one-drop” rule to anti-miscegenation laws. In overlooking their subjects’ white parents, journalists risk perpetuating this sorry legacy.
Indeed, at a moment of where everyone from the overweight to the transgendered are demanding (and receiving) major media “representation,” biracial Americans have yet to be accorded their place in this movement.
By “owning” her mixed ethnicity, Markle is defining her own narrative and inspiring others to do the same. Mostly Markle is simply telling the truth: She is biracial. People like her—like me—absolutely exist. Honest and authentic, Markle is living the fairy tale I’d always wanted to read—about an American princess who made the world look far beyond black and white.