Reflections

Mixed-Race, Meghan Markle and the Complexities of Identifying as a Global Citizen

By Wakanyi Hoffman

I watched the royal wedding between Meghan Markle and Prince Harry inside a tent on the shores of L. Naivasha, in the middle of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. My two oldest children were sailing with their father while I had been left to devise creative ways to entertain our youngest two for the rest of the day. We couldn’t be on the boats with the big kids nor could we brave the blistering heat outside anymore. Our tent was set up, but as this was only an overnight trip, we had opted to bring limited supplies of clothes and toys. The Royal Wedding offered the best entertainment alternative for the three of us, as we huddled close together in front of a tiny, low-battery-mode iphone screen inside the tent.

naivashaOur family’s 12-person tent pitched above L. Naivasha

Meanwhile, inside another larger tent was a group of adults huddled around a laptop which one of the parents of the sailing cadets had generously offered as a ‘big screening’ of the global event. Nobody was missing out, not even the lot of us oddly mixed up nationalities and ethnicities gathered in a remote village in the middle of Prince Harry’s supposed first love- Africa. Not even the fish eagle sitting atop an acacia tree in the middle of the lake, inspecting his prey from his vantage point. Or the regal water-buck staring stoically back at us from a stone’s throw distance.

waterbuckA lone water-buck seen walking towards the lake below

And as if the stars were aligned to bring us into the virtual spaces inside Windsor castle, my two little royalists had found some fresh white roses oddly scattered in the garden, very similar to those used for the exquisite royal wedding flower arrangement. It is on this lake that the world’s second largest export of rose flowers is made. As I watched in amazement as my little children made an ikebana-worthy bouquet, I wondered whether it was these same flowers that had in fact, made their way to Windsor castle for that day. Our modest bouquet was delicately balanced atop a sleeping bag beside the tiny phone screen to complete our ultimate royal wedding experience. Even the internet connection kept up throughout the ceremony as did the battery power, although it did eventually give in and the screen blacked out right at the point when the newly weds went on a carriage spin around Windsor.

“It’s a gorgeous day in Windsor, isn’t it?” Said my 6 year old, stressing on the ‘gorgeous’ in her most British of accents, which she has picked up from 2 years of living and attending a British school in Kenya. Her little 3 year old brother was glued to the screen, in the same way that he would have been glued to a screening of back-to-back episodes of Peppa Pig. For him, any screen time was better than none at all. But as time went on, he really got into the pomp and wedding hype, constantly asking, “Where’s Meghan?” As if he was asking for his older sister who could have easily been mistaken for a younger version of Meghan Markle, bearing that ambiguous ethnic identity that children of mixed-race are dealt with from birth.

I marveled at Meghan’s shiny, straight hair, which gave no evidence of her ever having curly-textured hair and her perfectly form-fitting wedding gown, which transformed her into a living and breathing princess, every inch of her elegant and dramatic veil seeming to glide in tune with her stride. My dress-up-ready little girl marveled at the sparkly tiara asking, “Are those real jewels?” Little brother found this the opportune moment to boldly announce that he is never getting married! Little sister chuckled and said, “I am getting married to a prince!” Her petite face was beaming with a sparsely toothless grin so genuine, that her big brown eyes appeared to be enlarging right in front of my very own. Even her golden curls seemed to be covered by a glistening halo the colour of the rainbow from the blinding sun rays peeking through the tent window. She was the perfect image of cuteness overload as she slyly asked if the newly weds would have to kiss in front of everyone. She blushed when I confirmed that they would and quickly puckered up her lips to her little brother who, despite his squirmy protests was secretly desperate to get to that kissing part too. They both impressed me with their relentless patience until the very end, when the new Mr and Mrs Mountbatten-Windsor exited the cathedral and satisfied the world with the anticipated smooch that sealed their matrimonial engagement.

We cheered as loudly as the crowd at Windsor. The folk in the larger tent cheered even louder, cups of teas and beer mugs clunking in unison. At that very moment, the skies over L. Naivasha were the same bright blue as those above Windsor castle. It appeared as though the entire universe had conspired to paint even the sky, the colour of happiness for this ridiculously adorable couple who seemed to genuinely present us with a perfectly blended swirl of two starkly and culturally different worlds.

sailing blue skiesThe shores of L. Naivasha with the cadets sailing on the Naivasha Yacht Club boats

Days later, it would seem that every news article was tasked with regurgitating every minute detail of the Royal Wedding. But a particular article penned by a Nigerian writer caught my eye. It was a critique intended to inform the rest of the world what Meghan Markle’s racial identity was supposedly symbolic of and why the royal wedding should be of no significance to black people. Evident throughout the piece was an intentional means to disqualify Meghan as either black or white, by repeatedly highlighting her ambiguous mixed race identity. While it is certainly not lost to the world that Meghan is neither black or white, it is what the writer, who identified strongly as a Black British Woman was rightfully protesting, which was the media’s attempt to present Meghan as the token ‘black’ princess inside the British Monarch. Joining the rest of social media’s vessel of noisemakers globally deadlocked in heated discussions about Meghan’s role inside Buckingham Palace, this writer expressed disdain with mainstream media’s insinuation that Meghan would somehow become a source of hope and solace to other black women around the world. She shredded apart any media agenda likely to portray this union as the colonists’ undoing of any past injustices or that by having a ‘black’ woman in their inner circle, other black women, particularly in the UK would come to see themselves as worthy of finally having their rightful seat inside Buckingham Palace, dusted and presented to them in a celebratory homecoming fashion.

While I could not possibly deny feeling infuriated by the sensationalist global media’s gross feasting on the emotional racial scars of the past, I knew it was their intended ‘shock’ and ‘awe’ factor, to constantly remind the world that there exists two superficial worlds based solely on the insignificance of our skin colour. I was however astonished by the boldness of the author, to publicly bear the burden of educating the world about how mixed-race people perceive themselves given that she can only truly, speak for herself as a British woman of African descent, who also happens to be categorized as black. The piece made me hugely uncomfortable, with the sort of elemental negative undertones that point to a deep non-acceptance of mixed-race people by both white and black folk. It also pointed to the false way in which we are all often pigeonholed into identify ourselves based on colour, which in itself is a problematic and inconclusive evidence of our being.

President Obama was not black enough for African-Americans, nor was he ever considered remotely ‘White’ by White America, despite having been raised by his mid-western white mother. The article made me want to scream, “Who speaks for the mixed race?” in the same way that renown postcolonial critic Gayatra Spivak dares Western scholars of Development Education to answer the question, “Who speaks for the subaltern?” when they attempt to write about the postcolonial, indigenous woman.

My own children are half-Kenyan, half-American. They get their kinks from me and their blonde highlights from their blue-eyed father. I shall never attempt to explain their ethnic ambiguity as I would only be speaking from my individual perspective, which is Kenyan-African and not even African-American, which is how they are profiled in US airports, upon entry into their passport country. But I have borrowed this quote to give a direct response to anyone struggling to classify them on the racial colour-wheel:

mixed race quote

Identity of any kind is so complicated, yet I think there is beauty in Harry’s and Meghan’s burden from now on to publicly define their interracial union based on how they share their love with the rest of the world. This is much in the same way that any other couple, whether interracial or from one race, straight or gay, has to define their unique coming together to those in their world. But for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, their fairy tale wedding is only a precursor to the love story they will forever be tasked with writing under the glaring eye of such public scrutiny, whilst in the process of privately discovering who each other truly is. While Meghan is quoted as identifying as a ‘strong, mixed-race woman’ on the outside, the public is yet to discover the depths of her inner strength which hopefully will go beyond her make-up brand and products for her textured hair.

Before he left the White House, President Obama was interviewed by Trevor Noah and asked to explain how he managed throughout his time in Office, to be both- to sit so comfortably on both ends of the racial divide, navigating this discourse with such admirable ease. In true Obama-fashion he gave a simplistic yet philosophical answer. He said:

“My general theory is that, if I was clear in my own mind about who I was, comfortable in my own skin, and had clarity about the way in which race continues to be this powerful factor in so many elements of our lives, but that it is not the only factor in so many aspects of our lives; that we have by no means overcome the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow and colonialism and slavery, but that the progress we have made has been real and extraordinary. If I am communicating my genuine belief that those who are not subject to racism can sometimes have blind spots, or lack appreciation of what it feels to be on the receiving end of that, but that doesn’t mean they’re not open to learning and caring about equality and justice, and that I can win them over, because there is goodness in the majority of people. I always felt that if I really knew that and I just communicated it as clearly as I could, that I’d be okay.”

That sums up my argument, that humans have depth beyond our superficial skin colour and that if  you are able to represent yourself as who you truly are on the inside, then without any doubt, the person judging you will have to judge you based on other things first before your skin colour.  It is therefore unnecessary to have any woman, black or white, whether living in the UK or not, educate the world on what Meghan’s skin colour does or doesn’t do for black women because identification remains perhaps the only authentic and deeply personal human accomplishment that each one of us must earn. And if we are to be true to ourselves, one very rarely describes themselves based on skin colour. Simply ask any child to describe their new friend at school and they will almost never begin with, “My new black friend” or “My new white friend”. They will describe the experience they had with their new friend, or the cool and amazing things the new friend can do. Sometimes they may mention where the friend is from, but only as an anecdotal evidence of their ethnicity. After having lived in six countries on three continents, I have perfected the art of this social experiment with my own four children.

When my 9 year old son recently said to me, “Mama, do you know that it is virtually impossible to imagine a colour that you haven’t ever seen?” I realized that indeed, the oldest human that was found inches away from where our tent was pitched on that historic wedding day would not have been able to conceive of another skin colour beside his own.

It had occurred to me that day while looking out into the infinity line of L. Naivasha that we were sitting upon the cradle of humanity, where the first human fossil was discovered. The irony is that the first human would not have been limited by his skin colour when endeavoring to claim an extraordinary existence on the world’s deepest and longest valley full of wildlife.

In short, Meghan is not limited by the ambiguity of her ethnic identity in her quest to carve out a life inside the world’s longest living monarch.

Also, neither she nor Harry are obligated to represent black women or white men. Given their public, globetrotting lifestyle, it would be logical to expect that their circle of friends is rich in diversity and cultural experiences. It would not be surprising to hear Meghan and Harry identify as world citizens first and foremost.

I did not watch a mixed-race woman walk down the isle to meet a white prince hopeful that my mixed-race daughters would ‘see’ themselves represented by Meghan’s particular skin colour and wish the same for them.

If there is anything to be learnt about the discovery of the first human fossil on African soil is that black, white or mixed-race are all too simplistic and limiting identifications for any human to fully experience life on this planet, with all its boundless and oftentimes, mysterious possibilities.

About Waks

A curator of African folktales. A trained journalist and content editor. An independent Global Education Researcher. Partner to a guy I met on a dusty bus stop in Nairobi on a Saturday afternoon. Mother to four of the world's best backpacking Third Culture Kids. A self-proclaimed world citizen with strong Kenyan roots. A global nomad, always ready to stop over for giggles and a hot cup of tea.

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