Essays On Mixed Race

'What are you?' A question I get asked every week of my life, often every day. 'Well,' I say, as I begin the verbal dance I know all too well. 'I'm an actress, a writer, the Editor-in-Chief of my lifestyle brand The Tig, a pretty good cook and a firm believer in handwritten notes.' A mouthful, yes, but one that I feel paints a pretty solid picture of who I am. But here's what happens: they smile and nod politely, maybe even chuckle, before getting to their point, 'Right, but what are you? Where are your parents from?' I knew it was coming, I always do. While I could say Pennsylvania and Ohio, and continue this proverbial two-step, I instead give them what they're after: 'My dad is Caucasian and my mom is African American. I'm half black and half white.'

To describe something as being black and white means it is clearly defined. Yet when your ethnicity is black and white, the dichotomy is not that clear. In fact, it creates a grey area. Being biracial paints a blurred line that is equal parts staggering and illuminating. When I was asked by ELLE to share my story, I'll be honest, I was scared. It's easy to talk about which make-up I prefer, my favourite scene I've filmed, the rigmarole of 'a day in the life' and how much green juice I consume before a requisite Pilates class. And while I have dipped my toes into this on thetig.com, sharing small vignettes of my experiences as a biracial woman, today I am choosing to be braver, to go a bit deeper, and to share a much larger picture of that with you.

It was the late Seventies when my parents met, my dad was a lighting director for a soap opera and my mom was a temp at the studio. I like to think he was drawn to her sweet eyes and her Afro, plus their shared love of antiques. Whatever it was, they married and had me. They moved into a house in The Valley in LA, to a neighbourhood that was leafy and affordable. What it was not, however, was diverse. And there was my mom, caramel in complexion with her light-skinned baby in tow, being asked where my mother was since they assumed she was the nanny.

I was too young at the time to know what it was like for my parents, but I can tell you what it was like for me – how they crafted the world around me to make me feel like I wasn't different but special. When I was about seven, I had been fawning over a boxed set of Barbie dolls. It was called The Heart Family and included a mom doll, a dad doll, and two children. This perfect nuclear family was only sold in sets of white dolls or black dolls. I don't remember coveting one over the other, I just wanted one. On Christmas morning, swathed in glitter-flecked wrapping paper, there I found my Heart Family: a black mom doll, a white dad doll, and a child in each colour. My dad had taken the sets apart and customised my family.

Fast-forward to the seventh grade and my parents couldn't protect me as much as they could when I was younger. There was a mandatory census I had to complete in my English class – you had to check one of the boxes to indicate your ethnicity: white, black, Hispanic or Asian. There I was (my curly hair, my freckled face, my pale skin, my mixed race) looking down at these boxes, not wanting to mess up, but not knowing what to do. You could only choose one, but that would be to choose one parent over the other – and one half of myself over the other. My teacher told me to check the box for Caucasian. 'Because that's how you look, Meghan,' she said. I put down my pen. Not as an act of defiance, but rather a symptom of my confusion. I couldn't bring myself to do that, to picture the pit-in-her-belly sadness my mother would feel if she were to find out. So, I didn't tick a box. I left my identity blank – a question mark, an absolute incomplete – much like how I felt.

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With their announcement that they are going to marry, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are making history in several ways.

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For one thing, Markle, 36, isn’t the daughter of a grand aristocratic family, nor is she even British. Rather, she’s an American TV actress and a divorcee.

In this way, the Los Angeles-reared Markle will be the first American whose marriage to a member of the royal family will be embraced by the “firm,” as the family calls itself. Her situation in 2017 isn’t at all scandalous, unlike that of King Edward VIII, who was forced to abdicate the throne in 1936 in order to marry the twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson.

However, Markle’s situation with Harry could be seen as controversial. What is also certainly groundbreaking about the upcoming marriage is that Markle is a woman of color. Her father is white, and her mother is black.

The idea of a member of the British royal family marrying someone who is biracial set off a range of responses on social media. Not surprisingly, the internet racists had lots of offensive things to say, according to Rawstory.

But mostly there was celebration, according to Refinery29. The celebration came from people who said, among other things, that it was time for someone to shake up Britain’s class system, which has long been accused of elitist and racist ways.

Actually, Markle’s biracial identity hasn’t been a subject the media has talked about much over the past few months. Part of the reason for the lack of discussion could stem from the unfortunate way the British press addressed her background soon after it became known that she was dating Harry, the Huffington Post said. 

A Daily Mail columnist speculated on the “exotic DNA” Markle would bring to the royal family tree and described her mother as “a dreadlocked African-American lady from the wrong side of the tracks.”

Other tabloids used terms like “gangsta” and referred to the “crime-plagued” Los Angeles neighborhood Markle grew up in.

Actually, Markle is a “valley girl,” who grew up in a comfortable leafy suburb of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. She’s also a graduate of Northwestern University, one of America’s top colleges.

It could be that the media heeded Harry’s rare public condemnation of the tabloids writing pieces with “racial undertones” about his girlfriend, or of reporters harassing her and her family.

Then again, Markle herself may have diffused tensions by writing openly herself about the challenges of being biracial.

In December 2016, she penned a poignant essay for Elle UK. In the essay, she said she’s been asked to explain her racial heritage nearly every day of her life, from the time she was a little girl to when she was auditioning for roles in movies and on TV in the “label-driven” entertainment industry.

Markle said her parents met in the 1970s. Her father worked as a lighting designer for a TV soap opera, and her mother eventually became a yoga teacher.

While the neighborhood they raised her in was comfortable, it wasn’t diverse, she said. So her family stood out: “And there was my mom, caramel in complexion with her light-skinned baby in tow, being asked where my mother was since they assumed she was the nanny.”

One of the challenges of being biracial is that society wants to categorize people as one thing or the other — either white or black, she said.

She felt this push most acutely in seventh grade when she was asked to fill out a census document that asked her to indicate her ethnicity. But her only choices were white, black, Hispanic or Asian.

“You could only choose one, but that would be to choose one parent over the other – and one half of myself over the other,” she wrote.

When she told her father that night about her dilemma, he calmly, but with visible anger, told her, “If that happens again, you draw your own box.”

Markle added that she has been with her mother when she was called the N-word, notably when she was home on break from college. As they were a driving away from a concert, another motorist yelled the slur at her mother.

“My skin rushed with heat as I looked to my mom,” she wrote. “Her eyes welling with hateful tears, I could only breathe out a whisper of words, so hushed they were barely audible: ‘It’s OK, Mommy.’ ”

Markle said she found that being “ethnically ambiguous” brought disadvantages when she was auditioning for parts in TV and in films. She often found she wasn’t “enough” for certain roles: “I wasn’t black enough for the black roles and I wasn’t white enough for the white ones.”

So she was grateful for the role of Rachel Zane in the TV legal drama “Suits” because the producers were looking for an actress who could pull off being a beautiful woman with a fine legal mind — regardless of race.

“In making a choice like that, the ‘Suits’ producers helped shift the way pop culture defines beauty,” she said.

Markle said she was even more delighted in Season 2 when the producers cast Wendell Pierce, a dark-skinned African-American actor, to play the part of Rachel’s father. Pierce, by the way, issued congratulations to Markle on news of her engagement:

Nearly a year before she became engaged to the fifth in line to the British throne, Markle said in her essay that she would continue to live by her father’s words: She would draw her own box and voice her pride in being a mixed-race woman.

“While my mixed heritage may have created a gray area surrounding my self-identification, keeping me with a foot on both sides of the fence, I have come to embrace that,” she wrote.

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