In the five days since Meghan Markle, the black and biracial American who married into the British monarchy, gave birth to her son Archie Harrison Mountbattan-Windsor, at least two media outlets have posted blatantly racist commentary targeting the royal baby’s racial identity. On Tuesday, CNN published an article by John Blake with the headline, “How Black Will the Baby Be?”
The story unleashed a torrent of backlash on social media.
“Guys. GUYS. Whether the royal baby is SUPER-DUPER BLACK or whether it’s NORMAL, let’s all agree to not be racist because that’s really really uncool, mmkay?”
- CNN pic.twitter.com/bUZ1VQohLK
— Eric Haywood (@EricHaywood) May 7, 2019
CNN needs more people of color working in the executive, decision-making ranks. Obviously. https://t.co/QJzfMXM5qk
— Soledad O'Brien (@soledadobrien) May 7, 2019
It’s not clear whether or not Blake, who identifies as African American, wrote the headline, which was later changed. Ironically, his essay is about the dangerous tropes surrounding mixed-race identity. Following the uproar, he posted his own response on Twitter.
Those who read my entire piece will understand the context. The analysis specifically addresses why classifying a child as X% black is a trap. It’s the language & racial ideas from the Jim Crow era. That‘s the exact point of the our actual headline. Read: https://t.co/wURv89ugXk
— John K. Blake (@JohnBlakeCNN) May 7, 2019
That’s actually not how the “language & racial ideas from the Jim Crow era” work. What Blake is referring to is the long-held definition that determines a person with any traceable black ancestry as black. It became commonly known as the “one-drop rule” and during the Reconstruction era, when Jim Crow laws violently enforced segregation throughout the South, that designation of blackness also sealed a certain fate of subhumanity, alongside the normal, everyday rape, beatings and lynchings that carried over from slavery. So to borrow racist language from that era as the title for a piece ostensibly seeking to address racial myths and, in Blake’s own words, warn against making the Royal baby “another ‘Great Mixed-Race Hope’” doesn’t quite track.
Don’t get me wrong. The myth of mixed-race and racially ambiguous children as representative of hope and harmony is real. Mixed-race people are notoriously fetishized, and colorism is rampant in mainstream media and Hollywood and, well, across many industries. Dark-skinned black folks are without question discriminated against in far greater numbers than lighter-skinned and mixed-race black folks.
But the question of “how black will the Royal baby be” does not evoke this mythology. Rather it dares this child to be black in Jim Crow terms, which conveys all sorts of “Good luck with that, buddy” sentiments. It is, at best, a relegation to being less than human, and at worst, a deathwish. It is why “passing” became a chosen, but extremely perilous survival mechanism for hundreds of thousands of light-skinned black people who kept their true racial identities secret throughout their entire lives.
Britain's Prince Harry and Meghan Duchess of Sussex are joined by her mother, Doria Ragland, as they show their newborn son, named as Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor, to Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip at Windsor Castle, in Windsor. (Chris Allerton SussexRoyal/HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
Still, over the years, and in my own experience, most light-skinned black and mixed folks I know would rather identify as black and proudly claim our heritage and legacy than pass for white, or even mention the whiteness part. Because it’s the whiteness part that gave this country white sheets and pointy hoods, that put an unrecognizably maimed Emmett Till in an open coffin. It’s what made Margaret Garner slit her child’s throat rather than return her to slavery. Whiteness is what gave us Donald Trump, and all the free-wheeling privilege and arrogance of average white men the world over.
As if to prove that point, on Wednesday, BBC radio host Danny Baker tweeted an image of a couple holding hands with a monkey in a suit with the caption: “Royal Baby leaves hospital.” Baker, who was eventually fired, initially responded to outrage over the tweet by claiming the image was not racist, and further stated that such an interpretation “never occurred” to him, “because, well, mind not diseased.” Later, though, he issued an amended response in the form of a semi-apology: “Sincere apologies for the stupid unthinking gag pic earlier. Was supposed to be a joke about royals vs circus animals in posh clothes but interpreted as about monkeys & race, so rightly deleted.”
All of us who know good and damn well the racist history of white people comparing black folks to apes (I’m looking at you, too, Roseanne Barr) are, by Baker’s account, diseased in our thinking? But then, what exactly is an “unthinking gag”? It appears that Baker, who has been working in media for decades, thought he was being clever, which by definition requires thought. Also, the image he posted is clearly archival — so in the process of digging for that one particular photograph, not a single corollary image he stumbled across presented a red flag of any sort? Nope. I don’t buy it, and neither did others.
Danny Baker (a man I’ve worked with in the past) knew full well what that tweet was suggesting. No comedian in their right mind could overlook that, that’s not how our brains work. We see a joke from every angle. He knew it was racist, thought it was funny and posted it anyway 👍🏾
— London Hughes (@TheLondonHughes) May 9, 2019
Luckily, Archie has his mom as a great role model on how black he should be, and his grandmother too, and countless other black and mixed-race people the world over he has yet to meet. Because there isn’t one way to be black, and the centuries-long belief that there is only serves to perpetuate racism and racist thinking. Plus, it’s clear from the way in which Harry defended Markle early on in their relationship from racist attacks by the press, that he knows this truth.
More importantly, the choices made in their wedding and the privacy Markle insisted on for her birth, reflect that they all, as a family, center blackness in ways both nuanced and unequivocal, all of which lay the groundwork for Archie to be as black as he wants to be.
UPDATE: A previous version of this story misidentified the country where John Blake was born.
Rebecca Carroll is a cultural critic and Editor of Special Projects at WNYC, where she develops, produces and hosts a broad array of multi-platform content, including podcasts, live events and on-air broadcasts. Rebecca is also the author of several interview-based books about race and blackness in America, including the award-winning Sugar in the Raw, and her personal essays, cultural commentary and opinion pieces have been published widely. Her memoir, Surviving the White Gaze, is due out from Simon & Schuster in 2020.