Analysis: Don't use the royal birth to trot out a dangerous myth

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Watch a timeline of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's love story, from blind date to royal wedding.

Posted: May. 6, 2019 2:50 PM
Updated: May. 6, 2019 2:50 PM

It's hard not to get excited.

It's like watching the unfolding of a modern-day fairy tale.

Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, just gave birth to a boy. The royal baby becomes the "first Afro-American baby born into the royal family," a "gorgeous" symbol of racial progress in the US and Britain.

It's a lovely story that deserves to be celebrated.

But let's not use the royal birth to trot out a dangerous myth.

Let's not turn this child into another "Great Mixed-Race Hope."

We've seen this story before. A mixed-race person is elevated to a position of prominence. They're touted as proof of racial progress, part of a Brown New World in which racism will inevitably collapse in the future because there will be so many interracial relationships.

This anointing is part of what some call the ongoing "fetishization" of interracial children and adults. Remember Obama's "hope and change?" His biracial upbringing was supposed to help him bridge racial differences.

But I no longer believe in the redemptive power of interracial unions, though I am the product of such a relationship. It's a tired story. And it's a dangerous one. We can't "procreate" our way to racial equality.

Plenty of people who study race say the same. They are wary about the meaning that could be attached to the newest member of the royal family.

"I think the birth of their child will offer a symbol of hope, but will obscure the real work that has to be done to get true access and equality for black people throughout the US and UK," says Nsenga Burton, editor-at-large for The Root, an online magazine dedicated to African-American culture.

How black will the royal baby be?

Here's why we should be cautious. The royal baby watch has already resurrected some of the most dangerous stereotypes about race. And in many cases, the commentators who are reinforcing these stereotypes are totally unaware of the damage.

Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, doesn't seem naïve about these tricky racial issues, some say. She's already sent signals about what kind of mother she will be.

She's talked with pride about her black mother. In one essay, she talked fondly about her mother's Afro and "sweet eyes," and how her skin once "rushed with heat" after hearing her mother called the n-word.

"She was raised by her mother to embrace her blackness in a world that otherwise denigrates any connection to blackness," says Tanya Kateri Hernandez, author of "Multiracials and Civil Rights: Mixed-Race Stories of Discrimination."

And that pride was reflected in the way she organized her wedding, Hernandez says.

She invited the first black presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church to deliver a sermon, along with a black choir. This was an Anglican affair punctuated by some unapologetic blackness: the exuberance of traditional black preaching backed up by some down-home gospel music.

"She was signaling to a wider world that yes, she was going to be a part of this royal family but she wasn't leaving her own family, and mother, behind," Hernandez says.

What will be harder to leave behind, though, are the unrealistic expectations many attach to interracial children. And the archaic -- and frankly racist -- ways many talk about their racial identity.

Where the "Great Mixed-Race Hope" comes from

Interracial children were once considered tragic figures, self-loathing objects of pity trapped between two racial identities. It was the "Tragic Mulatto Myth." It's why we were once called "mixed nuts."

The tragic mulatto has now morphed into another myth -- the "magic mulatto." We are treated as symbols of a new racial order where racism will inevitably lose its sting in the future because so many racial lines have been blurred.

We're now cool; we're hip. We have superpowers of racial healing. And look at all the mixed-race role models in politics, entertainment, and sports: Actress Halle Berry, Sen. Kamala Harris and director Jordan Peele. You can't open a magazine without seeing an ad with a racially ambiguous kid with light skin and curly hair.

Those who pursue interracial relationships "are our greatest hope for racial understanding," writes Sheryll Cashin in an essay entitled, "How Interracial Love Is Saving America."

Through intimacy across racial lines, a growing number of white Americans are learning to empathize with blacks and other minorities, says Cashin, author of "Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy."

"Eventually, a critical mass of white people will accept the loss of the centrality of whiteness," she wrote. "When enough whites can accept being one voice among many in a robust democracy, politics in America could finally become functional."

The epic expectations for racially-mixed people remind me in some ways of the "Great White Hope." It was the nickname given to a white boxer in the early 20th century who was pitted against Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion. The expectations of an entire race were placed on his shoulders.

He still lost. So will we, if we still use the language of white supremacy while celebrating the birth of the royal baby.

Echoes of the 'One-Drop Rule'

It's already happened. People are obsessed over the appearance and racial identity of the new royal baby. That's going to go into overdrive now.

Ebony-Renee Baker, a biracial writer, captured the breathless tone that accompanied speculation about the royal baby's looks when she wrote:

"Will this 'beautiful mixed baby' have ginger hair? Will their child look like Blake Griffin, the unofficial ambassador for biracial redheads? Considering Meghan's fair skin, will their little Lord or Lady look black at all? It was like everyone was taking bets on an exotic new show horse."

Some of this speculation, though, carries an assumption straight out of the Jim Crow era: The whiter the kid looks, the better.

It's what some call the "fetishization" of interracial children, who are now seen as "cuter" than other darker-hued children.

In the same article, Baker quotes an author who talks about this fetishization.

"We're talking about kids who are usually lighter, who have lighter hair, lighter skin, lighter eyes, who are usually mixed white. Certain kinds of mixed kids are more beautiful. They're smarter, they're healthier -- and I do not agree with these things, let's just make that clear, but that's the narrative now," said Sharon Chang, author of "Raising Mixed Race."

And then there are questions about how to racially define the royal baby. What percentage of blackness will the baby have? Will its race be based on its appearance? How black can it be?

Left unsaid is something no one has seriously suggested: Why not call the baby white?

Why? Because much of the talk about the baby's racial identity has echoes of the "one-drop rule" from slavery and the Jim Crow era. Under the one-drop rule, blackness is a permanent taint. Someone could be 99% white, but if they had a drop of black blood they were considered black. In any interracial union, the baby is always assigned to the subordinate race -- then and today, even if it's the royal baby.

Then there is the preoccupation with the precise racial mixture of the royal baby. That's another relic from the Jim Crow era, when people talked about racially mixed blacks who were called "quadroons" and "octoroons."

It's ironic that some people point to the birth of the royal baby as the dawn of a new racial era --while still using the same language and racial ideas from the Jim Crow era.

Even the Duchess of Sussex's appearance plays into the standards of beauty from a bygone era.

"Would Meghan be so beloved if she looked more like her mother in complexion and hair texture?" asks Burton, who is also co-director of the Film and Media Management concentration at Emory University in Atlanta.

"Meghan clearly had a nose job, which speaks to her profession -- acting -- but also to how she wants others to see her in the world."

The benefits of a mixed royal baby

Despite this history, there's still much to look forward to with the new royal baby.

Some of us can learn something from the royal family as we watch this child grow up.

"Seeing how the royal family grapples with in-laws and family members of African descent will be important, since many families in Britain and the US have had to navigate this issue already," says Stacey Moultry, a visiting assistant professor in American studies at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.

This child could also redefine who should be in charge.

"Having diverse bodies represented in positions of power in politics, media, and otherwise in the public eye does have the potential to help dismantle associations between power and whiteness," says Roberta Chevrette, an assistant professor at Middle Tennessee State University who studies the rhetoric of race and gender.

But the presence of these mixed-race symbols in positions of power doesn't automatically translate into more power for people of color.

Royal history already shows that.

That's part of the lesson from Queen Charlotte. In the 18th century, she was the wife of King George II, and a descendant of the black branch of a Portuguese royal family. The images of her are striking. She looks like a racially ambiguous woman you'd see on TV. A city in North Carolina is named after her.

"Yet her reign did nothing to better the lives of the millions of blacks under her rule, including slaves in the US South or British holdings in the Caribbean," Chinyere Osuji, a sociologist, wrote in an essay on the royal couple.

But let's say Queen Charlotte decided to become a crusader against slavery, something her marriage contract reputedly forbade. She may have not been so adored. And look at Obama. Critics argue that he didn't -- and couldn't -- do enough for black and brown voters because he would have alienated too many white voters.

Many want racially mixed people to become symbols of change. But they don't want them to lead real change, says Burton, from The Root magazine.

"The birth of their baby gives symbolic hope of racial reconciliation but as we learned with other high-profile mixed race folk it's all kicks and giggles when it's entertainment, but not necessarily when mixed race people are working to create equity and permanent change through policy," Burton says.

If the birth of a racially-mixed royal baby doesn't symbolize real change, then what does?

Some say that change only comes through organizing, policy changes, and cultural shifts that lead to a place where the best schools, jobs and positions are not reserved for white men.

I think there needs to be something else, and so do others who study race.

We have to get rid of race. Racism isn't the original sin; race is.

Have you ever wondered where assigning people a "race" based on their skin color and facial features comes from? Why is it that no matter what country you visit in the world, there's usually a color hierarchy where whiter-looking people are on the top and the darker ones are on the bottom of the socio-economic ladder?

Race -- the modern-day conception of "black" and "white" people -- was created to justify the global slave trade, historians say. People noticed skin color differences in the ancient world but didn't automatically assign less intellect and beauty to those who were darker, they say.

"The need to morally justify enslaving other human beings pushed Europeans to invent a mythical biological racial 'essence' of inferiority for African-descendent people," says Susan Peppers-Bates, an associate professor of philosophy at Stetson University in Florida.

Here's another story I'd like to celebrate one day.

Imagine a child born to a couple like the Duke and Duchess, and no one obsesses over their racial mixture, or how white or black they look.

Imagine if that child was born with dark skin, a wide nose and kinky hair -- and people would still call that child "gorgeous."

All that would matter is that the child has two parents who love him or her.

That's the kind of fairy tale I'm waiting for.

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