Since she was a child, Lo Silver has been repeatedly asked: What are you?
Biracial women say Meghan is proof racism and privilege coexist
“It’s a conversation starter. It’s a statement piece. It’s a stance,” said Silver, 29, who attributes the curiosity to her light skin tone and the loose curl pattern of her hair.
So when Meghan, Duchess of Sussex began publicly discussing her own biracial identity, says Silver, a social media consultant, she could relate to the feeling of racial ambiguity, and even being accused of “passing as White,” while still proudly claiming her Black identity.
Since Meghan and her husband, Harry, left the British royal family in 2020, they’ve used interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Meghan’s “Archetypes” podcast, a Netflix documentary and Prince Harry’s memoir, “Spare,” to dissect Meghan’s experiences as a biracial woman and accuse the British media of advancing racist stereotypes about her.
“Obviously, now people are very aware of my race because they made it such an issue when I went to the U.K.,” Meghan said in the Netflix documentary. “But before that, most people didn’t treat me like a Black woman.” Before dating Harry, she said, it was “very different to be a minority but not be treated as a minority right off the bat.”
“My wife is not visibly Black, but that’s who she is,” Prince Harry said in an interview on “Good Morning America.” “The way that they [the media] speak about her, the way that they treat her is incredibly relatable to everybody else of color.”
Multiracial people, spanning all different skin colors and ethnic makeups, form the fastest-growing racial demographic in the country. But in a country long racked by racial strife, Meghan’s comments reflect the struggle many multiracial people say they face with reconciling their identity, worried they’ll never truly be accepted by any of the racial groups they belong to.
People need to have more nuanced conversation about race and identity that’s beyond stereotypical categories, Silver said.
As the population of multiracial people explodes — more than 33 million Americans identify as being two or more races, a near-triple increase in the past decade, according to the 2020 Census — those who don’t fit neatly into any one group will continue to grow, says Susan Graham, president of the multiracial community advocacy group Project Reclassify All Children Equally (RACE).
Children today “have more opportunities to learn about being multiracial through positive representation in games and books,” Graham said.
In many ways, historians say, it reflects the evolution of racial identity that the country has long grappled with.
During the Jim Crow era, the United States was the only country that applied the arbitrary “one-drop rule,” which defined anyone as Black if they had any “drop” of Black ancestry — no matter how minuscule or far back in their family tree. It meant that even multiracial people who appeared White were considered Black.
Some light-skinned Black people took advantage of their stereotypically White appearance to skirt the mistreatment that came with being identified as Black. It’s unclear how prevalent the practice, known as White passing, was because of its inherent secrecy, but it was used to reinforce “this idea of Whiteness being better, or the norm or having more resources,” said Kelly Jackson, an associate professor at Arizona State University.
In recent years, the language commonly used to describe people’s racial identity, particularly for multiracial people who can be mistaken for White, has changed, she said. Most multiracial Americans don’t try to hide their identity, and it’s not their intent to be seen as only White, Jackson added. Instead of “White passing,” they are more accurately described as “White appearing” or “White presenting,” she said.
“‘Passing’ assumes that someone is presenting themselves as something they are not,” said Nikki Khanna, a sociology professor at the University of Vermont. “However, if a person appears White, aren’t they White?”
Although Meghan has been vocal about biracial identity, Northwestern graduate student Raven Schwam-Curtis says it was not always acknowledged by others, contributing to her likely experiencing both privileged and racist treatment. In the United States, Meghan was able to evade some of the discrimination commonly directed to dark-skinned Black people. But in the royal family, an institution accused of being traditionally hostile to Blackness, said Schwam-Curtis, being biracial was enough to attract negative attention.
“I think it’s interesting how both those things could be true at the same time: That she can be multiracial or mixed, and have this privilege moving through the world, and at the same time, when her Blackness is in a space where it’s not supposed to be, then suddenly she has a big issue,” Schwam-Curtis said of Meghan.
Schwam-Curtis says she understands the struggle of holding onto a racial identity others ignore, which she experienced when people failed to consider her as Black like her mother because of her fair skin.
When Cat Arce, a 20-year-old student at Texas A&M University, was recently pulled over for a traffic infraction, she was shocked when the police officer handed her a ticket that marked her race as White. She has a light skin tone and was driving with a White friend, but she thought her curly hair would be a giveaway.
“That’s like when I was filling out [forms] when I was little,” and none of the racial identity boxes felt accurate, Arce said. “They finally added ‘two or more races,’ but before, I was like, ‘Do I mark Black or White?’ I feel like I look more Black than White just because of my hair, but not everybody sees it that way.”
As a child, Arce was adopted by her White mom and Mexican dad. Her birth mother said she had the same racial makeup as her adoptive family, which Arce assumed explained the curly hair that she straightened to fit in at her predominantly White schools.
But a DNA test proved otherwise. Her birth father is Black, with Nigerian and Congolese ancestry. Learning this as a teenager was a relief, Arce said, as it made it easier to understand her identity.
As a multiracial person, “the discrimination is different because you’re not pinpointed to just one race,” she said. “I had Black girls be very mean to me, and I had White girls be very mean to me.”
While Arce’s parents were supportive after learning of her true racial identity, the Texas A&M student says there were some unique struggles, including her mother having to ask Black stylists in town for help managing her hair.
In the Netflix documentary, Meghan’s mom, Doria Ragland, says she didn’t do enough to prepare her daughter for the racial prejudices she could face. Strangers assumed she was Meghan’s nanny, Ragland said, and Meghan recounted hearing a driver hurl a racial epithet at her mother in a parking lot. But “as a parent, in hindsight I would absolutely like to go back and have that very real conversation about how the world sees you.”
It’s a mistake, Harry said in the documentary, that he doesn’t want to make. “My children are mixed-race, and I’m really proud of that. … What’s most important for the two of us is that we don’t repeat the same mistakes that perhaps our parents made.”
Alicia Mae Holloway, who says she is Black, Cherokee Indian and White, says she was often mistaken for White as a toddler, particularly when sitting next to her White adoptive mother. Growing up, she straightened her hair and put light concealer under her eyes to fit in in predominantly White Morgantown, W.Va.
But, Holloway says, she never intended to pass as White. As a multiracial woman, it took her years to not be affected by hateful comments, including being told by a boy that “they don’t like super dark girls, but you’re a perfect mix.” The parents of White friends said she talked “White,” while as a member of the predominantly Black dance company Dance Theatre of Harlem, her traditional ballet training didn’t allow her to “groove like the rest,” she says.
On her TikTok account, Hannah Beau, 23, says she has encountered skeptical White and Black followers who question her racial identity. Despite the comments, Beau says, there is an unspoken privilege in her racial ambiguity and the times she has been able to blend into White culture. Pictures on Instagram in which her hair is straight receive more praise than those with her natural curly hair.
“Being mixed, you are in a constant battle of pleasing the Black side of you and also pleasing the White side of you and not knowing how to balance,” she said.
“I can see her struggle just by looking at the way she holds herself, the way she speaks about her experience,” she says of Meghan. “I see it and I understand it, and I find it heartbreaking.”