Colorism Is the Key Ingredient in the Meghan Markle Debate

Oprah Winfrey interviews Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on a CBS Primetime Special premiering on CBS on March 7, 2021. (Photo by Harpo Productions/Joe Pugliese via Getty Images)

On March 7, more than 17 million viewers learned what Black women around the world already knew to be true: Society despises powerful women, especially powerful Black women. Once believed to be at the center of a so-called “fairy tale,” Meghan Markle publicly shared her experience as a Black woman who married into the Royal Family—and, more so, as a Black woman who dared push back against a racist institution. During the highly-anticipated interview with Oprah Winfrey, Markle kept a calm demeanor as she, finally, discussed the impact racism, alongside disrespect and disregard for her health and safety—and that of her growing family—had on her mental health.

The interview started with a bang with Winfrey asking Markle about much reported upon rumors that she’d made Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, cry; Markle said, “the reverse happened.” She, not the “iconic” Middleton, had actually been the one in tears. My heart broke for Markle because Black women, myself included, have endured similar situations with white colleagues. Though Middleton privately apologized, she never set the record straight publicly, only reinforcing the universal power of white women’s tears. This moment, Markle said, was the beginning of Britain’s tabloid media assassinating her character, which is undoubtedly the result of Markle being a Black woman.

As Moya Bailey wrote for Bitch, “Whether Meghan Markle calls herself a Black woman is irrelevant, as the animus she experiences has everything to do with her being read as a Black woman.” In the days leading up to The Interview, my Twitter friends and I couldn’t help but wonder how much worse the conversation could be: If Prince Harry had married someone who looks more like me, someone in the Fenty 400 foundation family with 4C natural hair full of unruly kinks and coils, what then? How much time and energy would they expend trying to find something, anything, to use to paint her as the villain? Even with her privilege, she’s been mocked for discussing her mental health and been the subject of endless anti-Black vitriol. How much worse would it be if she were darker?

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Preferential treatment toward people with lighter skin is nothing new: As Vernon C. Thompson wrote in a 1978 article for the Washington Post, “Skin color and other characteristics of white ancestry were key elements of acceptance into Black middle class society up until the beginning of World War I.” And such treatment is expansive, as colorism impacts employment, socioeconomic class, and the treatment of Black people more broadly. As author Ijeoma Oluo wrote on Instagram recently, “Of course [light-skinned people] experience racism, but no, not to the same degree. Not even close. But if there is one thing that this story DOES show, it’s that you can build an entire career safely in your proximity to whiteness, become a princess in a racist-ass institution, and Black people will STILL ride hard for you if that racist-ass institution acts like a racist-ass institution.”

To be clear, both colorism and racism are at play here. London-based Twitter user @esthergbenz said it best: “Colorism is what allowed Meghan to marry into the Royal Family and anti-Black racism is what forced her out of it. That’s the nuance you’re looking for.” Undoubtedly, being able to align yourself with whiteness offers a form of privilege. We know the way our pop culture icons and celebrities—which, of course, includes Markle, at least in the United States—face racism but, too, colorism. One needs to look no further than actor Viola Davis’s 2015 interview with The Wrap in which she acknowledges the paper bag test is “still very much alive and kicking”: “That’s the whole racial aspect of colorism: If you are darker than a paper bag, then you are not sexy, you are not a woman, you shouldn’t be in the realm of anything that men should desire.”

Even with her privilege, Meghan Markle has been mocked for discussing her mental health and been the subject of endless anti-Black vitriol. How much worse would it be if she were darker?

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Markle might be biracial, but she’s also Black. That in and of itself is a threat, especially to an institution like the Royal Family. While no one outright used the word “Black” during the two-hour interview, there was talk about skin color, with the most egregious example being about the couple’s son, Archie. Markle said there were “concerns and conversations about how dark his skin might be when he’s born.” While Markle passed the proverbial paper bag test, there were apparently concerns that Archie would not. Would it really be so bad if he’d be born with a complexion closer to his Black grandmother, Doria Ragland? Certain members of the monarchy thought so. Though the couple declined to disclose who exactly spearheaded these conversations (and Buckingham Palace denied the accusations), it’s safe to say Black people the world over aren’t surprised.

Ultimately, the conversation (controversy?) surrounding Markle would look a lot different if she were darker; to suggest otherwise is pure ignorance. It’s a reminder that if this can happen to someone with Markle’s appearance and resulting privilege, Black women without said privilege experience it every single day. In response to my Instagram post defending Markle, someone asked if she really needs defending. The answer is a resounding yes. “Every Black woman who is under attack—regardless of title, socioeconomic status, etc.—is worthy of defending.” Blackness isn’t a monolith and shouldn’t be treated as such, and Markle and any Black woman who is under attack deserves protection. We must protect Black women, respect Black women and, when necessary, defend Black women in the face of racism, yes, and also in the face of colorism.

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L’Oreal Thompson Payton is a Baltimore-bred, Chicago-based freelance writer, editor and motivational speaker. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @LTintheCity.