"I Wonder What Your Children Will Look Like:" Mixed Race Identity, Evolving Family Values, and THAT Interview
Perhaps the most explosive revelation to emerge from the interview that Meghan and Harry did with Oprah Winfrey was that someone in the Royal Family had speculated as to the then-unborn baby Archie’s skin tone. Reaction was so fierce and immediate that Oprah herself clarified that the offending and unnamed family member was neither the Queen nor the gaffe-prone Prince Philip.
My children’s mother is, like Meghan Markle, the L.A.-born daughter of a white man and a Black woman. Eira and Meghan share similar complexions. The accidents of inheritance mean that while Eira has always been able to “pass,” her much-darker brother, my kids’ beloved Uncle Charlie, is recognized as Black the moment anyone claps eyes upon him. (Anecdotally, Black people almost always know at once that Eira has Black heritage – but many white people seem not to see it.)
When Eira was pregnant with Heloise, I can think of half a dozen family members from both my clan and my wife’s who speculated, quite openly, about what our child would look like. The general feeling was that baby would be fortunate to resemble mama rather than papa, a view in which I enthusiastically joined. There were loved ones who wondered if our child would “look white,” or if he or she would have some throwback features to their mother’s mother’s family. (Abuela is Afro-Colombian, but both family lore and 23andMe confirm she has considerable Native American ancestry. Abuela’s DNA report, to the extent that these things have any relevance, marks her at 47% West African, 30% Indigenous, and just over 20% European.)
When it comes to questions about race, it is easy to misinterpret curiosity as anxiety. I cannot speak for the Windsors, but I know that no one in my clan was the least bit fearful that our children wouldn’t “look white.” They were intrigued, in no small part because they considered my former wife to be strikingly beautiful, and were not shy about hoping that the bunnies inherited some of her winning looks.
Part of me wonders if it’s not possible that Meghan and Harry, already on edge with Harry’s royal relations, mistook curiosity for contempt. That would be easy enough to do, given the racism Meghan has had to endure so often. I don’t know what really happened in the Palace, and neither do you. I just know that it is possible to assume a query is racist when it isn’t, just as it is possible to presume that one’s question is innocent when it is, in fact, unintentionally racist. Recollections may vary, and when filtered through the mists of intent and perception, what was really the point of what was said becomes almost impossible to discern. To make this clear is not side-stepping the issue; it’s honoring complexity.
(Parenthetical aside: family speculations raise another point about mixed race children: the expectation of exoticness, or the anticipation that the kids will turn out to be especially attractive. We tend to fetishize children whose ancestries are complicated. If Eira and I had a dollar for every time we were told that our children would be especially good-looking because of their mixed race, we’d almost have enough to pay off one year’s worth of back taxes. The reality is, of course, that not every mixed-race child is striking in appearance. Some are plain, some are lovely. Most, like every other human being, will have “glow-ups” as well “fades into ordinariness.” This expectation that mixed-race kids will be gorgeous does no one any favors.)
My own family’s evolution on race has been profound, just as it has been for millions of families around the world. When my WASPy mother married my Jewish refugee father in 1964, there were family members who made unkind and even borderline anti-Semitic remarks. In 1990, when I married my half-Filipino/half-Chinese first wife, one cousin pulled me aside to warn about the dangers of a mixed marriage. “There’s something to be said for having everyone in the family photos look the same,” this cousin remarked – and I had just enough wherewithal to reply with a warm smile that I thought her sense of aesthetics just a touch off the mark.
By the 21st century, though, all had changed. Mixed marriages are more common now in our clan than endogenous ones. Just counting through to their second cousins on all sides, the bunnies (who are themselves mixed six-ways-to-Sunday) have Black, Chinese, Colombian, Vietnamese, Mexican, Costa Rican, Native American, and East Indian relatives. Family photos resemble more an attempt at a United Colors of Benetton ad than a traditional WASP family gathering.
That last part is only half true. While a new generation is far darker than older ones – we’re breeding skin cancer out of the family at last, remarked another elderly and hopeful cousin a few years ago – family values have a way of enduring even in the face of tremendous change. I became a student of WASPy values in part because with a Jewish father and a surname like Schwyzer, I knew I was somewhat on the outside of something I valued very deeply. A cousin of mine who was adopted went through a similar process, wrestling with the distinction between blood heritage and family tradition. What both that cousin and I realized was that the best parts of WASPiness, the parts that we cherished and wanted to pass on, had nothing to do with Anglo-Saxon DNA.
Good manners, charm, and cheer are accessible to all who choose them, just as are Brooks Brothers polo shirts and the acquired, if utterly useless, skill with a croquet mallet. That’s true for my Black/Jewish/Native American/Latino/WASP children, just as it was for my mother’s Social Register family. It is also just as true for Master Archie Mountbatten-Windsor.
At our last big ranch family gathering before COVID, at the Fourth of July 2019, I had a conversation with that cousin who had worried aloud about “brown faces” in family photos so long ago. We watched Heloise, then 10, devote herself happily to caring for her newest second cousin, an infant born to a mother whose grandparents had come from Gujarat. “They’re absolutely enchanting together,” remarked my relation; “Look how splendid they are in their red, white and blue.”
“Indeed,” I replied. “Why don’t you go stand with them? It will make a perfect family picture.”