Meghan Markle, US actor, star of the TV show Suits and girlfriend to Prince Harry, has recently spoken out about the difficulties involved with being categorised as “ethnically ambiguous”. She explained that casting directors were often bamboozled, wondering whether she was “Latina”, “Sephardic” or “exotic Caucasian”.
For most of us who are mixed race, this sort of speculation is commonplace. People who I meet often start out our conversations by trying to figure out my racial background, turning the investigation into a rather tasteless game. “No, don’t tell me!” they cry, analysing my pigment and features with such fervour that they fail to notice my disgruntled expression.
“Are you Venezuelan?” they might ask, with the hopefulness of a child waiting to hear if they correctly guessed the number of sweets in the jar.
“No, I’m half Indian,” I’ll reply, only to see their faces fall as they complain: “I wasn’t finished guessing!” I leave the interaction feeling like an ethnically ambiguous game-ruiner.
As annoying as these guessing games might be, however, I’m also conscious that the fact that my ethnicity is unclear means I escape racial stereotyping. The people yelling “Ni hao” at my East Asian friends on the street, or telling my black friends how “well spoken” they are, are often too unsure as to my ethnicity to identify the appropriate prejudice or slur.
As a teenager, it was only after telling people that my father was Indian that they would ask: “And he lets you leave the house dressed like that?” (My take on the crop top trend was to just go to parties in my bra. My father didn’t give me fashion advice, and I didn’t advise him about the stock market; we stayed within our remits.)
But this dilution or deferral of prejudice is, in a way, a privilege. Within an inherently racist society, I suffer less discrimination not only by being geographically unplaceable, but also by being relatively fair-skinned.
I’m still darker than white people, and can understand where Markle is coming from when she describes her frustration at having her skin tone lightened in photographs. I remember my shock and upset the first time I realised that some Instagram filters were surreptitiously lightening my skin tone, presumably because that was supposed to be an aesthetic improvement.
But, because I am already relatively fair, this predilection for light skin is less damaging to me than it is to those who are half-black, like Markle, or those who have two parents of colour. The more obvious your non-whiteness is, the more excluded you are made to feel by Caucasian standards.
I am not immune to racism. In fact, bigots don’t tend to be preoccupied with accuracy, so I have been on the receiving end of a veritable medley of prejudices. But I would be kidding myself if I didn’t realise how much being half-white, and light-skinned, has advantaged me in a society that still, lamentably, can hold whiteness as an ideal. While I do identify as a person of colour, and as a person of biracial heritage, it is also important for me to remember that, within both those categories, some people suffer more discrimination than others.