The historic birth announcement required a worldwide Instagram post, a royal news conference, two footmen carrying a golden easel and one unofficial town crier: Meghan and Prince Harry had given birth to a boy, proclaimed as the first multiracial baby in the royal family’s modern history.
It’s a far cry from the reception I imagine my mother had the day I was born. I’ve often wondered if the nurses averted their eyes and the doctor shook his head as they wrapped me in a blanket and handed me over. Once my mother peeked inside, she would have understood their reactions. Her new baby boy had what some called “mixed blood”.
The fact that I had pale complexion would have been, if not a complete surprise to my mother, then certainly an unwanted complication for her. I was the accidental result of a brief relationship she had during a break in her marriage. She, her husband and my four older siblings were black. Now she had a child her family would jokingly call light, bright and damn near white.
It wasn’t just family members with wagging fingers and clucking tongues she had to worry about. Interracial births were relatively uncommon then, especially in our rural community. Social mores that frowned on the mixing of races were backed up by anti-miscegenation laws across the country. It wasn’t until 1967, the year after I was born, that the Supreme Court ruled in the Richard and Mildred Loving case and overturned state laws that barred interracial marriage.
Even after laws were changed, it took much longer for society to accept mixed-race marriages and the children born of them; indeed, those changes are still under way. That may be why the historic nature of Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor, has inspired me and other biracial people who grew up in a different era to marvel at the changing norms in our own country about race and identity.
Decades ago, we children of interracial relationships received more ignominious labels than “multiracial”. My own family sometimes used the cringeworthy term “mulatto”, which has roots in the slave trade. Black folks sometimes called children like me redbone or high yella, describing us based on the perceived tint of our lighter skin.
As for those who didn’t care for our mixed heritage, there was always the n-word; “half-breed” if we were lucky.
I was left with the perception that people like me were an oddity. Only unusual words could describe what was falsely perceived to be our unconventional, immoral or illegal origins.
Over time, societal norms slowly shifted. Americans became more accepting of mixed-race relationships and marriages. By 2015, 17 per cent of all US newlyweds reported having a spouse of a different race or ethnicity, according to the Pew Research Centre. That represented a steep increase of the 3 per cent reported since 1967, the year of the Loving ruling.
In those nearly 50 years, I witnessed how people of mixed race, people like me, were slowly stitched into the American fabric.
When I was a child in the 1970s, the TV show The Jeffersons beamed what many consider the first black and white interracial couple into American living rooms. Each week I sat, nose to screen, as Tom and Helen Willis endured comedic slights and crude slurs about their relationship and their biracial children. I felt conflicted by the uproarious sounds of the laugh track. While I was embarrassed that millions of people were potentially laughing along while the biracial children were called “zebras”, I took delight because here, in living colour, were characters just like me — racially black and white.
Despite seeing myself reflected occasionally on TV — and in an old movie like Imitation of Life, which featured sad or suicidal “tragic mulatto” characters, or inside an occasional news magazine trend article — I still felt as if I lived outside the society’s racial boundaries. Like many biracial children, then and now, I felt the pressure to define myself as either black or white.
The terms biracial or multiracial were not even officially available to us. On standardised tests, college admissions forms, job applications and even the US Census, the choices were binary — black or white. Choosing didn’t just affect how you were recorded in official records, it also affected how you might be perceived by peers in different racial groups or treated out in the world.
Almost straight out of college, as a young TV producer, I remember walking into a job interview in the Midwest and being met by incredulous looks. The news director politely asked me to step out of his office for a moment while he made a private phone call. Later, I learnt he called the recruiter to say she had made a mistake and sent in the wrong candidate. He had been looking to interview the “black” Steve Majors.
Years later, my orientation at another job in Los Angeles was postponed when the HR director called my new boss to complain that I had checked both black and white in the racial designation on my official application. She handed the phone to me. I listened as my future boss confided that if I wanted the job, I should just check one damn box.
That social pressure to claim a race is not unusual. A study by a London researcher, found that many people born to parents from different racial groups, don’t choose to identify as multiracial. They often tend to identify as the race of their minority parent.
In my case, calling myself black, though I looked white, has created complications for me. I’ve experienced reactions ranging from disbelief to outright denial. Nah, really? You don’t look like you’re black, many said — as if blackness did not have a rainbow of expression across humanity. Though it has rarely happened to me, other multiracial or multiethnic people I know are sometimes confronted with a question that felt as if their very right to be is being challenged: So what are you?
This slightly invasive curiosity has taken on a new form with the rise of the biracial celebrity. Each year I stumble upon entertainment lists of “white” celebrities who are actually “black”. The racially ambiguous looks of Halsey, Pete Wentz, Rashida Jones, Wentworth Miller or Blake Griffin became newsworthy even before the birth of a biracial royal who is seventh in line for the throne. One could argue that these lists allow the black community to proudly claim its own, while non-people of colour get exposed to the idea that blackness means more than the shade of your skin. And though I enjoy the discovery of someone famous who is black, and white, like me, I look forward to the day when coming out as biracial is considered unusual enough to be clickbait.
Demographics may change that.
In the United States, mixed-race births are among the fastest-growing demographic. According to a 2015 Pew Research Centre analysis, one in seven infants were multiracial or multiethnic. It is a number that has increased threefold since 1980.
And as that population of multiracial people increases, I believe more and more people are going to choose definitions that don’t fit into any current category, including multiracial.
In 1993, clinical psychologist and educator Maria Root first published the Bill of Rights for Mixed Race People. The document, regaining popularity, calls out the right of mixed-race people to change their racial identification over time and based on different situations. So, where academics now plot sexual orientation on to a continuum, they may, one day do the same for race.
I already see similar shifts under way in my own family. The change in social and cultural forces in our country gave them the greater freedom to find love or companionship outside their race. My black siblings married spouses of varying races. As a result, today my adult nieces and nephews range in shades from medium caramel to white chocolate.
And their chosen racial identities don’t necessarily reflect their skin tone, but sometimes how they culturally identify. As their own children grow, I imagine they too will feel free to determine where they fit in to the racial melting pot of our country.
I, for my part, am still uncomfortable with both definite labels and more ambiguous definitions. So now I find myself just telling people my mother was black, and my dad was white. In some ways, it has freed me up from the arbitrary attributes, stereotypes and social constructs that others assigned to race. It has allowed me to just be me. Not forbidden. Not famous. Not a one-liner or a cultural fetish object.
Today my husband and I are raising our two daughters. They are growing up in a household where both our diverse races and our different faiths, sexual orientations and cultural identities could never clearly capture who we are as individuals or as a family.
Ours isn’t a royal family. We came into being without trumpets or fanfare. Once, our very own existence might have been deemed historic.
I hope the world eventually sees people like us as merely common.
• Steve Majors, is a non-profit communicator and writer in Takoma Park, Maryland, is working on a book of essays about his childhood and family, High Yella: A Modern Family Memoir