By Raheem Veal
Millions of people around the world huddled in front of their television or computer screens to witness history being made. Prince Harry married American actress Meghan Markle—a biracial woman whose first marriage had ended in a divorce. There are pages upon pages of coverage underscoring the positivity body language between Markle’s mother, the sole attendee from her family, and the Royal family.
Black composers and gospel choirs blessed our ears with spirited renditions of quintessential black songs—such as “Stand By Me”—that are cultural staples in Britain and America, respectively. On paper this event seemed to be a monumental moment in which the British crown embraced blackness, but perhaps we should pump our brakes a bit.
This spectacle reminded us that though antiblackness is rampant globally, not all black people are created equal. Class markers and skin tone are dividers that have created a spectrum of blackness which dictates who will be tolerated by larger white society. In short, there are levels to this.
As an academically talented black boy, I was labeled “exceptional” by adults and ostracized by many of my peers growing up. Dozens of authority figures encouraged me to distance myself from my black classmates and often used me as a tool to belittle them; I could tell the other kids resented me for it. As I completed my trek through an Ivy League institution, it became clearer to me that my blackness was tolerated (not accepted) because of my academic prowess. Put plainly, I was viewed as a “good one.”
One sunny afternoon, I jogged through my suburban neighborhood wearing a grey hoodie, black shorts, and a worn pair of Nike’s. As I rounded a corner and raced downhill, a black Suburban truck sloppily screeched to an abrupt stop just yards away from me. An angry white man with round frames lunged towards me, barking that I “matched the description” of someone who’d been committing burglaries in the neighborhood.
Balled fist in hand, I protested that I was visiting home from school, lived two blocks from here, and had no idea what he was talking about. As he hopped back in his van and sped off, I wrestled with many questions in my mind. Why did I feel the need to rationalize my presence to a random man who may or may not have lived there himself? What did he intend to do? How differently would my first interaction have gone with this man if I’d been at the other end of the business table in a crisp suit?
In those split seconds, all of my achievements and accolades had evaporated. I was simply a gap-toothed, dark skin male in his twenties who didn’t belong here. Thinking back to my unwarranted run-ins with campus police at school, I wondered how much danger I would have been in if I’d left my student ID at home on one of those nights. I’d had similar experiences with white professors and classmates who treated me differently based upon my attire when we crossed paths around campus.
While the Royal Wedding should be celebrated, we must remind ourselves that Meghan Markle is an exceptionally fair-skinned woman who is known throughout Hollywood and has amassed millions throughout a successful career. Her mother, Doria Ragland , is an educated social worker who has also worked tirelessly to make her own way. Again, she was the only member of Markle’s family present for the ceremony. I say this not to criticize the Royal family, the Markle’s, or any one person—but instead to highlight the conditional nature by which both British and American institutions and communities tolerate blackness.
As rapper J Cole lamented in his 2016 track “Neighbors”, his platinum plaques, small fortune, and relationship with President Obama couldn’t save him from being racially-profiled in his house that “sits on a lake.” Believe it or not, I’d rather it be this way. Justice and respect cannot be luxuries only afforded to the most privileged black people in society. High-achieving black students and professionals should not be encouraged to leave their cities behind as they climb new ladders. Until our institutions and communities develop a baseline of human respect for all black people—working class, dark-skinned, incarcerated, unemployed, drug-addicted, homeless, LGBTQ, disabled black people—we cannot move from “tolerance” to “acceptance.” Until then, we must line our celebratory margaritas not with sugar—but with a grain of salt. There is much more work to be done.
Raheem Veal is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania where he majored in Urban Studies. He has accepted an offer to work at Viacom in their Marketing and Partner Solutions program in New York City. Raheem’s interests include freelance writing, culture, music, sports, and social impact.