Danny Baker was a highly successful and even “brilliant” British radio host in the eyes of his BBC bosses, until he tweeted a photo that wasn’t as innocently cute as he thought it was.
The photo depicted a young man and woman holding hands with a chimpanzee over a caption that read: “Royal baby leaves hospital.”
His bosses, among many others, were not amused by his intemperate salute to newborn Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor, son of Prince Harry and his biracial American wife, Meghan Markle. Baker deleted the tweet and apologized, saying he had not considered the picture’s racist connotations. Too late. He was fired later the same day.
Too bad. Baker’s blunder illustrates the hidden impact of the new royal baby’s arrival: He offers us commoners another opportunity to embarrass ourselves through our ignorance, not only about royalty but also about race.
I call such racial gaffes the downside of trying “not to see color.” That’s a well-meaning impulse when it leads us to treat others fairly, regardless of their race or ethnicity. But attempts to impose a false invisibility on important issues like race, gender and ethnicity can blind us to aspects of other people that we should be trying to see.
Baker should have gotten a clue from the very fact that Harry and Meghan’s nuptials in May 2018 drew more global attention and, I would argue, caused more excitement than any other since Prince Charles and Princess Diana tied the knot in 1981.
Amid the current storms over trade wars, real wars, Brexit and border security debates, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and baby Archie offer us, at least, a lovely symbolic vision of peace and love across racial and international lines.
For the black diaspora, especially in the United Kingdom and the United States, Archie’s parents and his birth have stirred an excitement mixed with questions. One appeared in the headline to an op-ed by Carla Hall, a Los Angeles Times editorial writer who also is biracial: “Will Meghan Markle and Prince Harry raise their baby to be black?”
Hall’s essay, which was more nuanced than its headline, provoked a wide array of responses from trolls as well as sensible people. After all, even unabashed social justice warriors should hesitate before considering a member of the British royal family to be oppressed, just because he has a mixed-race mom. Living while royal most likely will mean more to baby Archie’s identity development than living while black.
We don’t even know yet how much his black genes will affect how he looks. As much as we in the U.S. are conditioned by the “one-drop rule,” a distinctly American idea that one drop of “black blood” in your ancestry makes you black, baby Archie could be part black but look quite white.
Racial identity is expressed in two ways: How we see ourselves and what others see when they look at us. Archie may grow into skin color and hair texture that looks white enough for others to presume that’s all that matters.
Yet as Baker’s misadventure illustrates, how a child sees himself or herself can be challenged on an almost daily basis by a world that wants to see only one racial or cultural heritage at a time, often through the distorting lenses of stereotypes.
Writer Lizzie Skurnick, daughter of a black mother and white Jewish father, asked a question in a New York Times essay that is similar to Hall’s: “Will he have kinky hair?” Either way, she notes, she’ll love #BabySussex, as his parents hashtagged their son on Instagram, and hopes he’ll be as proud of his kinky hair as she is proud of hers.
That’s important, as mixed-race Americans have become a growing category of Americans, for children and teens who inevitably have questions about themselves, their background, their heritage and how to put up with sometimes annoying “What are you?” questions from their peers.
For this, Harry and Meghan offered a good model in their choices of wedding speakers and music from Meghan’s cultural heritage. Chicago-born Bishop Michael Curry, the first African American to head the Episcopal Church in the U.S., delivered a spirited sermon. A gospel choir sang, breaking from Church of England tradition and breaking into a lively version of Ben E. King’s 1961 hit “Stand By Me.”
I’m sure I was not the only African American in the global audience who was reminded in that service of the cultural experience my parents gave me, not only to appreciate where I was coming from but also to prepare me for the larger world into which I hoped to grow. I wish no less for baby Archie, whichever way his privileged life takes him.