Race

Black female artists discuss Harry, Meghan and interracial relationships

Even fairy-tale marriages need honest conversations about race

Is there anything more seductive or ultimately disappointing than a fairy tale?

It’s been nearly two weeks since the interview of the decade, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s post-Buckingham Palace emancipation sit-down with Oprah Winfrey, and the repercussions just keep coming. The queen is appointing a diversity czar for the palace. The royals are orchestrating a bumbling publicity blitz, and a new poll found that more than half the people of Canada, which is part of the British commonwealth, think the British monarchy is obsolete. Then there are the small-scale conversations Black women are having amongst each other about how the most famous interracial couple in the world revealed something they already knew: There is no way for a white man to politely disengage from confronting the racism his partner faces from in-laws and family acquaintances. After all, plenty of them have faced the very same dynamics.

Some fairy tale, eh?

Meghan Markle (left) and Prince Harry (right) attend the Commonwealth Day Service 2020 at Westminster Abbey on March 9 in London.

Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images

For Jezebel and Queen Sugar director Numa Perrier, who, like 17.8 million other people in America, watched Winfrey’s interview with Meghan and Harry live, the experience brought back memories of her first marriage, at age 22, to a white Frenchman she quickly divorced.

“I’m a sucker for accents, so when I met him and I heard that French accent, I had this very romanticized notion of what it would be [like] to live in Paris, or be a Black girl in Paris,” Perrier said. “I let him sweep me off my feet.

“I assumed that we held the same value system around race, because in my mind, I had read all these things about Josephine Baker, about Nina Simone, and like, ‘Oh, when America rejected us as Black women, France welcomed us as Black women.’ But I missed the nuance between that as well: They were welcomed as entertainment, they were welcomed as providing relief through their art, but were they really welcomed as Black women? I skipped over that little piece.”

Like Markle, Perrier experienced a rude awakening when it came to discussions of race and children.

For Jezebel and Queen Sugar director Numa Perrier, Meghan and Harry’s interview with Oprah Winfrey brought back memories of her first marriage, at age 22, to a white Frenchman she quickly divorced.

House of Numa

“One thing he said was if we ever had a kid, that they wouldn’t really be Black,” Perrier said. “I remember saying, ‘What?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ Because my belief system is that I’m a Black woman, I’m the Black mom, my children are Black. I don’t care who the father is. My children are Black. Now, I did not have children with him, thank goodness. … What was underneath that was, ‘Oh, they’re not going to be associated with Blackness per se, because I’m their father.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, I think the hell not.’ ”

Watching Meghan and Harry reminded Perrier of her ex-husband’s naive views about race. Even as she recognized Harry’s obvious love for Meghan, she saw a man still in the midst of decolonizing his own mind. Perrier observed in Harry, like her ex-husband, an assumption that his status as a white man would extend to his wife. It’s an idea rooted in English common law and a theory known as “coverture,” which basically means that when a man marries a woman, her rights and identity and property become subsumed under his. She takes his name and whatever rights and privileges his status affords him become hers, and that offers protection. It’s a form of benevolent sexism, codified by law.

“There’s just a lack of accountability in even thinking that, oh, because this is my wife or these are my children, they’re exempt from not only Blackness, but they’re exempt from racism as a product of that Blackness,” Perrier said. “And so having almost a sense of entitlement and privilege to think that there’s no way that this [racism] would trickle down to my wife, my kids.”

That idea of a Black woman’s identity becoming trumped — and therefore shielded — by her partner’s whiteness was something TV writer Azie Dungey (Twenties, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Sweetbitter), who is Black and Indigenous, experienced with her ex-husband, who she married when she was 21. Dungey recalled becoming frustrated with her husband, who refused to confront a white friend of his who repeatedly subjected Dungey to galling disrespect. In one instance, Dungey said, the friend cornered her at a party and accused her of masking her desire for a Black partner, invoking a stereotype about Black genitalia.

“It was nasty, it was scary and it was racist,” Dungey said of the encounter.

TV writer Azie Dungey, who is Black and Indigenous, recalled becoming frustrated with her ex-husband, whom she married at 21, because he refused to confront a white friend who repeatedly disrespected her.

Azie Dungey

Dungey told her husband about the experience and how she felt uncomfortable around this person, who would “touch [her] in inappropriate ways.” But her husband continued to socialize with his friend. Dungey felt betrayed.

“The person that was supposed to be my partner in life — it was more important for him to continue a friendship with this person who he wasn’t even that close to than it was for him to take a hard line and confront the fact that he was friends with an actively racist human being,” she said. “Not only was that not OK because he’s with me, but it wasn’t OK period.

“I can only speak for myself, but as a Black and Indigenous woman, I’ve had a lot of hits to my self-worth from life. I think that we often allow things that are less than we deserve, and we find ways to work it out and work through it, and make excuses. And I think that men — not just white men, but I think that all men can take advantage of that. … If I had been a white woman, he would never have even had to really think about the fact that this person was racist.”

What was even more bothersome to Dungey was that there was nowhere she could really find safe harbor from misogynoir, regardless of the race of her partner. When she shared her story on Twitter in the wake of the Harry and Meghan interview, she received pushback. What did she expect? It was her fault for being with a white man. She should have known better.

“The person who committed domestic violence against me was Native,” Dungey said. “The person who raped me was Black. I don’t think that race makes a man more or less safe for a woman of color. I just don’t.” 

All of that contributed to how she thought about Meghan, Harry and their decision to extricate themselves from the royal family.

“I was just impressed that he was able to say, you know, ‘I’m going to separate myself from these people, because they’re wrong.’ You know? ‘And they’re people that I love, but this person’s humanity, my wife, is much more important to me in this moment than these relationships, and the protection that I’ve known my whole life within this kind of bubble that I’ve been in.’ I do think there is a sense of loss, and of giving something up.”

Fairy tales, with their tropes of benevolent sexism and rose-colored happily ever after — the very things the pageantry of the monarchy continues to peddle — set women up for disappointment. They rely on unrealistic notions of gender, race, marriage and hierarchy. Attempting to introduce a Black woman and self-proclaimed feminist with her own identity firmly established into this institution was bound to fail.

For actress Amani Starnes (left) and her husband Alex Nunnelly (right), making a lasting relationship and marriage work meant having open and upfront conversations about race and how they experience it, and being realistic about their expectations.

courtesy of Amani Starnes

That doesn’t mean that interracial relationships between Black women and white men are doomed to the same fate. After all, Meghan’s problems were with the institution that produced Harry, not the person himself. For actress Amani Starnes, 37, and her husband, Alex Nunnelly, 29, making a relationship and marriage work meant having open conversations about how they experience race, and being realistic about their expectations instead of relying on love to conquer all. The couple began dating in 2016, at the beginning of the Donald Trump administration, and there was no avoiding the implications of living in a racist society. But their conversations would have happened anyway.

Starnes, who grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, is the daughter of a white mother and a Black father. Nunnelly grew up in a small gated community in St. Petersburg, Florida, in a family of six children that did not talk frequently about race. His education was, as Nunnelly put it, “your stereotypical colorblind approach to dealing with race: ‘Oh, it’s important for us just to look past our differences, focus on similarities.’ ”

He started to think differently when he attended college and met different kinds of people. And that shift in perspective continued to evolve after he met and fell in love with Starnes, he said.

Starnes, on the other hand, had been forced to consider race since she was a child, especially after she experienced racist criticism for playing Dorothy in a community theater adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. Her experiences with racism have long influenced her work as an actress and her work in academia — she’s currently pursuing a doctorate in theater and performance studies at Stanford. In 2013, Starnes created and starred in a web series called The United Colors of Amani, in which she dramatized her experiences as a Black actress. Most recently, Starnes played a sexual assault nurse examiner in Test Pattern, a film about a Black woman in a relationship with a white man (Will Brill), and the events that take place after she is raped by a white stranger she meets in a bar. The film is, in part, an exploration of the ways that good white intentions are not a panacea for societal racism and misogyny.

When he screened an early cut of the film with Starnes, Nunnelly found himself identifying and sympathizing with Brill’s character, who is so desperate to pursue justice for his girlfriend Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) that he doesn’t bother to ask her what she wants or needs. Then he listened to Starnes and the film’s writer-director, Shatara Michelle Ford.

“By the end of [the conversation], it made perfect sense to me that [what Evan, Brill’s character, was doing] was basically a secondary and repetition of the initial crime and trauma by reopening the wound and basically once again disempowering the protagonist to actually choose her own fate,” Nunnelly said. “And that ties in with that kind of the overall ethic of listening and not trying to control outcomes, right? Because I think that’s just another materialization of privilege: to feel entitled to outcomes. That’s just one of many instances of walking away from when we talked feeling a lot more educated.”

Starnes, having dated white men before, was prepared for issues of race to spring up in their relationship, especially when it became serious. Sitting with Nunnelly by her side, Starnes revealed during a Zoom interview that she found ways to gauge his family’s attitudes.

“His grandparents are cool,” Starnes said, a bit of mischief creeping into her voice. “I tested them, I did! I was like, ‘I wonder what me and Alex’s children are going to come out looking like?’ And I just said that. And [his grandmother] was like, ‘Whatever they come out looking like you will love them and we will all love them so much.’ And I was just like, she’s just aware, you know?”

When Starnes introduced Nunnelly to her father, he made a good impression, though life experience made her father skeptical of white men and their intentions. 

“He was like, ‘I had seen photos of Alex and I have to admit, my sisters and all the Black women I know have been done dirty by so many men who look like him,’ ” Starnes said. “But it explained so many things and why he was so protective and I got it. I got it.”

For Starnes and Nunnelly, race and racism aren’t a one-and-done conversation, but something that they will address throughout their lives together. And that makes them not too different from a couple of multimillionaires who revealed — some might say, simply confirmed — the crustiness behind the crown.

Maybe Harry and Meghan are creating a new archetype of some of our oldest tales. In this version, Prince Charming is Prince Charming not because of birthright or bloodline, but because he turned his back on white supremacy, choosing instead to ride off into the sunset with his Black biracial wife. With love and luck, maybe this is one fairy tale that won’t disappoint.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.