592,689 people in Britain ticked the Mixed White and Black ethnicity categories at the last UK census in 2011. They accounted for 49% of Britain’s overall mixed population at that time, a number that will likely increase by the 2021 census. Baby Archie joins them.
The wealth and whiteness of the family he belongs to will surely afford him great privileges compared to the majority of people in Britain with mixed white and black heritage. His arrival prompts us to reflect on the complex relations between race, class, nation, and the British establishment.
You wouldn’t be hard pressed to find mixed race families in the contemporary UK, especially in the larger cities and urban centres like London, Manchester and Birmingham which have historically pulled in migrants from around the globe. Research has shown that the mixed children that have grown off the back of these social processes tend to live in more better-off households vis-à-vis their non-mixed counterparts.
Baby Archie will sit way atop this hierarchy within the comfort of the Royal Family and his positionality will be distinctly different from the majority of mixed white and black people in the UK who tend to have different structural positions compared to the rest of the mixed population. Take the Mixed White and Black Caribbean group for example. Out of all the mixed groups, they are the least likely to hold a higher qualification, are over represented in school exclusions and suffer low educational attainment, in line with their Black Caribbean counterparts and there are countless examples of the group suffering from institutional racism in policing, including the high profile case of Mark Duggan.
These patterns suggest mixed black and white people can suffer rather unfavourable outcomes when encountering the British establishment and its various institutions. If we look at the positions of mixed white and black people in Britain through a longer historical lens, we can trace the root of these contemporary disadvantages and the complex trajectories of mixed people’s positions through time.
Prior to its independence from Britain in 1776, slavery had been in operation in the Thirteen Colonies, the foundational states of Meghan’s homeland – the United States of America. Mixing across white and black populations did occur in the region, often through exploitative unions. To deal with the mixed race offspring that mixing across racial boundaries produced, the British experimented with various laws to prohibit interracial marriage and sexual acts.
One particularly creative development was the reconfiguration of the traditional British patrilineal system of descent towards a matrilineal one. The racism and patriarchy that characterised these societies meant that black people of mixed origins were often fathered by white men and black enslaved women. This change in the law, ensured that mixed race populations inherited the servitude status of their black mothers, rather than white fathers – a manoeuvre introduced to guarantee white control and power in the region.
The later introduction of the one-drop rule inherited and reinforced these historical tactics by designating all mixed race people as black, even those whose black heritage was many generations removed and who appeared unmistakably white by their phenotype.
However, the fate of mixed white and black populations in the US context was not always this straightforward. Before the 1930 census, when ‘negro’ first became the only category for black, the nation had been preoccupied with ways in which to measure variations of black heritage. As far back as 1850 the term mulatto appeared on the census to describe those with one White European and one Black African parent. By the 1890 census the options for African-American heritage expanded to include four categories in total, including ‘quadroon’, the offspring of a mulatto and a white, which Baby Archie would have been classified as at that time.
What makes race so fascinating is its malleability and how it can shift through time in order to suit, and importantly reproduce, unequal relations of power. Across the water, in the British Caribbean, where slaves outnumbered their masters by a factor of 8 to 1 by the early eighteenth century, it was not unknown for ‘quadroons’ to come to own slaves themselves, whilst ‘mulattoes’ such as Dido Elizabeth Belle, made famous by the 2014 film, could even find themselves being sent to Britain to live with their wealthy white families. Here, mixed black and white people could often be brought into the ranks of whiteness, especially those who were the most wealthy and more generations removed from their African ancestry.
However, one would be mistaken to assume that this privileged trajectory of wealthy ‘mulattoes’ like Belle was always this secure. The treatment of black people of mixed origins in the Caribbean region of Britain’s vast Empire was very unstable. It could be seen to shift, in line with the prerogatives of the whiteness and wealth which ruled over the islands.
In Jamaica for example, the ongoing British worries about imagined and real slave rebellions contributed towards the complicated, contradictory treatment of mixed populations. On the one hand they were treated with suspicion, as the ‘enemy within’ who might take up arms on the wrong side of fight. The material consequence of this could be seen in changes to the inheritance rights of mixed populations which limited their ability to accrue the social, economic and cultural wealth they had done previously. Concomitantly, this very fear of black rebellions and the ongoing problem with the lack of white settlement on the island would also lead the British to look towards mixed populations as a way to replenish the stock through interracial reproduction that might produce a mixed, but nevertheless mostly white, creole society.
This short walk back through time and across just a small section of the British Empire has intended to reveal a number of important things. Firstly, it troubles the idea of the newness of mixing amongst Britain’s wealthiest. Although Baby Archie represents a significant change within the Royal Family, he is not the first person of Black heritage to be born into the whiteness and wealth of Britain’s elite. Secondly, although many will see this development as the Royal Family’s latest step into the modern multiculture of 21st century Britain, it is important to remember some of the more unsettling, complex and intersecting British histories of mixed race, nation and class that occurred in these earlier centuries, and to recognise how the vast majority of mixed white and black Britons still continue to feel the wrath of these pasts in their everyday lives today.
Karis Campion obtained her PhD in Sociology from the University of Manchester in 2017. Her PhD explored the macro and micro-politics of Black mixed race as both an identity and as a social category throughout the post-war period in Britain. Her research interests span areas of (mixed) race/ethnicity, intersectional inequalities, post-colonial identities, categorisations of race and institutional racism in education.