Prince Harry caused a tempest in a teapot, when news broke that he was dating Suits actress Meghan Markle. The difference to this royal relationship is that the potential princess is a Black woman. Markle and Prince Harry’s relationship is a real issue that tests the limits of our apparently ‘post racial’ age. Some commentators have been quick to proclaim the relationship and relative lack of furor as evidence of progress and that the spirit of ‘multicultural inclusiveness’ has reached the monarchy. Last year, BET comforted its viewers facing the end of Obama’s presidency with the news that “we may be leaving the White House, but we might be making our way into the royal castle.”
However, the reception in the press has not all been positive, with an uncomfortable focus on the difference that the biracial Markle represents.
In our ‘post-racial’ age even the most rabid of right wing press would not highlight Markle’s race directly as being a problem. Racism becomes coded in metaphor and suggestion, obvious to the reader but with plausible deniability. The notorious British right-wing paper the Daily Mail published a piece on Markle and her family, where they hired a genealogist to go back for generations and contrast the stark differences between the royal’s heritage and hers. However, they dispensed with the post-racial politeness in another article, under the headline ‘Harry’s Girl is (almost) Straight Outta Compton’. They focus on the area near where Markle’s mother lives in LA, drawing on the well-worn stereotypes of violence, gangs and crime to question whether this is a place the Queen “would pop round for tea.”
All this in an effort to paint her as an outsider unsuited for British royalty.
It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to get the message that the royal family ‘is strictly not for N******’. The tone of press coverage has led to Prince Harry releasing a statement condemning the ‘racial undertones’ of the stories.
We should not be surprised by this kind of backlash, given the role of the royal family in Britain. The monarchy has long since been symbolic, kept around because of tourism and popularity. A recent YouGov poll found that 68% of people thought they were “good for Britain,” compared to only 9 percent who felt the opposite. The royals have celebrity status, with birthdays, marriages and newborns celebrated with hundreds of thousands out in the streets. The symbolic power of the royal family unfortunately tells us a great deal about belonging in Britain.
The embrace of the monarchy cannot be untangled from the importance that colonialism has in defining Britishness. A 2014 YouGov poll found that 59% of people were proud of the British Empire. Britain was built on slavery and the colonization of two thirds of the world, building an empire upon which “the sun never set.” The end of the Empire led to a distinct sense of loss of Britain’s place in the world. The yearning for colonial nostalgia, in order to connect the nation back to its glory days of imperial pomp is a key reason for the recent vote for Brexit, so that Britain can be great again free shackles of the European Union. The monarchy is a key part of this colonial nostalgia and the reason that in my primary school we routinely sang ‘rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves, Britain never, ever, ever, shall be slaves’.
As a symbol of empire and Britain’s great past, the monarchy therefore become and symbol of Whiteness and purity of the nation. In their hereditary, they are a direct link to the Britain of former glories. A time where Britain dominated the darker peoples of the world, and did not have to live with us in their cities. Even in ‘post-racial’ times the idea of that line of heredity being polluted with Blackness would be unacceptable to many.
But the potential for a Black princess may actually present a more complicated problems for how we discuss race. The idea of Markle’s acceptance, heralding an age of inclusiveness brings to mind late Professor Derick Bell’s warning that “what we view as racial progress is not a solution, but rather a regeneration of the problem in a particularly perverse form.” Two years ago, the Black British newspaper the Voice published, an article wistfully discussing whether Harry would ever marry a Black woman. Ironically, the acceptance of a Black princess could actually reaffirm the Whiteness of the nation.
Perhaps the best way to understand this is to take an example from representation of enslavement on the big screen in Britain. The movie Belle came out in 2013, telling the story of the daughter of an aristocrat and an enslaved African who was raised by a Lord in 18th century Britain. Director Ama Asante, chose this exceptional story because she wanted to give ‘little Black girls’ a protagonist ‘who wore those clothes, the fine silks and the lovely jewelry, and who was the love interest” in a Jane Austen-like period drama. Her aim was to tell a story of the era that Black girls could be proud of, and find their place in. Unfortunately, the film concocts a fantasy narrative, which reinforces dominant ideas of race, Whiteness and progressive myths about Britain. Belle finds her place, by overcoming her Blackness and being accepted into the Whiteness and pageantry of British society.
Markle’s path into Whiteness is already being carved out in the media. There are stories that ignore her Blackness and claim her as “just like Harry’s mother,” princess Diana with her focus on charity work. Demonstrating the hold of colorism in British ideas of race, we are also reassured that she “looks like Pippa Middleton.” So Markle offers the potential for a Black princess held up as symbol of change, without actually changing the racial codes of society. Given that this is a best case scenario, perhaps we should reframe the question in the Voice, to “why would a Black woman want to marry Prince Harry?”
Kehinde Andrews is a professor at Birmingham City University in the UK. He is also author of the book “Resisting Racism: Race, Inequality and the Black Supplementary School Movement” and the co-editor of the book “Blackness in Britain.” Follow him on Twitter @kehinde_andrews
This post was originally published on November 10, 2016.