Oyez. Oyez. Oyez. The proclamation is done and dusted. It’s time to have a seat. Fan ourselves back to cool and calm after going all aflutter with the news of a royal marriage.
Monday morning delivered a spot of brightness that spread cheer in defiance of the bleak times: a blue-blooded prince is turning a biracial commoner into a princess. Miscegenation in the age of the Alt-Right, or a resurgent white supremacy – it’s practically an act of subversion, and from the British royals, no less.
With her engagement pushing Meghan Markle to stratospheric celebrity status, it’s safe to say the new poster girl of “unconventional” is here, who by her existence will challenge the fallacy of post-racialism.
A headline on the Guardian’s liveblog read: “Joy or disdain? Follow the reactions to the royal engagement.”
Former U.K. foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind told the media Markle’s mixed-race background (her mother is Black, her father white) is not news anymore. “It’s the least interesting aspect of the day’s news,” he said. “It’s not an issue. There is no controversy. The world has moved on.”
The woman in question feels differently.
In the couple’s first joint interview on Monday, Markle said she found the focus on her heritage “disheartening.”
“You know it’s a shame that that is the climate in this world, to focus that much on that, or that that would be discriminatory in that sense,” she said.
If her race does not matter, why are people being asked to comment on it? Why would the media affect such nonchalance while talking about Markle’s non-whiteness, and why do we see such a quick emergence of ways to describe her “otherness.”
Markle is a “new kind of royal,” says The Associated Press.
Sure. She’s a woman of colour. A divorcee. An actress. An American.
It describes her as an “outspoken woman comfortable talking about her background.”
This brings the implicit assumption, the unspoken expectation that she talk about her background at all, a demand placed only on people who are not white.
“Background” for Kate Middleton, now the Duchess of Cambridge, meant her “commoner” status as a multimillionaire family, not her whiteness.
“How do you identify yourself?” is never a straight question for people from multiracial lineage – who are, in fact, being asked which of their ethnicities they favour. The answers never please everyone.
Markle defines herself as “mixed-race” in an Elle magazine essay. A seemingly innocuous statement can be a sensitive one: was calling herself mixed a rejection of her Blackness, a sign of internalized racism? Based on her story, in which she also talks about her Black ancestors who were enslaved, and the pain of hearing her mother being called the n-word, it did not appear to be so. She says her father once told her to “draw her own box” instead of checking off one of the rigidly defined options of ethnicity on a form.
More power to her, but under the glare of public scrutiny, Markle will find her “non-white” parts continually rejected or held under the microscope or fetishized more than ever, until one day, she’ll be forced to take sides.
Under the liberal brand of racism, she will be “exotic.” Or even “ethnic.” How lucky she is to have a perennial tan, they will coo. And look, cute mixed-race royal babies who will end racism once and for all. Because clearly, that worked out really well after the Barack Obama presidency.
The old-school racists will play it straight. “Harry’s girl is (almost) straight outta Compton,” a MailOnline headline read last year. And inevitably – you didn’t even have to wait for it – “Gang-scarred home of her mother revealed.” And wouldn’t you know it, she has relatives living in “gang-infested” areas.
There will be plenty of reasons to find question marks around Markle, expressed in coded ways to build plausible deniability.
“Obviously, seventy years ago, Meghan Markle would have been the kind of woman the Prince would have had for a mistress, not a wife. Things have changed,” states a piece in the Spectator, within hours of the engagement news.
And then: “Meghan Markle is unsuitable as his wife for the same reason that Wallis Simpson was unsuitable: she’s divorced and Harry’s grandmother is supreme governor of the CofE.”
Right. Never mind that her in-laws-to-be are both divorcees.
At the very least, being married to Markle offers Harry a window to the racial gaze that befalls people of colour.
Last year, the prince released an irate statement via the Kensington Palace.
It said in part, “His girlfriend, Meghan Markle, has been subject to a wave of abuse and harassment. Some of this has been very public – the smear on the front page of a national newspaper; the racial undertones of comment pieces; and the outright sexism and racism of social media trolls and web article comments.”
Unlike the Obama presidency, a Markle royalty is all about the symbolism, unburdened by the weight of military and policy decision making.
This is a good thing. Just images of a mixed-race royal will signal that “British” need no longer translate into white.
For those still anxious about this dilution of Britishness, take heart. This is a native development; after all, outsiders as rulers is a very British concept.
Shree Paradkar is national affairs writer