Change is possible in our attitudes on gender, race and class, but sometimes—as we’re learning from the examples of Diana and Meghan—the changes are much too slow.
I remember November 8, 2016 vividly. This was Election Day in the U.S., and I had woken up quite early to go to my polling station (a nursing home down the block) to cast my vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton for president of the United States. While I was there, I was stunned to see a group of young white college-aged men also casting their votes early in the morning. The sight of this was unusual since I hardly found that age group at previous elections, much less at such an early time of day. Instantly, I felt a certain trepidation: Donald Trump is going to win. This of course was based on this early turnout enthusiasm, given the strong support Trump had found among men across all ages, and especially among white men.
I tried to hold onto some optimism for the day when I returned home to have my breakfast, watch the news and check my social media feed—where I saw the headline about Prince Harry calling out the media for their racist and sexist attacks against his then-girlfriend, actor Meghan Markle. Wow, I thought, this sounds serious! Serious enough for the grandson of the Queen of England to defend his girlfriend from the misogynoir that—looking back—was just in its infancy.
Prince Harry’s statement had indicated to me that this was not just some casual romance. He was prepared to go up against institutions for the woman he loves. His interpersonal fight and our own political fight on this side of the pond were just getting started.
In light of the fury surrounding the Meghan and Harry with Oprah interview as heard around the world, I think back to this ominous day of the rise of Trumpism, emerging in the wake of Brexit, and how it had coincided with the revelation of a man representing one of the oldest all-white institutions in the English-speaking world declaring his serious involvement with a woman of color, a mixed-race daughter of an African American woman.
Without realizing it then, our world was at a cultural and political crossroads: between tradition and modernity; between white supremacist power reasserting itself and a multiracial society struggling to emerge; between family/institutions asserting what love looks like and individual declarations of “love is love”—the latter that can look like same-sex marriage enjoying legal protection or a white prince crossing racial and national borders to enter the kind of interracial marriage that had only been legalized in the U.S. since 1967.
Given how these crossroads are rife with racial, political and gendered divisions, it is not surprising to learn that Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, had struggled as the acknowledged first mixed-race woman to enter the British royal family. As with any racial “firsts” who are challenged to “integrate” families, workplaces, schools, neighborhoods, U.S. presidencies and even monarchical institutions, the struggle is real. And for those of us working in or living within predominately white environments, Meghan’s story resonates for many as she shares her experience of being dismissed, being promised but not receiving protection, and encountering various microaggressions (such as hearing that family members are “concerned” with the skin color of her unborn child).
And yet, are these revelations from the interview truly “shocking”? Disappointing, yes, but shocking? There was a reason why so many women of African descent—myself included—glued ourselves to our TV, computer and mobile screens to watch the wedding of Harry and Meghan. This was a supposed “fairy tale” that young women of color had learned at a very early age was not meant for “us,” and yet here was a woman of African descent (albeit one who was white-passing enough to be acceptable but still not white enough to quell fears of dark-skinned progeny) marrying her prince. Black Twitter had documented the nuptials with #BlackRoyalWedding, given the racially inclusive touches that gave the effect of a truly integrated community.
As with any racial “firsts” who are challenged to “integrate” families, workplaces, schools, neighborhoods, U.S. presidencies and even monarchical institutions, the struggle is real.
However, as Vanessa Williams declares in The Washington Post, “The paper bag test came to Buckingham Palace,” thus reminding us of our own families and communities among Black and brown people in the U.S., the Caribbean, and Latin America who have obsessed over the color of children, peering at the back of infants’ ears to determine just how light or dark they will eventually become.
Of course, there are degrees of difference between these “brown paper bag” and “blue veins” tests, since Black and brown communities are all too aware of the crushing experience of anti-Black and anti-brown racism that impacts across the color spectrum with the awareness that those who are lighter-skinned may suffer “less” than those who are darker-skinned. Note: We all still suffer, but colorism just might soften the blow.
Among white families, however, this fear of dark skin does not come from the same concern. The issue is about racial purity and the upheld power of whiteness. As we are seeing with Meghan’s example, light-skinned people are not exempt from anti-Black racism. They may be light enough to gain entrance but still be too dark to get protected from racist media. From the pain shown on both faces of Harry and Meghan in their interview, I would venture to say that they were more hurt by a family member’s questioning of Archie’s eventual complexion than they were by the journalist who compared him unfavorably to a chimpanzee.
The British royal family is great at putting on a show of “pomp” and ceremony, and they definitely struck the right chord in celebrating the coming together of white British and African American cultures through the royal wedding pageantry of Harry and Meghan. However, cosmetic display of “diversity” is just that: appearances. And the royal family is hardly the only institution that struggles to go deeper on the other aspect of integration: inclusivity.
When inclusion becomes a genuine goal, what would that look like? It may look like mental health support for Meghan and her growing family and efforts to prevent her and Harry from having to step down from their senior royal positions while relocating across the pond during a global pandemic.
In retrospect, Prince Harry’s statement against the media’s attack on Meghan back in 2016 may have already foreshadowed their eventual break as a couple from the royal institution. Indeed, Salamishah Tillet suggests that the treatment of Meghan has forced Harry to have a “racial awakening” through his wife by acknowledging his own “white privilege.”
Even then, the anti-Black racism is strong enough to strip even him of his privileges, whether in the way he has lost his princely security by stepping away to support his wife, or in various men (and women) imagining him as an unwilling victim, a henpecked husband enthralled by the “black magic” sexual charms of the daughter of a Black woman, a legacy of Jezebel/Black Venus stereotypes that have been passed down since the era of the transatlantic slave trade.
One need only reference the eighteenth-century satire “Voyage of the Sable Venus” to see how white Englishmen and other Europeans imagined that African women and their mixed-race daughters were so sexually empowering—despite the fact of the pervasiveness of sexual violence that shaped New World slavery—they had no other choice (white men) but to pass on their genes through the generations of African-descended people, leaving as part of the legacy of slavery and empire that the British monarchy has symbolized through this global power the remnants of racial hierarchies that are felt through “brown paper bag” tests in communities of color. And women’s bodies become the site for control, the site for determining just how Black or how non-Black, how enslaved or how free, progeny would be.
While the Buckingham Palace has issued a statement suggesting the royal family will address the fallout as a “private family matter,” we may all recognize how this institution serves as a microcosm—or perhaps macrocosm, given their global representation—for systems of power and how we can move forward with useful conversations on what diversity and inclusion actually looks like when examining how the promise of a woman of color entering a traditionally white institution could backfire so spectacularly. It may be easier to blame the individual (Meghan) for failing to assimilate, or for being too much of a Black woman (too angry, too strong, too independent) than it is to dismantle the systems of power that make assimilation a doomed project.
“This institution serves as a microcosm … for systems of power and how we can move forward with useful conversations on what diversity and inclusion actually looks like when examining how the promise of a woman of color entering a traditionally white institution could backfire so spectacularly.”
When Meghan identified as a feminist, Sara Robards described her brand as “neoliberal feminism” and believed it was a damaging message for women since the emphasis was on individual success rather than collective solidarity. However, it may be useful to remember that, before Meghan, Princess Diana had already warned two years before her tragic death, that strong, independent women are incompatible with an institution that can only support one queen whose interests must further patriarchy, imperialism and whiteness.
And yet, we know that change can occur when the will exists. The same queen changed an archaic rule on gender, thus allowing the young Princess Charlotte to keep her place in the line of succession, a decision that could have only been made thanks to the global influence of the feminist movement. Change is possible in our attitudes on gender, race and class, but sometimes—as we’re learning from the examples of Diana and Meghan—the changes are much too slow. It is better, then, to save oneself, and if possible, save others around you.
Landing quite comfortably in sunny California with Netflix and Spotify deals, thus uniting what Patrick Freyne calls “British Royalty with U.S. Celebrity”—and doing so with help from Princess Diana’s inheritance; the generosity of Tyler Perry, whose vast fortune is built from Black women’s narratives and consumption; and the public platform enabled by another self-made billionaire, Oprah Winfrey—the Sussexes have demonstrated that they just might have another chance to reinvent themselves, thanks to the solidarity of women (including the fan community of “Sussex Squad”) and African American women specifically. Doria Ragland’s daughter may feel unprotected by a powerful institution, but Black women will come for their own.
Of course, Meghan has also shown she can save herself with the right support. Indeed, we have learned from the interview how much she is a rescuer: of dogs, chickens and “trapped” princes in search of an exit.