World News

How Meghan Markle Makes Me Feel About Race and the Crown

Posted May 17, 2018 11:13 p.m. EDT

I had been living in Trinidad and Tobago for just over a year when I had the chance to see Queen Elizabeth II.

As a 10-year-old transplant from the United States, I watched with thousands of other Trinidadians in the National Stadium, as my sister and hundreds of other children danced for her while showcasing the vibrant wonder of calypso steelpan and carnival costumes.

I’d soon come to learn how such ceremonies functioned to maintain the love of the monarchy in even black nations that demanded independence from the crown. But at the time — unaware that a few miles away, college students from the University of the West Indies protested her arrival — I was mesmerized by my cultural pride for my father’s country and excitement for the queen.

Today, as my Google alerts feed me all things Meghan Markle, I struggle even more with conflicting feelings of ambivalence and awe.

This is partly because I have been a fan of Markle’s since her 2011 debut on USA’s “Suits,” and watched as both she and her character, Rachel, adroitly took on the complexity of biracial identity. On the show, Rachel’s father, Robert Zane (Wendell Pierce) is African-American; while in real life, Markle seems especially close to her African-American mother Doria Ragland, who some speculate will make her own history by walking her daughter down the aisle. And because Markle leans into, rather than avoids, her interracial background, her marriage to Prince Harry has been celebrated as a kind of antidote to the rise of nativist intolerance in a Brexit-era England and, increasingly, much of the United States and Europe.

Just this past Sunday, the Lifetime television movie “Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance” portrayed this sentiment when the fictional Meghan (Parisa Fitz-Henley) decides to forsake her acting career to fulfill an even larger obligation of being a racial symbol. After a young black Canadian girl asks for her autograph, the girl’s uncle proclaims: “For a little girl like her, someone like you marrying into the royal family, that’s huge. This is going to change the way people see the world.”

Likewise, there have been several stories about how black people, especially girls and women in Britain and the United States, will now better relate to the monarchy because of Markle’s presence. And in a wonderful op-ed, titled “How a Black Feminist Became a Fan of Princesses,” the activist Maya Rupert admits, “I’ll enjoy that the world’s attention is turned toward a woman whose racial background alone makes some think she’s wrong for the royal role. She found her prince — or he caught up to her.”

And while I, too, am moved by the transformative potential of this marriage, I am also skeptical. Imbuing Markle’s racial biography with so much redemptive potential — much like we did with President Barack Obama — ignores the xenophobia and structures of racial inequality upon which Brexit, and by extension insular notions of British identity that the monarchy symbolizes, thrives.

Markle’s desegregation of the royal family gives us a unique opportunity to examine the contributions and experiences of black people on both sides of the Atlantic. But instead, the new multiracial veneer she gives the monarchy has been portrayed in wedding coverage as not simply modernizing, but inevitable, while Britain’s troubled racial past and present is glossed over.

In that way, the real-life “fairy tale” of Meghan and Harry, as the marriage has been endlessly touted in numerous royal wedding specials, has something in common with other TV narratives about the British monarchy. Though shows like PBS’ “Victoria” and Netflix’s “The Crown” are set in the vastly different time periods of the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries, they also overlook backdrops of British colonialism for more idealistic stories of racial liberalism.

Rather than delve into the British Empire’s violent expansion into Africa and Asia during Victoria’s reign, “Victoria” focuses instead on Prince Albert’s anti-slavery activities. Similarly, “The Crown” obscures Britain’s role in quashing African independence movements by ignoring the rising Mau Mau rebellion during Princess Elizabeth’s visit to Kenya in 1952. Or it renders the royals, not those African leaders or nations seeking full autonomy, as the sympathetic ones. In Season 2, the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser is cast as a global threat, while the Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah’s potential alliance with the Soviets is something to be redirected by a waltz with the queen.

In the Lifetime movie, a warm Queen Elizabeth (Maggie Sullivan) not only revels in Meghan’s love for Harry, but also reveals her deep fondness for a painting of Queen Charlotte, who married King George III in 1761 and who some historians claim was of African descent and was Britain’s first black royal. “I’ve always loved this portrait of our ancestor Queen Charlotte, because the painter Ramsay didn’t try to hide her African heritage,” she tells the couple, before adding: “Oh yes, you’re of mixed race, Harry. So am I. Many of her portraits tried to hide that fact, but this one is most authentic, much like you.”

Such stories prepare us for seeing Meghan and Harry’s nuptials as a completion of a circle in which multiracial identity is not only embraced, but in fact encoded in the DNA of the royal family of which Markle is now both an extension and its most recent member.

Whether her biography alone can make a difference is yet to be seen. The bigoted backlash to Obama was seemingly instantaneous and remains ongoing, while others have already noted that the negative media coverage surrounding Markle merely outs the “quiet racism” that black Britons experience daily. Yet, given her serious commitment to gender equality, Harry’s condemnation of the racist and sexist tabloid fodder about Markle and her mother, and the endorsement of their marriage by the Queen, the racial symbolism of this moment still does carry significant weight.

Which is why I’ll be watching the wedding on Saturday with wonder, and a bit of worry.

Will Markle ultimately end up as a truly transformative figure or, like Charlotte (if you believe the theories), a curious historical blip? Who knows? I just hope it doesn’t take another 257 years until the monarchy, and more important, England and Markle’s home country, the United States, can celebrate the full racial integration of all its citizens.