When Baroness Kate Gavron, a former trustee of race relations think-tank- the Runnymede Trust suggested almost two decades ago that “it would have been great if Prince Charles married a Black woman”, her remarks were met with contempt and criticised as an attempt to ruin the monarchy. As Tariro Mzezewa argued, the idea of a royal marrying a Black woman was constructed as absurd at best and inconceivable at worst. “Loving someone black and marrying someone black were mutually exclusive concepts – and they were just that, concepts,” she said.
Barely 20 years after Gavron uttered those words, we have witnessed this “absurdity” in action. The royal prince has married a woman of colour; and people are waiting in anticipation to see how this relationship will disrupt the British monarchy.
Why is Harry and Meghan’s relationship so polarising?
There has always been some form of discomfort with Blackness and royalty in Western spaces. For example,the creation of a Black princess, Tiana, in The Princess and the Frog in 2009, led to public scrutiny of her rightfulness and legitimacy as a “real princess”. “Real princesses”, as popularly presented by discourse and in media, must be white and invariably attractive. Reflecting on the discourse surrounding Princess Diana, Raka Shome argues that ideologies tethered to white femininity are often used to connect the concept of nationhood. She states:
"As symbols of motherhood, as markers of feminine beauty (a marker denied to other women), as…preservers of bloodlines, as signifiers of national domesticity, as sites for the reproduction of heterosexuality…as symbols of national unity, and as sites through which “otherness” – racial, sexual, classed, gendered, and nationalized – is negotiated, white femininity constitutes the locus through which borders of race, gender, sexuality, and nationality are guarded and secured. This consequently marks it as a threat, since it is a site through which the nation can spill into otherness."
The “tradition” of synonymising royalty with whiteness has fostered the belief that only people of a certain race are fit and “pure” for royalty. The concept of whiteness and purity has long been theorised, with Dana Berthold arguing that likening race with purity “facilitates the ordering of social life in ways that benefit the said dominant group.”
Purity ideals locate Black people as unsuitable for royalty, capable of contaminating the “pure” gene that is reserved for the royal space.
Purity ideals locate Black people as unsuitable for royalty, capable of contaminating the “pure” gene that is reserved for the royal space. In her article discussing royalty and marriage, Kate Williams says, “Royals tend to be offered a small circle of potential spouses – the same class, religion and ethnicity.” However, discussions about the ubiquity of whiteness in the monarchy are often met with defensiveness; evident through the online trolling of this subject and the media commentary regarding what “marrying Markle will mean for the monarchy”.
The obsession with race as a filter, through which entry to royalty is often assessed, denotes that despite the fact that Markle is a highly accomplished woman – a successful actor, a renowned philanthropist and a fierce activist, her race continues to be discussed and analysed when probing her suitability as a princess. That this is even a “factor to consider” demonstrates how people of colour are displaced from the national imagery of royalty.
On the positive side, though her presence in the palace is treated with definitive suspicion and as the ultimate scandal, the introduction of non-white blood in the royal family though the body of Meghan Markle challenges the dominant narrative of whiteness and royalty. Her Blackness and entry to the palace can certainly be exhibited as symbolic and as a sign of progress in Britain – particularly in the current times.
Black love: Fables and labels
Meghan Markle has been quite outspoken about her cultural heritage and its critical role in shaping the woman she has become. However, choosing to identify herself as a Black woman (despite the fact that she is biracial) comes with its set of complexities; particularly those surrounding her love with Harry. Black love and relationships are often portrayed as complex and difficult. They are positioned as being full of violence, unfaithfulness, and irresponsible sex leading to “baby mamas” and “baby daddies”. The dominant discourse surrounding Black parenting in particular revolves around their use of corporal punishment and/or absenteeism from their children. In addition the dominant imagery and stereotyping of Black women as unchaste and aggressive, and Black men as sexual predators, deems them publicly unfit to be good partners and parents — hence, unmarriageable.
However, as Afua Hirsch writes in her article, the symbolic power of this royal marriage sits in the fact that as from now, “it will be impossible to argue that being Black is somehow incompatible with being British.”
The attack on and the public rubbishing of Black love and relationships is not accidental. If Black people can be framed as incapable of loving and, by extension, less deserving of love, then it makes it easier to attack their relationships and their families. In his article, Reginald Cunningham states that in America, “The structure of slavery was such that love, as well as many other [liberating] ideologies, [were] not allowed to develop.” One of the most successful strategies used to subjugate slaves was by the denial of love through separation and devastation of Black families. “Staying together as a family” was ridiculed and sometimes punished [because at its very core] black love was seen as a form of liberation, and, by extension, a threat to white supremacy.
Does this representation of Black love, therefore, fuel the racial backlash that Markle’s relationship with Harry has received so far? Do people see her as unworthy of the palace? Are the politics of her Blackness central in the way her love story is packaged and produced for the public to consume? And of particular interest, does her divorced status and the focus on her ‘dysfunctional’ family by the media amplify the stereotypes that Black love is inherently troubled, damaged and dangerous? Or that she is unchaste? As we grapple with these questions, and the theorisation of Black love and how it punctuates Markle’s relationship with Harry, we must also make the effort to locate her as a woman who has an active sense of agency: able to negotiate the terms under which she enters a relationship – even when her partner is the prince himself. She is not a passive victim of the circumstances surrounding her.
For love’s sake, why do the royal stories matter?
Meghan and Harry’s love story matters because it causes tension and forces a conversation. We must acknowledge that, even in this day and age, a number of people are still preoccupied with the idea that race can be a determining factor for measuring someone’s inherent worth and value. This is a time when Blackness is condemned, and located as a threat, as criminal and, by extension, as undesirable.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding epitomises something inherently different: a shift and a change to what royalty and the British establishment means. Their relationship matters because millions of people consume the actions of the royal family as a cultural practice. As Allison Maplesden states, the royals’ actions “contribute to the discourses which function collectively to construct a sense of nation” consequently shaping public opinions of complex issues of race, gender, class and so forth.
Expecting dramatic, swooping changes due a relationship between two people, is rather ambitious- maybe even unfair to those two. Particularly when the monarchy itself, is an establishment rooted in historical injustices of colonisation, imperialism and still embodies quite a degree of inequality, unfairness and conservatism. As Seumas Milne argues, “The monarchy […] entrenches hereditary privilege at the heart of public life. While British governments preach democracy around the world, they preside over an undemocratic system at home with an unelected head of state and an appointed second chamber at the core of it.”
However, as Afua Hirsch writes in her article, the symbolic power of this royal marriage sits in the fact that as from now, “it will be impossible to argue that being Black is somehow incompatible with being British.” Their relationship will foster some difficult and complex – yet necessary – conversations, which might normalise the idea “that a royal can love, and marry, someone whose ethnic heritage is not just different to his own, but the heritage that has always been most othered in Britain – Black.”
For many people of colour in Britain, the relationship is largely emblematic as it allows them to feel part of the Crown – the monarchy – that which has mostly excluded them from their Britishness. Granted, even though Meghan and Harry’s child is likely never going to be the Crown, perhaps it is a good thing that there is some racial diversity in the palace.
But perhaps in closing, one thing to consider is, if Meghan had been in a relationship with William (the almost immediate heir to the crown), as opposed to Harry, would we still have had a wedding to write about?