Oluwaseun Matiluko considers the implications of the latest royal engagement.
On Monday 27th November it was announced that Meghan Markle would wed Prince Harry, becoming the first mixed-race member of the British Royal Family. Some rejoiced, some couldn’t care less, and some were silently sobbing in their terraced houses in Kensington as they realised that, alas, they would never be “Binky Windsor”.
My feelings were mixed. On the one hand I was excited because Meghan is half-white and half-black. For a long time people have tried to dissociate Blackness and Britishness. We can start at the slave trade, where the British, amongst other European nations, saw blackness as a commodity to be sold – something less than an Englishman. During the trial of the Zong Ship massacre, it was argued that there was a moral equivalence between throwing a black person overboard to their death and throwing cargo, with the solicitor John Lee stating that the slaves “perished just as a Cargo of Goods perished”. One of the goals of the British colonisation of Africa, besides plundering goods and resources, was to civilise the savages of Africa; the people who, according to the accepted pseudoscience of the day, were sub-human and had smaller brains. Colonisation in Africa ended in 1960: Queen Elizabeth II (our reigning monarch and Harry’s grandmother) was the last head of the Empire. Our Queen’s mother, allegedly, once remarked that the “Africans just don’t know how to govern themselves…what a pity we’re not still looking after them”.
From WWI onwards many Black people and other people of colour arrived on the British isles, with numbers steadily increasing until we had a civil rights struggle of our own. The Bristol Bus Boycott. The Rivers of Blood Speech. The Battle of Lewisham. The London Nail Bomber. The London riots. For so long people have tried to push any and all blackness as completely foreign to Britishness. Whether we like it or not, the Royal Family is a symbol of Britishness that is recognised throughout the entire world and to have someone with indisputable African ancestry entering that circle (despite interesting discussions surrounding the race of Queen Charlotte, her ancestry was never confirmed), is extremely powerful.
On the flipside, myself and many other Black people felt some discomfort upon hearing the news. As Sandi Rankaduwa of Buzzfeed noted, “There’s also no denying that for people of color, the tension between celebrating Markle’s impending nuptials and reconciling the monarchy’s violent racist past is a constant struggle”. Meghan’s mother is African-American and thus Meghan likely has ancestors who were transported in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. For many on social media, to see someone joining an institution which most likely has oppressed their ancestors seemed to be tragically ironic.
Moreover, the Royal Family is associated with colonialism and Empire, and we have seen many Black people refusing CBEs and OBEs for this very reason. There is also the alleged contemporary racism of the Royal Family, with Prince Charles’ former secretary, who is mixed-race, coming out to denounce the racism that she endured during her tenure. Prince William’s 21st Birthday Party was uncomfortably named “Out of Africa”, and it’s hard to forget the time when Prince Harry wore a Nazi costume to a “Natives and Colonials” party, and used a racial slur to address one of his Asian colleagues. One can only hope that Meghan and her relatives have not and will not experience racism at the hands of the Royal Family, and will demystify and condemn any racist beliefs that the Windsors may have held onto.
There has also been some discussion on mixed-race identity (specifically about those who have Black and White heritage) and about whether Meghan, who identifies as biracial, could pass as white. Meghan appears to straighten her naturally curly hair, has light skin and European facial features; whereas other biracial people have darker skin and more African facial features (e.g. Barack Obama). Some have remarked that if Meghan were darker skinned, a marriage to Prince Harry would likely not be on the cards. I’ll leave that for you to decide, as the scope of this discussion is much larger than this piece will permit.
Whatever your feelings may be, this marriage certainly doesn’t signify that we’re in a post-racial utopia as James, from British boy band The Vamps, has suggested. As Christopher Hitchens said, the House of Windsor is not something to “look up to” – it is “something to look at”. A mixed-race woman getting engaged to a former party-boy whose family has mainly symbolic power will not suddenly change race-relations in the UK.
The proportion of Black people imprisoned in the UK is larger than that of the US. In Northern Ireland, racially motivated attacks are on the rise. Black people are 9 times more likely to be in youth custody than white people. And our foreign secretary has referred to Black people as “picaninees” with “watermelon smiles”. So whilst it may be exciting to think of all the Black people that will fill up St George’s Chapel next May, please don’t let this distract you from the very real racism that Black British people are still facing to this day.
Illustration by Rivka Cocker.