Meghan Markle, Black Royalty in a Castle of White Privilege
Upon marrying Prince Harry, Meghan Markle will enter a space that some consider the epitome of white privilege. How deeply can she change the royal parameters of race and class?
On Saturday morning, like millions of people around the United States, I will wake up shortly after sunrise to watch Meghan Markle wed Prince Harry. For me, this is the real royal wedding, no shade to Prince William and Kate Middleton.
When engagement photos of Harry and Meghan first surfaced in November, I paused, having until that point paid little attention to their courtship. “Is she... black?!” I wondered.
Once I realized Markle was biracial—her mother is black and her father is white—I was surprised. In this world, being any kind of black makes you black. And while this is a reality that often serves to marginalize people, in this case it formed an overarching connection in my interest of the couple’s love story.
Black women soon took to group chats with their girlfriends and social media to express their feelings. The emotional pendulum swung from pride over the #BlackGirlMagic that would be sprinkled across the House of Windsor to eye rolls over the notion that a black woman had “made it” by marrying into a family that in many ways epitomizes white privilege.
Still, I hopped on the bandwagon of support and celebration because this was a historic moment. As their photos ricocheted across all corners of the internet, labels that had at times surfaced in tabloids meant to demean Markle re-emerged: Divorced. American. Actress. Biracial. Black.
Prince Harry himself decried the “racial overtones” of comment pieces, and the “sexism and racism” Markle had endured online, in an unprecedented statement issued by Kensington Palace in 2016.
Markle, in keeping with royal lineage and notions of respectability, is in theory the antithesis of a British princess. Sure, she is all of those labels, but none of them are, or should be, hurled as insults or detract from her worthiness in becoming a member of the royal family.
Markle is everything the monarchy needs in 2018, a modern woman with a foot in the real world, and one who doesn’t retreat from her life story but embraces it. She is a woman who understands that privilege (her estranged father was a director of photography for General Hospital) does not exempt any of us from advocating for the issues that impact various communities.
Markle has been a fierce public advocate for women’s rights since the age of 11, when she spearheaded a letter-writing campaign against a TV ad that promoted sexist narratives.
She has used her platform to explore issues of identity and has spoken at the United Nations at the 2015 International Women’s Day. She has served as an advocate for children’s health and gender equality in Rwanda as a global ambassador for World Vision Canada, and did not shy away from offering her thoughts during the last presidential election cycle.
Recently, Markle and Harry attended a memorial commemorating the 25th anniversary of the death of Stephen Lawrence, a young black man who was killed by a racist gang. The investigation of the murder threw a harsh light on the institutional racism of London’s Metropolitan Police.
The couple has vowed to continue their advocacy for LGBTQ rights and recently spent a day at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting speaking to and on behalf of noteworthy LGBTQ activists.
Still, despite everything that Markle is and everything she has accomplished, some simply can’t get past her ancestry.
Some have argued that colorism has played a role in her seeming acceptance into the family, due to the fact that she could pass for white. Perhaps that’s true, but the reality is that blackness is a spectrum and biracial individuals, in this case white and black, are not exempt from racism. Even if her biracial identity exempts her from some of racism’s stings, her gender does not.
Throughout history in Britain, America, and elsewhere, black and biracial women have been systematically excluded from opportunities for social and economic upward mobility.
A hallmark of white privilege, aside from the wielding and exercising of power through political means, is the employment of exclusivity as a means of social control. For that reason, seeing Markle join the royal family is something worth celebrating.
While some feminists have condemned her access to privilege because it was gained through the patriarchy-rooted institution of marriage—a valid argument—I’m a hopeless romantic.
Any black woman finding love her way is a win in my eyes. But for some, elevating Markle because of the wedding, because it represents being chosen and deemed worthy—by a white man which adds its own complexities—seems a tad regressive.
However, her agency in having the ability to accept or decline Harry’s proposal should not be trivialized, given that historically agency has been stripped away from black women.
And so the celebration at least for me is less of “look at this black woman who made it” in terms of her proximity to whiteness and the power and comfort that it may afford her. It is more so “look at this black woman who made it, on her own terms in spite of everything that was thrown her way.”
Being “triumphant-in-spite-of” is the story of black women, and so when I see one of us make it, I clap. It may not be my story or a path I would’ve taken but it’s a win. Period.
Black women are too often relegated to the periphery, sometimes seen but not expected to be heard—let alone hold and exercise a position of authority.
Markle and the identities that “other” her in the context of entering the royal family are both celebratory and complicate the rarefied air for which she is about to enter, and the ways in which she can navigate and impact change within and outside of that space.
Equally important, it is a space for which the royal family is largely unfamiliar and doesn’t exactly have a stellar track record for supporting those who want to shake up the status quo. Exhibit A: Princess Diana.
With all the oppressive undertones it carries, I’m left torn around the fanfare surrounding Markle becoming a royal. But what I do know is that her representation matters, regardless of what happens once they are pronounced husband and wife.
Like Beyoncé on stage at Coachella or Michelle Obama at the White House, or Misty Copeland on stage at the American Ballet Theater, little black girls will see Markle occupy a new space; and maybe, just maybe, think that they too can obtain a goal in their own life that feels out of reach because they are the only black girl in the room.
They will perhaps think that they can show up as their authentic selves, and doing so is enough. That they are worthy of love even if they stumbled before. That they can raise their voices confidently without fear of having to shrink themselves to find love, acceptance, or a seat at the table.
The real test of how and if Meghan and Harry’s union moves the social and cultural needle won’t be known for years to come. Will her marriage really be a win for black women? And what does that even really mean? Will it simply be a string of flattering photo ops and tabloid headlines?
The cultural and political forces that imbue the monarchy will continue to test Meghan along with her ability and willingness to use her voice. One can only speculate how Markle’s activism will prevail or fall flat, but as a black woman I am simply happy and hope-filled that she has the opportunity to make, and negotiate, these powerful decisions for the world to see.