Last week, Kensington Palace, on behalf of Prince Harry, released a statement reading that “the past week has seen a line crossed” regarding the treatment of his new girlfriend, American actor Meghan Markle. Listing the indignities she’d suffered, the statement went on to highlight, “the smear on the front page of a national newspaper, the racial undertones of comment pieces; and the outright sexism and racism of social media trolls and web article comments”.
As I read it I felt prickles under my skin. I had never expected to see something as socially momentous as this happen within the British monarchy in my lifetime.
Apart from being unprecedented in its informal tone, with reference to such modern phenomena as “social media trolls”, the real magnificence of this statement for me was in its acknowledgement of terms that the palace hasn’t commonly been in the habit of using for the past hundred years or so: racism and sexism.
Markle is, by her own definition, biracial (“My dad is Caucasian and my mom is African American. I’m half black and half white,” she wrote in an article for ELLE), and much like Prince Harry, I believe the racist treatment she’s suffered at the hands of the press and the public since their relationship became common knowledge is despicable.
Predictably, because somewhere deep down everyone brought up in the era of Disney harbours a princess fantasy, since the news came out I have seen a huge amount of praise for Prince Harry and his actions from my black female friends.
Online, we croon over the idea of there being a black heir to the throne, surmise that his 2012 trip to the Caribbean was when he “changed from ham rolls with water to jollof rice and seasoned chicken”, ask why Harry doesn’t choose to date us instead, or get soppy over the idea of their multiracial relationship and what it means for the future of miscegenation in our country as a whole (which, by the way, already has some of the highest levels of mixed-race relationships in the West).
While these statements are often said in jest – I don’t really believe that the majority of my women of colour compatriots want to channel Princess Tiana and float their way into the arms of a princely frog – the current, genial reaction to the royal family does have me vexed.
The prince has done something remarkable in releasing a statement of the kind he did, but really, it shouldn’t have taken this long for a royal of his stature to get a little bit woke about the intersectional issues women of colour can face, and I think the praise he’s receiving needs to be toned down a notch. Although understandable, in an ideal world, black women shouldn’t need the validation of a prince to feel as though we are beautiful and worthy of love.
It must also be remembered that, although she is black, Markle is still light-skinned, white-passing and privileged. And beyond that, the establishment she is now a part of has a terrible history of racism against black and brown people, with the hereditary nature of monarchy itself being an essentially racist system.
Prince Harry’s family is the ultimate beneficiary of the UK’s colonial exploits, and as put by Peter Tatchell in an article for the Guardian after the election of Barack Obama back in 2008: “Whichever way the defenders of royalty try to spin it, there is no escaping the fact that non-white people are excluded from holding the title of British head of state – at least for the foreseeable future.”
For me, although indirectly condemned in Prince Harry’s statement, it’s a disgusting Mail on Sunday comment piece that signifies the real interests, and worries, of the royal family. “If there is issue from her alleged union with Prince Harry,” wrote Rachel Johnson in the paper, “the Windsors will thicken their watery, thin blue blood and Spencer pale skin and ginger hair with some rich and exotic DNA.”
Up until recently they planned their succession on patrilineal descent and forced their kings to abdicate if they wanted to marry American divorcees like Markle.
When it comes to the prince on a personal level, his recent actions don’t cancel out the realities of his past either. Not only should Harry be well-remembered for dressing up as a Nazi and using the terms raghead and paki, he also reportedly once said of his Zimbabwean now-ex-girlfriend Chelsea Davy: “She’s not black or anything, you know.” Because being black, for so many people in the upper classes, is still a problem.
So, while I do salute him for hopefully opening a wider discourse on racism in this country and abroad at a crucial time when Trumpism, Brexit and activism from groups like Black Lives Matter are holding the headlines, it must always be remembered that you can date a black person, or even have a black child, and still be a racist.