After living for five years in this country I have noticed that Brits hold certain, and not entirely unfair, stereotypes of Americans. We come across as a little bit loud, a bit too smiley, overly opinionated, irritatingly chatty and occasionally inclined to oversharing.
With perhaps no one is this stereotype more obvious than with the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle. She does indeed smile a lot. And no matter how fantastic she looks in monochromatic knee-length dresses you can’t help but think that she gets home and immediately changes into ripped jeans and a T-shirt. She’s an American’s American. The type that not only talks about her feelings, but goes on Oprah and tells the whole world about grievances with her in-laws.
As an American I have watched Meghan fall victim to what I perceive as a very unique type of British racism. It may not be the kind Brits imagine in the US, in which black men are gunned down in the streets by over-zealous white supremacist cops. But it is the type that allows women like Meghan to find themselves cornered at a garden party by a Lady Bracknell lookalike who sips her tea while asking “but where are you from, really?” This is because racism in each country is as specific as its history. Brits are quick to think of America as the most obviously racist of the two. After all the country was literally built by enslaved people, and the entire platform of one of the country’s two political parties is based on racial grievances. But at the same time, America is also the country of Barack Obama and a fervent Black Lives Matter movement.
As with anything in life, people interpret it through the lens of their own experience. When I first moved to this country I found it quite odd that strangers at parties would ask me where I went to school. This curiosity about what I thought was my secondary school education was actually a thinly veiled attempt to assess my social status. What is interesting about the recent drama around Meghan and Harry’s Netflix documentary is that both Brits and Americans are guilty of applying their stereotypes in discriminating against them. For many Americans their concept of the British class system comes from Jane Austen novels and watching Downtown Abbey. In both, the characters are stiff, upper-lipped Englishmen who have great difficulty expressing an emotion without the assistance of alcohol. A brash American who is used to having the spotlight would find it very difficult to adapt to a culture where she is expected to be seen and not heard.
On the radio in East Sussex this morning I (9 December) overheard a local MP lambast Meghan and Harry for claiming on the one hand they wanted privacy, and on the other releasing a tell-all documentary. I understand the politician’s confusion but I understand how this is a cultural misunderstanding. Meghan is completely entitled to want privacy for her family in a place where she feels she belongs. She is also entitled to tell her story and try to right what she feels is a horrible wrong. Neither of these narratives negates the other. Meghan is American and she’s telling her story in an emotional language that makes sense to her.