Some white Britons insisted that race was not a major factor in the coverage, arguing that British society generally is not as racist as the United States.
Supporters of the couple, however, have blamed racism, not only from the news media but even from members of the royal family, for pushing Meghan and Harry to put some distance between themselves and the House of Windsor. The couple plan to split their time between England and North America. The duchess left Britain on Jan. 10 and has been staying in Canada with the couple’s infant son, Archie.
Beyond being an entertaining story about palace intrigue, the events surrounding the couple raise questions about race and class, both in Britain and the United States. Former president Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American chief executive, and his family also were subjected to racist rhetoric. Although the U.S. press generally did not use overt racist language and images when covering the president and his wife and two daughters, racist comments and images directed at the Obamas frequently appeared on social media, and some elected officials, entertainers and other personalities made racist jokes and statements about the former president and his family.
About US spoke with sociologist Jennifer Sims, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, who has studied how mixed-race people are perceived in Britain and the United States. As part of her research in a recently published book that she co-wrote, “Mixed-Race in the US and UK: Comparing the Past, Present, and Future,” she interviewed 30 mixed-race individuals in the United States and Britain.
Her research suggests that although there are differences in how people of color, including mixed-raced individuals, experience racism in the two countries, Britain is not the haven some have made it out to be.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When Meghan and Harry first started dating, some TV commentators argued that Britain is a class-based society, rather than one that categorizes people based on race. Is that something that is true based on your research?
It’s not untrue that class has a disproportionate impact on how people in the U.K. are viewed and treated, and on their life chances. However, race is not unimportant in the United Kingdom. Another thing that one often hears about the U.K. is that they have less of a one-drop rule. (The one-drop rule is an archaic argument that held that a white person with any trace of African ancestry was considered black.) People who are mixed-race, such as Meghan Markle, who are part black and part white, have more freedom to identify as they want and not be subjected to racism and anti-blackness the way mixed-race people, such as Obama or Halle Berry, here in the United States are. And what I found in my research is that while there is less of a one-drop rule in the United Kingdom, it’s not that there is no one-drop rule and anti-blackness in the United Kingdom.
A number of my black-white [mixed-race] respondents that I interviewed brought up being treated just like Meghan, who is being subjected to stereotypes that go along with being black. When they were first dating, Harry and Meghan, I remember one U.K. paper said his girlfriend is “straight out of Compton,” or something of that nature. And then, of course, when Archie was born and was leaving the hospital, a former BBC reporter tweeted a picture of a monkey and a well-dressed man and woman. It’s not that racism doesn’t exist for mixed-race people there. It is true that class is a big divider in the United Kingdom, but race is not irrelevant there.
How did this notion that race isn't an issue in Britain come to be?
I think because the United States, and the way we have historically had racism, has become the standard. It’s understood, “Oh, there was chattel slavery and there was Jim Crow.” We had lynching. And we had to have a civil rights movement in this country.
Another issue is when we compare the treatment of black Americans in general. Take the issue of police violence. Cases such as Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice and Mike Brown, all of these cases are here in the United States. There are a few in the United Kingdom, but there are not as many police brutality and vigilante violence cases against black people in the U.K. as in the United States. So people assume, “Oh, well, it's not as bad as the United States.” But as one of my interviewees said, “Why does death have to be the standard for something to be bad?” It can be bad without you literally being killed.
How do you think Meghan’s treatment in the U.K. compares to how Obama and his family were viewed in the United States?
There’s a lot of similarities, but also I think that gender makes a difference as well. I feel like a lot of the backlash against Meghan has been about physical things that she does. So, cupping her baby bump was decried even though it’s seen as tender when Kate does it. So much of has been about what she does, what she’s looking like, what she’s wearing.
With Obama, there was some of that. There was a whole tan suit incident. But I feel like Michelle got more of the, “Oh, you’re showing your arms” and the focus on what she wears. So, I feel like there’s gender differences in how they are treated, which just really shows how race is gendered. But the bottom line is that both of them, both Meghan and Obama, are being held to a different and a harsher, a more unfair, standard than their white counterparts. With Obama, it’s difficult because you can only speculate that if a white president had done X, Y, Z, it would be okay. But that’s obviously speculation, informed, but still speculation. With Meghan, there is a direct comparison with Kate, to be able to show that this newspaper said X about Meghan, but they said Y about Kate. And so you can see how race really does make a difference.
But bottom line for both of them, it really just does underscore that even if you adhere to all of the standards that Western society says you should — you should be beautiful and talented and smart, and you should be high achieving in your field — because you are black or of African descent, this weighted history of anti-blackness in both countries will come crashing down on you and hold you to different standards and treat you much more negatively.
Harry has made attempts to shield Meghan from some of the treatment that she’s been getting. Why has he not been able to be successful in doing that?
I think there are two reasons. The first, I think, is the sheer weight and strength of anti-blackness that exists in both countries. He is one man going up against hundreds of years of ideology and negativity. One defamation lawsuit is not going to change an institution such as the media that has for hundreds of years been so anti-black and just insidiously hard on people of African descent.
The second reason I think he’s been unsuccessful is that there is a pushback against white men who, for lack of a better word, do right by mixed-race women or treat their wives of African descent as equals and expect others to treat them as equals. As long as you don’t take that next step of legally marrying her, as if she was your equal, then it’s accepted throughout U.S. history for a white man to have a black mixed-race woman whom they were sleeping with. But that next step to say, “I love you, I’m going to marry you, I’m going to protect you and our children,” that’s the step that literally led to the Loving v. Virginia case.
Despite white men throughout history sleeping with/raping black mixed-race women, when white men take that step, either in fiction or in real life to say, “I love you, I want to marry you, I want to protect you and the children,” society pushes back hard — very, very hard. And I feel like Harry is the most recent in that string of white men that have come up against that.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified sociologist Jennifer Sims as an associate professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. She is an assistant professor.