Britain is going to have a black princess!
Monday’s announcement that Prince Harry is engaged to American actress Meghan Markle, whose mother is black and whose father is white, sent a wave of euphoria through social media. Black women — including me; check my Twitter feed — were particularly thrilled. (Okay, so technically, it’s not yet known if Markle will be properly known as a duchess, rather than a princess, but just let us live out our Disney dreams for once, all right?) Of course, there are royal families and princesses in Africa, so Markle will not be the only black royal in the world. But now, the British monarchy, the institution that embodies white privilege more powerfully than just about any other, will now include a mixed-race woman. In a world that paints women of color as romantically undesirable, Markle’s marriage to a British prince of the House of Windsor feels like a win for us all.
But is it?
The Guardian’s Afua Hirsch argues that the royal wedding will change Britain’s relationship with race forever. The marriage, she writes, “will bring into reality what the British establishment lacked the imagination to even conceive of as possible 17 years ago — that a senior royal can love, and marry, someone whose ethnic heritage is not just different to his own, but the heritage that has always been most othered in Britain — black and African.”
Indeed, Markle, a graduate of Northwestern University who has been praised for her humanitarian work, has been outspoken about her identity as a biracial woman. She wrote in Elle about her own experience on the receiving end of racism, from watching her mother being called the n-word as a college student to facing a racist backlash when a black man was cast as her character’s father on the TV show “Suits.”
Will life in the royal family finally free her from those burdens? I really wonder. For all the excitement about the precedent-breaking royal wedding, black folks across the pond know full well that having a person of color at the top of the social ladder in a country steeped in racism and white supremacy won’t be enough to undo that legacy. Black people here in the United States know that having Barack and Michelle Obama in the White House for years did not usher our country into that much-hyped “post-racial era.”
Even as the most powerful person in the land, Obama himself, at the beginning of his presidency, studiously avoided talking too directly about race. He clearly wanted to dodge perceptions that his administration would advance a “black agenda.” Ultimately, though, national tensions over police brutality and white supremacist violence forced him to take a clear stand.
Hirsch does concede how fitting it is “that our uniquely British dysfunction around race and identity should also emerge in response to Markle’s arrival on the scene.” Prince Harry, whose mother, Princess Diana, was hounded to death by the British tabloids, had to publicly call out these papers for the racist undertones of their coverage about Markle. He cited headlines such as “Harry’s girl is (almost) straight outta Compton,” or a description of his fiancée’s mother as “a dreadlocked African-American lady from the wrong side of the tracks.”
If anything, Britain should be prepared for potentially more, not less, racism directed toward Markle and the position she holds. After all, during the Obamas’ eight years in the White House, they faced death threats, birther conspiracies and other indignities. And then we elected Donald Trump.
There’s no question that the royal family’s willingness to accept a biracial woman represents a sea change, at least symbolically. One can only hope that Markle will use her platform to speak out about racism in the United Kingdom. The more likely reality, though, is that her new position will place a lot of restrictions on what she can do or say.
Writing for CNN, Jill Filipovic wonders whether Markle will become the royal family’s “silent feminist,” pointing out the constraints there will be on her. She notes: “It is impossible to be an effective advocate for equality and against oppression if you cannot name and critique the institutions, politics and policies that foster inequality and subjugation. So while it’s admirable that Markle wants to dedicate her time to her causes, the royal family’s requirement that such efforts be depoliticized means that advocacy can’t be particularly effective.”
My bet is that Markle will find it hard to be outspoken about racism, discrimination and xenophobia from within the royal family, which is notorious for its strict adherence to tradition. Will she able to speak frankly about the high rates of police brutality against people of color in the United Kingdom? About the social inequalities that contributed to the loss of so many lives in the Grenfell Tower fire? Or the glaring lack of large numbers of people of color in the British media? Merely posing these questions already suggests the burdens that minorities must bear when they enter white institutions and are expected to represent the concerns of the marginalized.
But for now, at least, we black women can go ahead and indulge in our Disneyfied dreams. Let’s squeal over what Markle will wear on her special day, who will be invited, how her hair will look and whether they will jam any ’90s R&B, or do the Cupid Shuffle at the after-party. Let’s enjoy our modern black princess to the fullest. But let’s also try to be a little realistic: We can’t expect her to rescue us from a world that continues to devalue us. Diversity does not always equal progress.