Meghan Markle is set to become the most fascinating and relevant member of the British royal family since Princess Diana.
Barack Obama, on March 18, 2008, delivered arguably his most powerful address to date. He opened with words extracted from the Preamble to the United States Constitution, “We the people, in order to make a more perfect union,” and went on the chronicle his own interconnected ethnic heritage: “I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas.”
He then moved to his personal progress: “I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations.” In an inspired and redolent passage, with a sure a nod to his African American doubters, Obama reminded his audience: “I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners — an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters.”
Let’s fantasize for a moment. Eighteen months from now, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry announce they are expecting their first child. Meghan heralds the arrival, expressing her approval of Obama’s words: “I am the daughter of a black American woman who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners — an inheritance, my husband Harry and I will, in time, pass on to our precious child.”
By that time, we can surmise Meghan will have grown comfortable with the British media and accustomed to the obtuse way they ask questions about her ethnic identity. She’ll also have realized that her insistence that she is biracial and proud of it, simply doesn’t fly in Britain, a nation that has pursued a policy of multiculturalism and, later, cultural diversity expressly avoiding any mention of race or racial to remove any trace of biology. Biracial has too many unwholesome connotations. Meghan will get this and stop using the term.
We prefer the clumsier but more accurate “mixed heritage” to biracial and, as for “people of color” — well, people get fired for that kind of anachronistic language in the UK. So Meghan will no doubt be advised to discover a new lexicon.
But sooner or later she will find the occasion to make a pronouncement that will either horrify or gratify the British public. At the moment, people are too excited about the prospect of a glamorous American from the entertainment industry to concern themselves overly with her ethnicity. But it’s certain to appear at some point over the next year or so.
Welcome to the 21st Century
The British media have welcomed the uncertainty Meghan brings to the royals. The UK’s top selling newspaper, The Sun, shares the same sentiment as many others with its headline “Finally, the Royal Family have joined Britain in the 21st century — no more blue blood and poshos,” as if Meghan were a catalyst who will change an anachronistic institution into one fit for the next generation.
“Even a generation ago, the idea of a prince marrying a mixed-race actress could never be contemplated,” it reflected (incorporating not one, but two very 20th-century words). It went on: “When Prince Charles was Harry’s age, he was expected to marry someone white, blue-blooded and a virgin,” though such virtuous maidens must have been in short supply in the early 1980s.
The paper’s nearest rival, The Daily Mail, was prepared to turn what would have been a major contravention of protocol in the 1980s to a dutiful observance of cultural change. “A bride descended from slaves,” as it called Meghan, has helped the royals prove “sneering snobs wrong.” In other words, the royals embrace rather than retard change.
The i’s Yasmin Alibhai-Brown was left unmoved, however. “I don’t share the racial optimism,” she confirmed, though without offering a clarification of the meaning of “racial optimism.” “The truth is that Diana’s sons are being used by Charles to appeal to modern Britons … Some conspiracy theories ring true.” Setting aside the provenance of her claims to “truth” (conspiracy theories?), the impression is that Meghan’s role is comparable to that of a dupe: someone who conveniently fills the role of bride and is walking blithely but unknowingly into “a dysfunctional, cold and unnatural family.”
This seems profoundly insulting to Meghan, a woman who seems securely at ease with her commitments and decisions, as well as her ethnic origins and appears nobody’s fool. “I wasn’t black enough for the black roles,” she concluded early in her acting career, though now she’s able “to voice my pride in being a strong, confident mixed-race woman.”
On the incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and Baltimore in 2015, both involving conflict between police officers and African Americans, Meghan said to the UK edition of Elle: “As a biracial woman, I watch in horror as both side of a culture I define as my own become victims of spin the media.”
In the same article, she described herself as “the ethnic chameleon,” presumably meaning she’s developed the ability to change her ethnic identity to suit different contexts — a capability that should equip her well over the coming years.
Her engagement to Harry will introduce royal family devotees and probably everyone else into a new narrative where human crises, especially those involving racism, will be collected and expressed in a way that demands our attention. Imagine if Meghan were around in the 1990s when the case of Stephen Lawrence was in everyone’s mind.
She isn’t about to stand up and issue polemics at every instance of social injustice, but there is no doubt she will engage. And she now has propriety rights to do so. This may haunt the stodgier members of the royal family as Diana did. But Meghan is a bright spark and will both light up and electrify the royals and the land over which they rule.
I won’t spoil the twist by revealing what Meghan will do next. But she is nobody’s stooge: not the queen’s, not Prince Charles’, not the palace’s. Her zeal for self-examination will extend to British society: She brings not just a new face to the family, but a new perspective.
One of life’s benevolent, capricious breezes has swept her to Britain and even the few curmudgeonly Brits who now resent the apparent loss of “racial purity,” or regard her a sop, will soon have to accept that she is going to become the most fascinating and relevant member of the royals since Diana.
*[Ellis Cashmore is the author of Elizabeth Taylor: A Private Life for Public Consumption (Bloomsbury).]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.