Almost two decades ago, during the heady first months of the new millennium, an unruly baroness named Kate Gavron made a shocking suggestion. Prince Charles, she said, should have married someone black. It would be, she imagined, a powerful symbol of the monarchy’s commitment to racial integration and multiculturalism.
Gavron’s comments were not well received at the time. As is so often the case with race and the royals, far more interesting than these remarks themselves, were the media reactions to them. Some suspected this was merely a clandestine attempt at “getting rid” of the monarchy, erasing their heritage through interracial marriages. Not so much revolution, as racial dilution.
Others assumed that for the Prince of Wales to marry a “black girl” – as the hypothetical person was described – would be to return to the loveless, strategic marriages the royals were once so famous for. It was obvious to commentators at the time that marrying a black girl, and marrying someone you actually loved, were both antithetical and mutually exclusive. After all, you couldn’t expect an heir to the throne to actually be attracted to such a person.
In this context, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s engagement represents something genuinely different from everything that has gone before. Their marriage 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.
The royal family plays a largely symbolic role in our society, so it’s the symbolism of this engagement that interests me. I struggled growing up with the feeling that the monarchy were fundamental to Britishness, but that the Britishness they represented was one that excluded me. This exclusion mattered. It made other people perceive being truly British, and being black, as incompatible identities. It represented a giant taboo. Every government that I can remember made some attempt, rhetorical at least, to acknowledge and protect racial diversity. The family at the apex of our society was doing anything but.
That’s hardly surprising, given that the very concept of the royal family is the very antithesis of diversity.
But now the hypocrisy that flourished for so long in the dark is emblazoned by the light of social media. Minutes after the royal engagement was announced, the Daily Mail, in a tone of reassurance, instantly reminded the nation that Markle will not join the line of succession. “Marrying into royalty does not earn you a right to the throne”, tweeted the newspaper. Thank GOD for that. The Spectator saw fit to point out: “Obviously, 70 years ago, Meghan Markle would have been the kind of woman the Prince would have had for a mistress, not a wife.”
What “kind of woman” is that? It’s not just that she’s divorced. Markle’s race has been the subject of such frequent and cryptic references that when I first read about her, having never seen her before, I had genuinely no idea what the commentators were on about. “Not in the society blonde style” of Harry’s relationships past, we were told, and “Straight Outta Compton!”. Typically dog-whistle British code for the fact that she had black ancestry – a code which Harry took the remarkable step of calling out in a statement condemning the tone of press coverage.
Since the royal family are such a quintessentially British institution, it’s fitting that our uniquely British dysfunction around race and identity should also emerge in response to Markle’s arrival on the scene. One of the problems with the discourse in Britain today is the tendency to downplay racial difference, and the temptation of so many well-meaning people who “don’t see race” to believe that if we can all just wilfully blind ourselves, it will hopefully go away.
By contrast, Markle has owned and expressed pride in her heritage, speaking at length about the experience of having black heritage in a prejudiced society; of seeing her mother abused with the “N” word, of working in a highly racialised industry as an actor, and the identity struggle to which so many people who grow up as visible minorities can relate.
As a mixed-race woman, the narrative around Markle has extra layers of complexity. Some black commentators have pointed out that, since she is fair-skinned and conforms to Eurocentric ideas of beauty, even the symbolic impact of her presence is limited. Meanwhile white commentators continue to feed into the idea that mixed-race people are a kind of desirable variety of black – Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman for example recently suggesting that there is a “perfect type of mixed race”, something to which no doubt Markle would also conform.
All this takes place within a context where it is the royal family we are talking about – the human manifestation of the class system. In a society where race and class often collide to delineate privilege and opportunity, few will find their lives transformed in real terms by the arrival of a beautiful American actress in Kensington Palace.
But we live in times defined also by identity. In recent years, the question of what it means to be British has been weaponised and politicised in new ways. Markle is, on one side of her family, directly descended from the plantation slavery of America’s Deep South – a history with which all of Britain’s powerful families, including the royals, are inextricably linked. He may not have realised it at the time, but by condemning the press reaction to his relationships with Markle, Prince Harry was aligning himself with those still dealing with the fallout of that history, and its very real legacy today.
If Prince Harry had wanted to find a way to make his role more relevant in modern Britain, he could have done a lot worse. And so while neither the reaction to his engagement to Markle, nor the reaction to the reaction, could ever have been planned, if engagements are meant to bring people together, this one is doing just that.
• Afua Hirsch is a writer and broadcaster
First published in The Guardian UK