There is no doubt that the addition of American actor Meghan Markle to the ranks of the English royal family is a public relations coup for the monarchy. Including a black princess – ‘biracial’ to use Markle’s self-description – has updated the image of an obsolete, feudal institution of privilege and power for the 21st century. As Kenan Malik observed in the Guardian newspaper, perceptions of blackness and Britishness have been revised in an attempt to make the monarchy more widely acceptable, especially to a younger audience.
There is also no doubt that Markle has been subjected to a steady stream of racist abuse and attacks on social media. Every detail of her life is opened up to the media, and Markle has faced obnoxious and vitriolic racism from the swamps of the internet and media. One example was the broadcast on Australia’s version of ’60 Minutes’, which purported to reveal that the royals are ostracising Markle, and calling for a ‘Megxit’ – a play on Brexit.
In an article for the Guardian, Kenan Malik stated that we can defend Markle from bigotry and hate, but also make a strident critique of the institution of royalty. The marriage of Harry and Meghan, while no doubt sincere, is also motivated by definitive political considerations. Nothing that the royal family does is without the input of public relations experts, advisors and intelligence officials who carefully choreograph every move and interview.
Markle’s role as a black princess – drawing from her extensive acting experience – is to bring the elements of ‘wokeness’ to the institution of monarchy. Her husband Harry, who only a few years ago spent his days exerting his energies with young women in hotel rooms, now fulfils the part of an ecologically aware philanthropist. Sitting on the board of various charities and environmental groups, Harry has had a complete image makeover, transforming into a ‘serious’ member of the UK community.
Markle has advocated for disability rights causes, as well as environmental issues. Making activism her main contribution, she recently published a Grenfell cookbook, supposedly to assist the survivors of the horrific Grenfell Towers fire – a crime for which no-one as yet has been held liable. Harry and Meghan have expressed their love of Africa – and have embarked on a tour of southern African nations. The royal tour, which includes a black princess, is designed as a public relations exercise. The British establishment seen to be ‘making amends’ for its history of colonialism in that continent.
Reinventing the image and appearance of this outdated institution of entrenched privilege is required in an age of increasing economic and social inequalities in Britain. While no expense was spared to host the wedding of Harry and Meghan, news of the Grenfell Tower fire inquiry barely registered on the corporate media’s radar. While the billionaires and millionaires gathered for the wedding, the UK government resisted demands to ban the cheap, flammable cladding which directly contributed to the lethal fire in Grenfell.
In an article for Jacobin magazine, staff writer Branko Marcetic states that regardless of Markle’s likeable personal qualities, associating her efforts as a philanthropist with the fight against global poverty actually distorts our view of the measures requires to eliminate poverty and inequality. Having a black ‘social justice warrior’ princess does wonders for reinvigorating the image of the royal family, but does nothing to alleviate the immiseration caused by the capitalist system.
Royal romances and weddings are useful platforms to deliberately cultivate a myth of national unity. Such myths can be deployed to disguise deep-seated divisions in the society, such racial discrimination. Britain has had a long history of excluding black Britons – including those whose country of origin are former British colonies – from mainstream British society. Even 70 years after the first black migrants arrived in Britain for work – the Windrush generation – the presence of black Britons is studiously ignored.
While Harry and Meghan were experiencing their budding romance, graduating on from there to an engagement and a wedding, what it means to be black in Britain came under sustained attack on social media. Professor Mary Beard, a classicist at Cambridge University, gave her approval to a series of educational materials about Roman Britain. What was controversial about that? In the depictions of Roman soldiers in Britain, the illustrator showed a black soldier alongside his white partner and children.
The fact that the Roman Empire was multiethnic cannot be disputed. Professor Beard’s ‘crime’, in the eyes of her critics, was to approvingly acknowledge that black persons – most likely North Africans – were part of the British people’s ancestry. The depiction of a high-ranking Roman soldier deployed in Britain was a cause of offence to many people. Professor Beard has described the torrent of abuse she faced on social media, by people refusing to accept British history as anything other than lily-white.
Robust debate is part and parcel of academic life in the field of Roman studies. However, we should point out that Beard’s critics were not concerned about historical accuracy – they were not complaining about any inaccurate depictions of Roman irrigation works, or Roman agricultural techniques. They were attacking the well-established feature of Roman Britain as a multiethnic society.
Britain’s history has been sanitised to fulfill the needs of an imperialistic nostalgia. The British Empire conquered not only nations, but dominated the interpretation of its own history. Black Britons, and their inclusion in Britain throughout the centuries, violate that picture of whiteness upon which British empire-building (and its monarchy) is based. Rather than listen to Meghan Markle, we should listen to David Olusoga, who has written about growing up black in today’s UK.
Olusoga, a journalist and historian, wrote about the racism that pervaded British life in the 1970s and 80s. Referring to today, he states that:
The walls of disadvantage that today block the paths of young black Britons are a mutated product of the same racism. Knowing this history better, understanding the forces it has unleashed, and seeing oneself as part of a longer story, is one of the ways in which we can keep trying to move forward.
Certainly, Markle has been treated appallingly, and she deserves to be defended. Let’s address the deeply entrenched problems of racism in Britain, rather than putting our hopes in a revamped feudal institution.