Ellie Abraham is a British freelance writer currently living in Toronto.
When Prince Harry and Meghan Markle wed on Saturday, they will make history. She will become Britain’s first mixed-race royal – a fact that many have celebrated, but which has also provoked a disappointing reaction from sections of the media. As a mixed-race woman who grew up in Britain’s mostly white countryside, I am acutely aware that representation matters, and whilst this high-profile union is helping move society forward, is the media’s racialized narrative simultaneously dragging us backward?
Twenty-four years ago, I was born into a loving, middle-class British family. Both parents worked full-time – my mother, a deputy head teacher and my father, a civil servant. We lived a “traditional” family life and, to my older sister and me, our family was as normal as any other. However, unbeknownst to us, our very presence was unusual.
My mother – a white British woman – met my father – a black British Caribbean man – in London in the 1980s. Bidding farewell to city life, they moved to my mother’s native Sussex in the early 1990s, settling down to raise a family – the result, two little Afro-topped, mixed-race girls. It is from around that time that my mother recalls a memory. Whilst out doing groceries with her two brown babies in the shopping cart, she was approached by an elderly white lady who innocently asked, “What beautiful babies. Where did you adopt them from?” Mum simply smiled and corrected her.
When I was born in 1993, just 0.2 per cent of the population in Britain identified as “black-mixed” and around the same time, almost half of all ethnic minorities lived in Greater London. Outside of the ‘“ethnic” milieu of the inner cities, interracial families were seldom found in rural Britain. I remember the quiet inner happiness I felt (and still feel) upon seeing a mixed family accurately represented on TV. I also remember as a child being taken to a family friend’s house to play with her mixed-race child. Years later, I found out why. He had been scrubbing his “dirty” skin because it didn’t look like his mother’s. My sister and I were inadvertent spokespeople for the mixed-race community, there to teach him it was okay to look different. That is why representation and increased visibility of minorities, particularly in high-profile positions, is necessary. Ms. Markle, whether it was wanted or not, has become an identifiable role model. By speaking proudly about her own identity, she is inspiring pride in uniqueness and helping to promote positive change in Britain’s race relations.
Of course, Meghan Markle doesn’t represent or speak for all minorities, nor should she. But the position she finds herself in inevitably brings a microscopic scrutiny of every aspect of her life. Unfortunately, that includes her race. Discussions about race are necessary, particularly in the political climate of today. However, the attempts of some media outlets to use Ms. Markle’s mixed race to vilify her fell so uncomfortably close to racism that it prompted Prince Harry and his team to release a statement condemning the “the racial undertones of comment pieces.”
On Nov. 2, 2016, the Daily Mail published an article with the headline, Harry’s Girl Is (Almost) Straight Outta Compton: Gang-Scarred Home Of Her Mother Revealed – So Will He Be Dropping By For Tea? The racially suggestive headline is followed by the detailing of crime statistics of Crenshaw – the Los Angeles neighbourhood “famous for gangs” where Ms. Markle grew up. Leaving no racial stereotype untouched, it is of one of the more blatantly racist commentaries, unquestionably warranting disgust from the Prince and anybody with a moral compass.
Although equally indefensible, what is perhaps more troubling than the brazenly offensive comment pieces are the subtle but persistent reminders that Ms. Markle is innately “un-royal” because of her race. A journalist and the sister of the British Foreign Secretary penned an article in The Mail on Sunday in which she attributed “exotic DNA” to Ms. Markle. Using terms such as “exotic” to describe humans is problematic: It infers a sense of “otherness” or foreignness; it implies that people who do not conform to Western ideals of beauty – i.e., non-white – are not normal. I would be amiss not to comment on Ms. Markle’s relatively “palatable” blackness – straight hair, light-brown skin, white father – however, the racial microaggressions aimed at her are demonstrative of the racialized narrative that has surrounded her and the Prince’s relationship and reminds us just how much work is yet to be done within race and the media.
With the monarchy showing signs of modernization from its strait-laced image to one that more closely reflects our changing society, it is my hope that, as Meghan Markle’s position as a royal becomes embedded, it brings enlightenment, acceptance and a definitive end to the racialized media coverage that should never have been.