Is the royal engagement really a symbol of progress?
Last Monday morning, the official announcement so many of us have been waiting for was made: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are engaged. Media outlets immediately went into a frenzy and the engagement quickly became the first trending topic on Twitter. While anglophiles everywhere were excited at the prospect of a royal engagement, others were excited for another reason: Meghan Markle will be the first nonwhite woman ever to marry into the British monarchy. But is this fact a point of progress, or does the frenzy surrounding Markle’s race just further reinforce harmful stereotypes surrounding beauty and colorism?
The engagement felt like a victory to many in the U.S., given their country’s history of racism. Blackness historically affected a person’s entire worth and particularly affected their ability to marry: The “one-drop rule” both prohibited interracial cohabitation and defined anyone with “negro blood” — of any amount — as black. And especially in a country where the current president spouts racist bile almost daily, Markle can be seen as a role model for black children and her engagement a productive step forward for black people in a broader society that still often demonizes them.
But many people have also begun to question if a single, albeit high-profile, engagement really does anything to break broader racist stereotypes — especially if it does anything to help elevate black people in particular. Because while Meghan Markle is a black woman, she is also a white woman. Markle’s mother is African-American, but her father is Dutch-Irish. While Markle has said that growing up people even questioned whether her mother was in fact her biological parent — she has also noted that being biracial is a unique experience in and of itself, one that “paints a blurred line that is equal parts staggering and illuminating.” The public’s perception of Markle ultimately seems to similarly align with the way America has historically viewed blackness by failing to make the significant social distinction between the experience of being black and that of being biracial.
In addition to eliding Markle’s own identity, the erasure of her whiteness also ignores the privileges she enjoys that many black women are denied. For example, Markle adheres to Eurocentric beauty standards that have historically been valorized in Western society. The idealization of biracial beauty standards in comparison to those of black women is noted almost daily — from the romanticized images we see in the media to the fetishization of biracial women and children by social media users. It’s also important to keep in mind that Markle is an incredibly successful actress, which does little to reflect the reality that black women still have the highest rate of unemployment in the entire U.K. — a whopping 7.1 percent were recorded as being unemployed compared to 4.1 percent of white women.
Though news of Prince Harry and Markle’s engagement is indubitably an important symbol in the fight for racial equality, we must remember that it isn’t necessarily a straightforward win for all black women. We should remember that in a world in which Trump is president and the rate of hate crimes is increasing, we will need a lot more than pop culture representation to achieve a world in which black women can truly thrive.
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