Meghan Markle and Prince Harry: Can the Royal Wedding Change Centuries of Racism and Classism in Britain? What the Royal Wedding Reveals about Race, Class and Social Mobility in the U.K

By Alibhai-Brown, Yasmin | Newsweek, May 11, 2018 | Go to article overview

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry: Can the Royal Wedding Change Centuries of Racism and Classism in Britain? What the Royal Wedding Reveals about Race, Class and Social Mobility in the U.K


Alibhai-Brown, Yasmin, Newsweek


Byline: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

On a sunny day this April, teenage girls from a local school were having a picnic in a park. I was on a bench near them, reading a book, until the noise got too much. The students were in uniform, easy with one another and bursting with adolescent enthusiasm. They reflected London's infinite class, race and ethnic variety. Some had clustered around a lovely, mixed-race girl and were weaving wild flowers around her curly hair: "Straighten your hair," one said. "You'll look just like Meghan!" They took selfies, squealed over sites for bridal gowns and pored over celeb mags with pictures of Meghan Markle. Idolized and envied by them, she was the luckiest woman in the world. The girl with the floral crown broke the spell: "That's silly. It will be hard, like, so far from her family, being a princess, mixed race and that." Her quiet voice went unheard.

The U.K. is extravagantly upbeat, awash with joy over the nuptials of Prince Harry and Markle. They met in London through a mutual friend in the summer of 2016. By October, rumors were rife that Harry, sixth in line to the British throne, had found an unlikely girlfriend--a mixed-race, divorced woman of 36 who is, in addition to being an activist and actress, an American. Kensington Palace confirmed the relationship, and a year later the couple were engaged. The public immediately warmed to this refreshingly real royal-to-be, who seemed to be having a positive influence on the once wayward Harry as well.

And now the wedding, to take place on May 19 in St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle. Instead of presents, guests have been asked to donate to charities. The guest list includes, in addition to friends and family members, 1,200 "ordinary" people selected to gather on the grounds in celebration. These decisions make the event seem as accessible and open as Markle.

Her relaxed entry into the royal family suggests a transformed, cosmopolitan nation. And some of this hype is justified. Great Britain has long been culturally diverse, dynamic and biologically heterogeneous. The first biracial couples were spotted back in the age of Queen Elizabeth I. It was the fashion then for rich families to have "exotic" black and Indian servants, mostly men. Soon, white Englishwomen were pairing up with these freed slaves and servants, causing much moral panic. In 1764, The Gentleman's Magazine estimated there were 20,000 black people living in London.

More had settled in other cities, melting into the population.

Although white British nationalists repudiate this history, the accumulated evidence is irrefutable. I describe some of the early cross-racial couples in my book Mixed Feelings. They defied society and were made to suffer. That didn't stop them. Edward Long, who owned slave plantations in Jamaica, issued warnings in 1772 about the "malignancy," which, in the course of a few generations, would "contaminate English blood." Purist rage had little effect. Hybridity transfigured the DNA of the nation.

Today, the fastest-growing category of children in the U.K. is biracial. When it comes to interracial friendships, love and sex, this country is more progressive than the rest of Europe or the U.S. Professor Anthony Heath of Nuffield College, Oxford, who is writing a book on race and class, tells me that "white prejudice against mixed-race relationships and individuals is declining significantly." That indicates an ease with diversity and a major shift in attitudes. Over half the children in Caribbean families have a white parent or grandparent, and in the past decade, the number of people in England and Wales living with or married to someone from another ethnic group has gone up by more than 35 percent. According to the Office for National Statistics, almost one in 10 people living in Britain is married to or living with someone from outside his or her own ethnic group.

You could say that the British royals have, at long last, caught up with societal trends and belatedly become part of the uplifting story of British race relations. …

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