story | Michael Sagna | Staff Writer
photo | Wiki-Commons, Michael Sagna
When I first arrived at the College, I was genuinely shocked at how much Yale-NUS College students seemed to care about the United Kingdom. As the only Brit in the year and one of the very few on campus, I am always interrogated about British affairs such as Brexit, Boris Johnson, and, most importantly, the perpetual drama of the royal family.
With the recent announcement of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle stepping down from their roles as senior royals, I have been bombarded with questions about my opinions on Meghan Markle in particular.
For some context, Meghan Markle is an American actress who is well known for her role in the TV-drama titled ‘Suits’. In 2016, rumors first emerged that she was dating Prince Harry. This shocked many of us in the UK because Markle seemed to be an outsider: she is mixed-race, a divorcee, the daughter of divorced parents, and a staunch progressive from a lower-middle class background.
The rumors turned out to be true, and in May 2018, Markle married Prince Harry in a relatively understated royal wedding. A year later, Markle gave birth to baby Archie, who is ninth in line to the throne, and the first ever partially-black royal.
I still remember the ambivalent emotions I felt watching Wendy Williams announce on her show that Prince Harry was dating, and would probably be married to, a black woman. As a black Brit, it was always obvious to me that there is still a lot of racism in the UK, despite the fact that some like to present the country as a multicultural utopia.
Just because the racism in the UK doesn’t necessarily consist of black men being shot dead in our streets, one would be foolish to assume that it does not exist at all, or that the issues that African-Americans and other marginalized groups in the US face are isolated.
Large corporations often report racial, together with gender, pay gaps, of up to 22%, and 70% of non-white workers have experienced racially charged harassment at work.
And these statistics only begin to reflect the reality of being a minority in the UK. Whenever I’m in London, the poster-city of (once) European multiculturalism and my home, there is a tangible sense of racist hostility resulting in people crossing the road when they see me, comments being made about black hair, and more directly being called the nigg*/nigg*r (in the UK we don’t roll our ‘r’, so there is no difference between the two).
This hostility extends into all spheres of life, and so British ethnic minorities knew that Meghan Markle would not have an easy ride.
On the other hand, there was also something very promising about the existence of the couple. A black woman had made it into the most prestigious, most archaic, of British institutions. She would now represent the country and an institution once responsible for the enslavement of her ancestors.
With her progressive views, we thought that she would be able to modernize the monarchy and make it more relatable to people of color and the youth. She could transform the monarchy into a force for good, and use her position to raise awareness on social issues, rather than the designers she wore. With the announcement of their relationship, there appeared to be some hope.
But it quickly became apparent that things would not be so easy for the royal couple, with the media storm following the emergence of dating rumors. The British press was particularly harsh on her for her background growing up in the lower-middle class, her social activism, her familial relationships, and obviously, her blackness.
One blatantly racist Daily Mail headline read, “Harry’s girl is (almost) straight outta Compton”, invoking gang-related language to imply that she is too black and too poor, in an attack which clearly shows that racism in the British press is often expressed through a classist lens.
During this period, Markle experienced so much harassment that Prince Harry was compelled to make a statement asking the trolls to stop, stating “this is not a game, this is her life,” and asking for privacy.
In the meantime, the press scrambled to find something else to critisize her about, so they decided to turn to her father’s side of the family, from whom she was estranged. Markle’s father, Thomas Markle, and her half-siblings were quick to jump to attack her, in interview after interview where they repeatedly slandered her all for the checks they would be able to collect at the end.
Ironically, the press attacked her father for being bankrupt, portraying him as a deadbeat, while simultaneously paying him to badmouth her on air, and criticizing Markle for not maintaining a good relationship with him. When the couple’s engagement was announced, Thomas Markle even went so far as staging photos of himself looking up news about the couple to sell to the media, attempting to show himself as having been shut out of his daughter’s life. This was all despite having been invited to the wedding, and when this news broke he suddenly announced that he had to have a heart surgery, leaving Prince Charles to walk her down the aisle. Honestly, with a family like that…who needs enemies?
Fast-forward to the announcement of Markle’s pregnancy, and the media did not cease their criticism of her. A side-by-side of two articles by the Daily Mail (seen in the picture below) was a particularly enlightening display of British racism in action, questioning the reasons for Markle holding her bump and stating that they must be pride, vanity, or acting. Just a year before that, the same newspaper stated that Kate was cradling her bump tenderly. As comedian Rachel Parris once asked, “so how do we explain this harder treatment of Meghan compared to the other royals, who are white?” When he was born, baby Archie was even compared to a chimpanzee, in an overtly racist post by a prominent radio show host.
And these were not isolated examples – it truly seemed that the media would criticize everything Markle did, whilst rarely, if ever criticizing Kate for doing the same things, namely eating avocados, gaining copyrights to their names and titles, using flowers at their royal weddings, asking for air fresheners for a musty cathedral, speaking up about social issues, being interested in fashion, and even wearing a hat. All of this criticism culminated in the portrayal of an aggressive and impertinent Markle. To the casual eye, this may not seem like racism, but all this criticism is an attempt to show Markle to be the angry black woman due to her transgression of her expected position in society. Through the use of this archetype, the media is able to show her to be masculine, and therefore threatening to the monarchy and its order.
On the recent announcement that Prince Harry and Markle would step down from their royal duties, many were shocked. What shocked me, however, were the questions that I kept being asked and why they were about Markle rather than Prince Harry. It almost seems that the public has assumed that Markle was the driver of this move rather than Harry, which I would argue is a product of the media’s representation of the Duchess as dominant over her husband, who is shown to be emasculated. This idea ignores the extremely relevant fact that Prince Harry lost his mother at the age of twelve because she was quite literally being chased by the media. Who can blame him for trying to remove himself, his wife, and his child from the same media that drove his mother into the tunnel where she died?
Nevertheless, the criticism rarely falls on him but instead on Markle who is described as a force intent on destroying the royal family, rather than fulfilling her duty to the British public and serving the country as a royal. “She knew what she was signing up for,” is something that I often hear. To an extent, this is true: of course she knew she would spend her life going around the world representing the UK, as is part of the royal duty. However, what is not a part of the royal duty is being subjected to attacks on literally everything that Markle does, comprising an insidious form of racist abuse. It therefore follows that the idea that she has some sort of responsibility to put up with it is absurd, as it implies that she deserves it. This is part of the same backlash that Grime rapper Stormzy faced when he said that the UK was racist, with people responding that he should be grateful to even be here. And it is even worse when one looks at the situation in her particular context: people think that she owes something to a family and an institution that fuelled colonialism, and the enslavement of her great grandparents. Crazy.
On the other hand, the response of ethnic minorities in the UK was quite different. To us, it had always been obvious that Markle was going to be treated differently, and seeing her being trashed in the media for four years was a bitter reminder of how the country views us. Markle and Harry being forced to step down from their roles was just the culmination of British racism.
This month is Black History month, and many Singaporeans do not think this has anything to do with them. In fact, it’s pretty often that we see boomers in Facebook groups mocking young Singaporeans for openly supporting black rights campaigns. And to be fair, at first it may not seem obvious why the struggles of the African diaspora abroad is relevant to Singaporeans. The black community here is tiny, exemplified by the fact that when I first arrived here I often got told by Singaporeans that I was the first black person they had ever met.
However, Singaporeans are not isolated from, nor oblivious to black culture, consuming it in their memes, music, dance, and fashion, so I would argue that they have a responsibility to educate themselves about black issues – many of which are relevant and applicable to those that minority communities here in Singapore face. This will enable Singaporeans to engage with minorities with both understanding and compassion.
What we must avoid in the future is to make a spectacle of black women who are facing racism, or to validate the idea that such treatment is justified. We need to stop asking what we think about Meghan Markle, and start asking the more difficult questions: how we can deconstruct media bias when the largest media companies are owned by white billionaires, and whether the monarchy in its current form is truly an appropriate institution in the twenty-first century.