A reparations discourse with all its unfulfilled claims is still an open point of contention for those whose ancestors were used to create the wealth which the British royal family still enjoys. When Meghan Markle married into the royal family, I heard it said half-jokingly that this was not to be considered our reparations. Perhaps a Caribbean GPS is best positioned to understand the nature of the particular Brexit that Harry and Meghan took, out of the royal family’s direct control and into a certain autonomy but into the highest level of United States social and economic structure with the possibility of living a life way beyond the assumptions of the monarchy.
In many ways, the “colonies” were always the escape and refuge of the British royal family – honeymoons, state visits, holidays, tours of various sorts with adulation and children lined up to wave at them and definitely wealth acquisition. Indeed British racial colonialism had already defined the existence of their relationship to the world as global i.e. “sun never set on the British Empire” the highest expression then of imperialism. This British imperialism was marketed at every level – food, clothing, taste, manners, literature, speech, political and parliamentary systems, economics, religion, cultural and social practice and definitely racial capitalism with its various color schema. Additionally, the Caribbean as a major site of resource extraction and wealth acquisition for the British was often one of their colonial experimental laboratories, for plant and human life. For example, Barbados has been identified as the first slave society then exported to the United States. Thus, Caribbeans know and recognize perhaps more than Americans some of these contemporary royal moves but also their contradictions.
I would like to suggest a good reading of Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys as high on my recommended list for Meghan and others interested in this topic. Particularly since she has a degree from Northwestern University she should have been peripherally aware that there are studies which explore the questions of coloniality and which would have helped her understand the implications of her personal choices. The creole characters in this novel, Antoinette and Annette, Amelie are versions of Meghan in terms of the assignment of physical characteristics and cultural instability that accompany their identities, not fully accepted by white society and caught between the father’s family and the history of lurking African ancestry via the mother’s identity. But they also become the desire that Englishmen feel for these women which led to sexual encounters and exploitations and further creations of additional racial categories. So Harry too is not immune from also living and practicing structural racism as the desire for the exotic woman of color is also a fundamental aspect of white male supremacy. In the end, Antoinette goes to England with Rochester and becomes the Bertha of Jane Eyre with exclusion from the normal interaction with community and with “madness” and containment as the final constructed outcome. This is the scenario that Meghan rejects, the refusal to be the pretty bird in the gilded cage. But eerily, in her case, there was even a similar letter from her brother to Prince Harry just as in Wide Sargasso Sea where Daniel Cosway wrote Rochester, outlining why this potential wife would be no good for him.
The alleged question of what would be the baby’s color is both an intra and extra racial framing which resides nonetheless directly in the center of British racial colonialism. But skin color is only one marker. There is nose shape and hair texture that are indicated as well in various attempts to identify how close one comes to stereotypical whiteness. Still, in every location one sees a version of this color consciousness as European definitions of racism which puts whiteness at the top of the racial hierarchy permeated all the cultures which they affected. This runs through all the European colonial encounters with the Americas and resides historically in the sexual exploitation of African women on the forts in the continent, on the slave ships of the Middle Passage and in the plantation structures across the Americas. The British in particular carried out a great deal of human and plant biological experimentation which created a range of hybridities. In the human context, all the racial/color variations in the “colonies” were sexual experiments and so the product of sexual violence. So the popularly retold personal prejudicial question of the baby’s color, actually camouflages the horrible historical aspects of enslavement. In other words, the British already know what a baby born of a bi-racial woman (called mulatto by them) and an English man would produce and have names for each category that we will not repeat here as there are so many examples of these racial identifications throughout that history. Such a question was simply another way of reinforcing that colorism that is a fundamental aspect of racism which also got replayed in Indian caste societies, Caribbean and Latin American and indeed American preferences and also now African as well (via bleaching) for skin tones closer to the dominant preference for whiteness. In Latin America and Brazil whitening or blanqueamiento was and to some extent still is part of the social-cultural framing. In the United States context it is less definable but observable in representations of attempts to gain the physiognomy and representational features of blondness in hair and other forms of physical “boa aparencia” (Brazil) or good appearance. This is captured well in the perversion that Toni Morrison records in The Bluest Eye or the facial surgical deformations of a Michael Jackson.
Still, while Meghan too has been subjected to the particular form of racism that bi-racial people receive to ensure they know that they are still considered black by the dominant culture, on her part there was also an economic and social advancement which accompanied her move into royalty. Hers have been consistently very strategic moves symbolized by ditching a date with Piers Morgan to go to a party with the Prince. A decolonial reading though wonders why she would agree to wear a veil in which all the flowers of the British colonies were embroidered. The fact that “Kensington Palace has confirmed that Meghan asked to have all 53 countries of the Commonwealth represented on her veil, with each country’s flowers hand-embroidered in silk threads and organza” (“Sketches Reveal Hidden Details Meghan Markle’s Wedding Veil” (Metro UK, May 20, 2018) includes all the colonies indicated) indicates that she was a full participant. British Colonialism is always embedded by racism at the global level.
Thus, deciding to live in the United States for both Harry and Meghan is actually a benefit for both. For Meghan, an ability to live at the highest level of a society with which she had operated peripherally as a minor actress. For Harry, who has always been the member of the royal family, many sympathized with at the loss of his mother or witnessed his various escapades, and his desire to not be formal and stuffy, it is the Royal option to live the special US/UK relationship already exercised in political/military contexts. In other words, the opportunity to live this portion of his life with the freedom and adulation which the United States and its entertainment upper class with the quest for royal proximity provides is a desirable option. Even as it is a global hegemon, the United States still operates in a cultural-colonial relation to the British, in ways that most of the Caribbean has long abandoned, having recognized and experienced the extractive nature of British colonialism. The United States while it fought for its freedom did not have such a long encounter with colonialism and as a result still maintains a distinct adoration of things British from accents to academic departments called English and definitely also the high-level consuming of news related to the Royal Family and its various machinations. Harry, in my view, remains still the Royals modern or updated version, dancing with Jamaican girls during his state visit there. Still his presence in the United States means that the post-colonial version of the United States now has a member of the royal family operating at the height of its social structure with all that that means and demands in terms of protocol, press, security, status. I see the Prince, as a modern member of the Royal family, as ensuring the connections with the United States are maintained; indeed there is now a US branch of the Royal family in place.
In the end, Black people everywhere recognize that even bi-raciality never protects one from racism, not just the individual prejudice which the comment about Baby Archie’s potential color was but also the deep structural racism which accompanies the language. Meghan entered the fairy tale Royal family, not with naivety as is presented by her but with a kind of “eyes wide shut” approach to the demands of such an existence with all its protocols, management structures and hierarchies; perhaps with a pre-planned way of exiting always in the background. The Cinderella-like beautiful weddings which the British are known for executing with all the pomp and splendor and coach rides with real dressed coachmen are precisely what many young girls dream and of course, the bonus of marrying a prince so much a trope of all of these narratives is the pinnacle of that storied experience. Yet we know there is a whole process of grooming that prepares one for those roles. So I am not convinced by the story of not knowing what was expected. Even those with impending brief formal visits to the palace, practice how to curtsy in front of the queen and members of the royal family to receive MBE or OBE (Members or Orders of the British Empire) honors. Meghan as a smart university-trained actress would have definitely studied the assumptions of the role before showing up including what would be gained by such an affiliation from titles to wealth and definitely entering the pages of history. But to many royal watchers across the world, it seems the wife of Harry was given a pass perhaps because of his various edgy escapades and was not vetted in the traditional ways, not so much for color but for all the surrounding personal and familial histories and preparation needed for such a role. Clearly, it will not be, so much, the color of the babies that will matter at all, but the various inheritances from both sides of the family, including her white working-class family. Above all the necessity of fully studying and understanding the nature of British imperialism and its horrendous histories of enslavement, colonial extraction and domination, will in the end determine what kind of human beings these new royals will be in the future. Understanding the history of British and American imperialism will also determine how we engage beyond curiosity and media adulation, with these impending developments, or disengage from the royal extensions into our day-to-day existence.
Carole Boyce Davies (Prof CBD)
Follow me on Twitter at @Ca_Rule