As Meghan Markle and Prince Harry officially announce their engagement, Stylist’s editorial assistant, Moya Lothian-McLean, explains why having a mixed-race woman become part of the British royal family is so vitally important.
I never dreamed of being a princess. They were never my bag. As a child, I eschewed Belle and co’s bland perfection for Fantasia (dinosaurs savagely ripping each other to shreds with a Stravinsky soundtrack? The perfect family fare). If pressed, I might admit a soft spot for Princess Jasmine. She was defiant, autonomous and boasted a really good crop top collection that I’m still trying to emulate today. But above all else, she was the closest a little mixed-race girl from the Caucasian heartlands of rural England could get to seeing herself represented in mainstream culture.
It coloured my attitude to our own flesh-and-blood royals - I felt vague indifference at best and, if I really sat down to consider the issue, I’d conclude that we should abolish them immediately. Like, right now. It wasn’t personal of course – the family seem perfectly pleasant, if a little stuffy. But receiving £82 million pounds a year simply by dint of being born into a certain bloodline when a record high 55% of low-income UK households live below the poverty line seems a bit much.
Which is why I was so surprised when I found myself near tears and feverishly texting a specific sub-group of friends this morning as Prince Harry’s engagement to Meghan Markle was announced. “A MIXED-RACE GIRL IN THE PALACE!” I tapped out.
The replies were fast and equally excited. “We have a brown princess and the world is saying OK,” Elena (Ethiopian-English) responded. “I’m so emosh!” “HISTORY B*TCH!” my friend Ava (Ghanaian-English) virtually yelled at me. “WE DOMINATING!”
It’s funny how easy it is to convince yourself you don’t care until something blasts through your façade of indifference. Meghan Markle’s ascension to royalty (although already a queen in my eyes) has stirred up feelings that I’ve become extremely practiced at suppressing.
Despite only sporadically catching episodes of Suits, the legal TV series that made her name, I’ve been following her with great interest since she penned a personal essay for Elle in 2015. She wrote astutely and at length of the painful process of self-identification that a biracial person faces, and about how they exist in a ‘grey’ area, a limbo. This grey area was intimately familiar to me thanks to my own experiences of not fitting in.
We live in a black and white world. Race is a dichotomy: you are or you aren’t. There is no liminality, no intersection in the racial Venn that allows you to exist as the product of two different ethnicities without people trying to confine you to one simpler, single category. It’s why that persistent question – “Where are you from?” – has become a punchline among anyone ambiguously brown I know.
It doesn’t matter where I’m actually ‘from’ (a hamlet on the English/Welsh border). What I’m being asked is to provide racial context that allows people to place me.
Being ‘British’ is not sufficient. Being ‘British’ does not explain the brown because a British identity is still overwhelmingly associated with whiteness. And now – deliciously – one of the institutions most commonly wielded as emblematic of that bizarre concept ‘British values,’ has been infiltrated by a biracial American actress, a self-made woman. Who is also an older divorcee. It’s almost poetic.
There’s a story Markle tells regularly in interviews: aged 12 she had to complete a census for school. There were only four boxes available in the ethnicity section: white, black, Hispanic or Asian. Her teacher told her to tick Caucasian because “that’s how you look, Meghan”. When she later told her father of her confusion, he told her something she’s held onto ever since: “If that happens again, draw your own box.”
I’ve grown up having to draw my own box and, although I’m sure there are many mixed individuals out there who’ve experienced things differently, all my friends with similar backgrounds report feeling the same. You become hardened to it almost – only seeing yourself reflected back from the culture around you as the ‘before’ model in John Frieda adverts. Even now I’m struggling to think of mixed-race heroines I’ve seen on screen – on the rare occasions I’ve found characters I could relate to, they were in books by biracial authors such as Zadie Smith or Danzy Senna.
That’s not to say being mixed is a continuous hardship. We’re often afforded a hefty amount of white privilege thanks to colourism and the tendency to exoticise the mix of two ethnicities. But we’re often viewed as less than the sum of our parts or worse, have identities and personalities pushed onto us by others who want to put us in a pre-existing box.
Markle speaks of being asked to audition for white and Latina roles, despite not belonging to either of those. Any mixed girl will also know the feeling of hearing the sentence “You look like…” concluded with a name of someone who exists on the brown spectrum. Recently I’ve had: Thandie Newton, the girl from Misfits, Janet Jackson, the girl from Skins, Michelle Rodriguez, Rihanna and Alicia Keys. Oh, and Beyoncé. But only “from the eyes up”.
None of these people resemble each other. None of these people resemble me.
Meghan Markle doesn’t resemble me either. But her experiences as a mixed-race person resonate. Her words on the subject have stuck. And having closely followed her relationship with a man who’s made parallel efforts to escape restrictions the world has placed on him thanks to circumstances of birth, I’ve surprised myself with how happy I am at the news that next Spring she’ll be walking down the aisle to become a bona fide Princess (Duchess title be damned).
Yes, I still think the monarchy is an outdated institution. Yes, one biracial woman is not going to revolutionise a prejudiced and elitist society overnight. But it’s a start. One drop in the ocean, if you will. And I hope in 20 years – if the monarchy still endures – that thanks to Meghan, there will be little brown girls who find that creating their own box is not nearly as isolating a task as it is right now.
Images: Rex Features and courtesy of Moya Lothian-McLean