Meghan Markle’s upcoming wedding to Prince Harry could potentially change how the world views diversity within the British royal family, and it’s a heavy responsibility for a woman who was largely unknown to the world less than three years ago.
Markle, a California native, was born to a black mother and white father. The 36-year-old former actress met Harry on a blind date in 2016, they fell in love and were engaged by the following year. Although Markle isn’t the first American to wed a British royal, nor the first divorcee, she is the first biracial woman in recent history to join the Windsor family tree.
Granted, Markle isn’t in line for the throne, a point that has been attributed to why she is seemingly being welcomed with open arms. As Andrew Morton stated on The Viewrecently while promoting his new biography on Markle, Meghan: A Hollywood Princess, the royal family probably “would’ve thought a bit more carefully about it" if she was an heir to the throne.
Since the engagement announcement last fall, social media lit up with tweets and memes touting Markle as “the first black princess” (which is technically untrue because she will be given the title of Duchess; also, Queen Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz is believed to be Britain’s first black queen dating back to the 18th century).
Prince Harry and Markle’s engagement news triggered the quiet racism that has been swept under the rug in how Britain treats, and reports on, minorities. In December, Princess Michael of Kent apologized after being accused of wearing a “racist broach” to Queen Elizabeth’s annual Christmas lunch and Buckingham Palace. Prince Harry even called out the press for its use of “racial undertones” in reporting on his relationship with Markle. Adding insult to injury, the couple also received a package of white powder that was originally investigated as a racial hate crime, a U.S. politician was suspended from Twitter for a racist tweet about Markle, and this past January, former British UKIP leader Henry Bolton temporarily split with his girlfriend, Jo Marney, after she made headlines for several racist comments about Markle including calling her a “seed” that would “taint the royal family.” (Marney later apologized.)
Regardless of the disparaging comments, Markle’s place as a future royal “changes the narrative,” especially from a visual perspective, says Joanna Abeyie, journalist and managing director of Hyden Talent, a London recruitment company that places diverse professionals in senior level positions within media and creative industries.
Abeyie, a South London native whose mother is English and father is Ghanaian, has an acute understanding of the nuances of race and culture. She has campaigned for diversity in publishing, TV, radio, digital and creative industries, spearheaded conversation around inclusion and trained thousands of people from diverse backgrounds who were previously overlooked by traditional recruitment methods. She also interviewed Markle a few years ago, when she was promoting her role on the USA Network series Suits.
“She’s intelligent, she’s lovely, she’s positive, she’s sensitive, she’s just brilliant,” Abeyie tells ET. “She feels like quite an authentic, warm person.”
As for the royals, Abeyie says that the current generation has found them “more engaging” and credits the late Princess Diana for paving the way and playing a huge part in why Prince William and Prince Harry have always been seen as “relatable.”
“When a white person looks at me, I do understand that I don’t look like my mom, who is a blonde white woman, so therefore I’m probably seen as black [no matter how] I identify,” Abeyie points out. “With Meghan, even though we know she’s biracial, I do think, to a white person, she’s black.”
Regardless of how Markle may be seen in the eyes of others, the engagement “was a big move for the royal family in being inclusive and representative,” Abeyie notes.
“It showed a bit of authenticity around the fact that [her relationship with Prince Harry] was born out of him just loving her and falling in love, and that was encouraging because it broke barriers," she adds. "It broke down perceptions, it changed the idea and the image of who and what a [British] princess is.”
“It’s now become a possibility that people that do not look the same can actually fall in love and be a part of a big royal institution,” she continues. “I think it changed a lot for the black community in that respect, and I think many people are really behind her and really encouraging her.”
That doesn’t undercut the argument that the royal family has been more accepting of Markle because Prince Harry will never become king, Abeyie says, noting: “One caveat is, would Kate [Middleton] have been allowed to be biracial? [Meghan] could never be queen, that’s what makes people kind of go, 'Well, they would let Harry [marry her], wouldn’t they? She’s not a threat.’”
The race discussion is one that continues to come up when speaking of Markle. On the contrary, Kehinde Andrews, an associate professor of sociology at Birmingham City University said in a Newsweekarticle last yearthat Markle “will never be allowed to be a black princess.”
However, Markle’s love of activism is likely to be a large portion of her royal duties, Abeyie predicts.
“We are a multicultural society and whether the system or powers that be like it or not, so many different people from different backgrounds have contributed to the success of Britain, economically, traditionally and culturally,” Abeyie says. “It’s nice that the royal family represents the diversity of London and of Britain. I think that Kate [being a commoner] started that, and Diana was a real pioneer for making it ‘normal’ and not an elitist institution, but one that was at a level with everybody else.”
Regardless, Markle’s background has furthered a conversation about race and multiculturalism in Britain and why representation matters. Whether or not her place in the royal family effectively smashes the impression that European royalty has been an exclusively white club, for Brits and others around the world, it’s nice to see a change in what has become an unofficial relationship custom in the British royal family.
The fact remains that people of color often find themselves in spaces where they are the minority, and are sometimes the first to steer through unexplored positions and experiences. It’s no doubt that Markle is a pioneer among the royals, and that she will face more racism and discrimination from those who abhor the very thought of her shattering tradition by merely existing, but she appears to be undeterred by the noise.
“It’s disheartening,” Markle explained to the BBC in November of the racist reactions to her engagement. “It’s a shame that that is the climate in this world to focus that much on that...at the end of the day I'm really just proud of who I am and where I come from, and [Harry and I] have never put any focus on that. We've just focused on who we are as a couple."