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Megxit: Does the UK have a race problem?

Current Affairs

Megxit: Does the UK have a race problem?

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry walk behind the Duke of Edinburgh

Could racism in the media and wider society lie behind the decision of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle to leave Britain’s royal family? Dr Desné Masie provides some answers.

On 8 January 2020, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, announced they were leaving the British royal family and the UK, for Canada. While the couple did not give reasons for their announcement – quickly dubbed ‘Megxit’ in the tabloids – speculation was rife that the intense media scrutiny that plagued their courtship and marriage was responsible.

The announcement also unleashed a storm of media coverage, including accusations levelled at British society and the right-wing press, that racism against Meghan, who is mixed race and American, had hounded the Sussexes out of the UK.

Leading the charge has been a social commentator on race issues in the UK, Afua Hirsch, who is mixed-race herself. Hirsch swiftly penned an op-ed in the New York Times on 9 January titled: “Black Britons Know Why Meghan Markle Wants Out: It’s the racism”.

Hirsch said in her scathing op-ed: “If the media paid more attention to Britain’s communities of color, perhaps it would find the announcement far less surprising. With a new prime minister whose track record includes overtly racist statements, some of which would make even Donald Trump blush, a Brexit project linked to native nationalism and a desire to rid Britain of large numbers of immigrants, and an ever-thickening loom of imperial nostalgia, many of us are also thinking about moving.”

From the very first headline about her being “(almost) straight outta Compton” and articles talking about her having “exotic” DNA, the racist treatment of Meghan has been impossible to ignore.

If Harry and Meghan thought that announcing their exit would offer respite from the media attention, the opposite has happened. The attention on them has intensified and followed them to Canada. 

Predictably, the right-wing Daily Mail newspaper has given free rein to Meghan’s journalistic nemesis, Piers Morgan, to spill a torrent of apoplectic, bilious ink about Megxit since the announcement. Morgan, who is white, said that blaming their exit on racism was nonsense and furthermore “libellous against the British people”.

The unhinged discussions about race in the media and society that have accompanied Megxit are unprecedented. This kind of thing – emotional incontinence, identity politics – just isn’t done. A stiff upper lip is normally more the order of the day. 

A country at war with itself

That Megxit has coincided with Brexit is to my mind, not particularly surprising. While not all leavers are racist xenophobes, there is no doubt that the tone of public debate has deteriorated considerably since the referendum result on leaving the EU on 23 June 2016. 

Ethnic minorities, and Europeans, especially Eastern Europeans, have reported more hate crimes and abuse, and people are leaving the UK due to their disappointment and hurt about the effect this is having on British society and their future here. 

And here is the rub. The UK is a country of contradictions. The referendum result itself, split down the middle at 52:48 in favour of Brexit, gives a clue at how society here is at once so open and so closed, a nation divided and at war with itself.

The UK is a place where immigrants from Australia to Zimbabwe have been able to achieve their wildest dreams, but some have also had those dreams crushed here through trafficking and slavery, and the arcane workings of the UK class system, particularly in its upper echelons. 

Indeed, just as there are many black youths with poor prospects for their future, there are very few people of colour in the UK’s elite, while at the same time the few are enough to keep things aspirational without any real structural change. 

Adding to the contradictions is that the same Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who has said objectionable things about Africans, has also appointed several people of colour to his cabinet, including the home secretary Priti Patel, who said in reaction to Megxit that “the UK is not racist, people of colour can get on here, they can have a good life”.

This may be the case for people in Patel’s orbit, but it is not the lived experience of the majority of black Britons, rendered invisible by the machinations of the class system and racist attitudes that sees the UK entrench such inequalities to favour a global elite. As above, a small proportion of this elite is comprised of black Britons, but only to a very limited extent, particularly in business, academia and the peerage, where indeed, there have even been black royals in Britain’s history way before Meghan hit the scene.

Two black queens

The UK had two black queens: Queen Philippa of Hainault in the 1300s who was the Queen-Consort of Edward III, and there was also Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the wife of King George III in the 1700s. 

Philippa was the daughter of the Count of Hainault in Belgium, in an area historically ruled by Moors, from whom Philippa and her brown-skinned ancestors are thought to have been descended.

While historical written descriptions of Philippa describe her as having “brown skin all over”, historical painted depictions of her, however, depict her as Caucasian, which may have been due to the bias of artists of the time, or the fashion in that era for wearing face powder.

Philippa’s son, Edward Plantagenet, the famous ‘Black Prince’, is also thought to have been a person of colour. Until recently, the renowned knight of the Hundred Years War was thought to have been called the Black Prince due to the black shield he carried, but renewed historical interest in Philippa’s ethnicity means we really cannot be so sure. 

Queen Charlotte, as a royal of the House of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, was descended directly from an African branch of the Portuguese Royal House, Margarita de Castro y Sousa.

Queen Charlotte made many contributions to British society which have not been well publicised, along with her African bloodline. It is only recently that art historians suggested that the obvious African features of Charlotte – particularly in portraits by Sir Allan Ramsay – are accurate.

Before Ramsay, portraitists of Charlotte played down her African features for political reasons, given that slavery was prevalent at the time. Ramsay, however, was a staunch abolitionist and amidst the growing anti-slavery movement, his portraits of Charlotte became politically instrumental to abolition.

It is not evident from historical accounts that Philippa, Edward or Charlotte suffered any particularly harsh racial discrimination or abuse. Attitudes to black people were not particularly enlightened at the time despite these high-ranking black royals. Most blacks in that period of the UK’s history were slaves, and a few were exoticised as decorative objets d’art as servants in the homes of the upper classes, and an even smaller amount of black people became sailors.

Media influence

Nonetheless, these black royals, being powerful and of high status, do not seem to have suffered overt prejudice. But a crucial difference between those times and these is that the internet age has made it possible for anyone to comment and amplify their views in the media and social media.

If the general population during the times of Philippa and Charlotte were as literate as the nobility, with the ability to publish more widely, who can say what the public perception of them would have been?

Indeed, the first tabloids only really became established around the late 19th century, and this is a major differentiating factor between the privacy enjoyed by ancient and modern royals. 

Besides Meghan Markle, who has gathered the most attention by being the most high-profile member of the aristocracy, the only other notable people of colour I am aware of in the British aristocracy include Emma Thynn, the current, half-Nigerian Viscountess of Weymouth, who is set to become the (ostensibly) first black marchioness in British history; and Dido Elizabeth Belle, born in 1761 in slavery to an African woman in the West Indies and a white British naval officer, who was later knighted and raised Belle in the upper classes of England.

That there have been black royals, cabinet ministers and peers does not mean the UK is an egalitarian, meritocratic society. Obviously. It still has a very long way to go. 

How do we square the fact that the royal family has had such prominent persons of colour as senior royals but also, simultaneously, presided over colonialism and Empire, with much of its vast wealth and prestige built off the backs of black slave labour?

Racial undertones

It is complicated to say if Meghan left the royal family because of racism per se. It is likely her departure is down to a myriad of private reasons. The intense media scrutiny, and its insalubrious tone, probably made the decision to leave all that much easier.

At the beginning of their courtship, Harry himself was taken aback by the racial undertones of the coverage of Meghan, which he highlighted in a statement. That being said, Meghan has married into the most famous family in the world. Being funded by taxpayers, some may say she is fair game, with every aspect of herself being scrutinised in exchange for the privilege.

In fact, two of Harry’s more serious former girlfriends – Chelsy Davy and Cressida Bonas, both white – decided that the intrusion into their privacy by being linked to the royals was categorically not for them.

What is regrettable about the whole saga is that for black Britons to succeed, black bodies should be visible, and audible at all levels of public life. That Meghan decided against toughing it out, in all its privileges and complexities, is entirely her decision. It is not for anyone to judge her lived experience, particularly if she feels stifled and discriminated against.

Megxit also comes at a time when calls for a slimming down of the royal family and outright republicanism are growing – coming so soon after the Prince Andrew scandal.

Time to do some thinking

Alongside Brexit, these developments seem to indicate some sort of decline or reconfiguration of British symbolism. During the UK-Africa Summit of 20 January, a push for post-Brexit trade deals, many Africans remarked that the UK has been diminished by Brexit. Many Brits fear the United Kingdom itself could come apart, should Scotland leave to seek its fortune with Europe instead. 

Whatever happens next, Britons of all backgrounds would do well to reflect on how the unintended consequences of a particularly unhinged period of identity politics are changing the country socially and politically. Hopefully that will be one good outcome of Brexit and Megxit.

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