Meghan Markle and the start of a new royal era

Angry: Prince Harry attacked “the outright sexism and racism of social media trolls”. © Getty

What difference might Meghan Markle make to the British royal family? She describes herself as a “strong, confident, mixed-race woman”. Every one of those words is a potential game-changer.

'What are you?' A question I get asked every week of my life, often every day.

'Well,' I say, as I begin the verbal dance I know all too well. 'I'm an actress, a writer, the Editor-in-Chief of my lifestyle brand The Tig, a pretty good cook and a firm believer in handwritten notes.' A mouthful, yes, but one that I feel paints a pretty solid picture of who I am.

But here's what happens: they smile and nod politely, maybe even chuckle, before getting to their point, 'Right, but what are you? Where are your parents from?'

I knew it was coming, I always do. While I could say Pennsylvania and Ohio, and continue this proverbial two-step, I instead give them what they're after: 'My dad is Caucasian and my mom is African American. I'm half black and half white.'

These are the words (in Elle Magazine) of Meghan Markle, Prince Harry’s girlfriend who is about to become the next member of the UK’s royal family.

Like Prince William’s wife, Kate, she is what British law considers a “commoner”. Unlike Kate, she is an American, an actress, and divorced.

Also like Kate (and almost anyone else with British ancestry), if you trace her family tree back far enough, you will find noble, even royal, blood. Her father is descended from Lord Hussey, a member of Henry VIII’s court.

Her mother’s side is very different — Meghan’s great-great-great grandfather was a slave who was freed after the US civil war ended in 1865.

She would be the first mixed-race member of the royal family in 200 years — perhaps ever.

Of course, she is more than just her ancestors. She describes herself as a “strong, confident mixed-race woman”, and urges people to: “Introduce yourself as who you are, not what colour your parents happen to be.”

Is it wrong to focus as much on her heritage as her work?

The prince and the showgirl

Of course, say some. Who cares whether she is mixed-race, or American, or anything else? All that matters is what she has done with her life — and by most accounts she is a “grounded”, talented person who avoids controversy and cares about making the world a better place. She uses her celebrity to advocate refugees’ rights, clean water and gender equality. She will fit right in with the new, media-savvy generation of young royals.

Her background is important too, argue others. Britain can still be a racist country, as the coverage of her relationship proves: one paper described her mother’s neighbourhood as “famous for gangs”, while another said readers would be “shocked” to know about her “diverse” background. By welcoming her into the most famous family on Earth, the royals can send the message that these attitudes are unacceptable. That is worth celebrating.

You Decide

  1. What is more important: who you are, or what you do?
  2. Is it wrong for the media to focus on Meghan Markle being of mixed race?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are one of Britain’s top newspaper editors. Create a front page reporting on Meghan and Harry’s engagement. Think about your headline, image, and how you introduce the story.
  2. Draw your own family tree, reaching as far back as you can. Over the next week, ask your family members for stories from your family history, or do you own research. Then report back to the class: did you learn anything about your family’s past that changed your perception of yourself now?

Some People Say...

“In the past, people were born royal. Nowadays, royalty comes from what you do.”

Gianni Versace

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Harry and Meghan began dating in 2016, and appeared together in public for the first time in September, at the 2017 Invictus Games in Toronto. Meghan officially met the Queen a month later — an important step, as she must give her blessing in order for Harry, the fifth in line to the throne, to get married. In November 2016, Kensington Palace released a statement criticising “the racial undertones” of the media’s coverage of their relationship.
What do we not know?
If the couple are really engaged, when it will be announced if true, and when a royal wedding might take place. There are rumours that an announcement is “imminent”, and that Harry would prefer a “non-traditional” wedding. In royal speak, that would mean a low-key affair, possibly away from the cameras.

Word Watch

Next member
Many consider 2019 as the most likely date for a wedding, although some royal experts say that it could take place next summer.
Commoner
British law divides its population into peers (members of the nobility) and commoners (everyone else).
Divorced
It has been 80 years since King Edward VIII married another American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. He was forced to abdicate, catapulting Elizabeth II’s father onto the throne. Luckily for Meghan, divorce is no longer so controversial in the royal family.
Anyone else
Mathematically, most British people will be related to King Edward III (1327–1377), who had nine children.
Civil war
A war over the continued use of slavery in southern US states. Slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865 after the north won.
200 years
Historians have speculated that King George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte, had African ancestry. She died in 1818.

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