You gotta hand it to the British tabloids: they resisted the urge to go completely brazen with their coverage of Prince Harry's relationship with Suits actress Meghan Markle.
I mean, they could have run with headlines such as "Prince introduces woman of colour to royal family" or "Half-black actress infiltrates blue blood pedigree." Instead, they stuck with a wink-wink, nudge-nudge approach in letting their readers know that Markle doesn't quite fall in line with the fair-skinned, English-bred ladies previously escorted into Buckingham Palace on Harry's arm.
Case in point: the Daily Mail. Its Nov. 2 headline read: "Harry's girl is (almost) straight outta Compton: Gang-scarred home of her mother revealed — so will he be dropping by for tea?"
Throughout the article were references to, and images of, the so-called crime-ridden neighbourhood in which Markle grew up, in Crenshaw, L.A. — the implication being that Harry's new girlfriend is from the typically downtrodden neighbourhood where we'd "expect" to find mixed-race children in America.
A couple of days later, Daily Mail columnist Rachel Johnson followed up by trying to helpfully inform readers of Markle's superior pedigree. "Genetically, she is blessed," wrote Johnson. "If there is issue from her alleged union with Prince Harry, the Windsors will thicken their watery, thin blue blood and Spencer pale skin and ginger hair with some rich and exotic DNA."
Johnson also made a point of describing Markle's mother as "a dreadlocked African-American lady from the wrong side of the tracks," which is only slightly more subtle than writing "MEGHAN MARKLE IS BLACK" in 20-point font.
No one is surprised when racism and sexism live merrily and outright in social media forums. But what we're seeing here is a more subdued type of prejudice — one that Prince Harry called out directly in an unprecedented statement about the "wave of abuse and harassment" Markle had experienced since news of their relationship emerged.
"Some of this has been very public – the smear on the front page of a national newspaper; the racial undertones of comment pieces; and the outright sexism and racism of social media trolls and web article comments."
Harry's inclusion of "racial undertones" in his list of abuses is significant: by nature, undertones are hidden, sometimes subliminal or inadvertent, but their impact can spread like hairline cracks in a foundation. Racial undertones are worth highlighting because of their stealth. Unlike blatantly hateful remarks, they can slip into our subconscious unchallenged when we — for example — talk about an interracial woman's "rough" upbringing, or her mother's dreadlocks.
Words matter. In a country where anti-immigrant rhetoric gave way to a surge in hate crimes after Brexit, columns like Johnson's plant the idea that the very essence of Markle is foreign—the definition of "exotic." It's also notable that the tabloid made mention of the "gang-scarred" neighbourhood where her mother lives, but not of her mother's master's degree in social work and career as a clinical therapist.
Were Prince Harry's past girlfriends, Chelsy Davy and Cressida Bonas, subjected to this kind of media scrutiny? Intense scrutiny, yes. Disparaging undertones based on their heritage? Not really. That seems to be a treatment reserved exclusively for Harry's "exotic" new partner — one who, it bears mentioning — has dimensions beyond just her race: Markle is a UN advocate for women and a World Vision global ambassador. She recently travelled to Rwanda to build wells for the Clean Water Campaign. Yet we don't read much about that in feverish coverage of Harry's new partner.
Perhaps the media should just go big — "White Prince dates Interracial Commoner" — to just get it out of their system.