Meghan Markle's royal fortunes can't mask Britain's race problem

The flurry of interest in Meghan Markle's wedding to Prince Harry comes at a time when many fear racism in Britain is actually on the rise, writes Margaret Evans.

Harry marrying a biracial woman 'won't undo the pain of the past in Britain,' says one writer

Some black Brits see Meghan Markle's upcoming wedding to Prince Harry as a benefit to race relations in the country. (Russell Cheyne/Reuters)

British freelance writer and blogger Georgina Lawton is a self-described republican with little interest in, or time for, the Royal Family and the doings of its various members. 

But not long after the arrival of Meghan Markle on the scene, the 25-year-old Londoner found herself paying attention, even writing a column suggesting that Markle's marriage to Prince Harry would bring "genuine change" to British race relations. 

Growing up as a biracial woman herself, Lawton says it never occurred to her that she would one day see herself reflected in an institution so widely regarded as a bastion of white privilege. 

"We can look to the Royal Family as this kind of cornerstone of Britishness. It's like the apex of Britishness," Lawton says. But "the many millions of black people in the country, we couldn't see ourselves reflected in the Royal Family." 

She says that now, for the first time, she finds herself talking to her friends about the Royal Family, and what it might become in the future.

"Harry marrying a light-skinned black woman won't undo the pain of the past in Britain, it won't undo all the negative aspects of our links to colonialism," Lawton says. 

"But I think it will go some way in taking steps to repair race relations and promote multiculturalism."

Symbol of change?

Markle's first official outing in London with Prince Harry in January was to Brixton, the neighbourhood Lawton calls home and the heart of the black community in the capital.

British blogger Georgina Lawton thinks Markle's ascendance to the Royal Family is a win for multiculturalism. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

The couple visited a radio station called Reprezent, which promotes diversity and the black community took note — especially young women of colour, who have adopted Meghan as a symbol of potential change.

Markle has written about growing up in California with an African-American mother and a Caucasian father, and of the pain she felt being asked to choose an ethnicity. She has also talked about witnessing her mother endure racial insults.

Lawton says the British media have often been insensitive in their coverage of Markle. The Daily Mail ran a headline reading "(Almost) Straight Outta Compton," after it became public that Harry and Meghan started dating in 2016.

One of its columnists wrote an article saying Markle would be bringing her "exotic DNA" to the Royal Family and said she had a "dread-lock wearing" mother from the wrong side of the tracks.

Kensington Palace went so far as to release a statement on behalf of Prince Harry condemning "the racial undertones" of some of the coverage. Lawton says the gesture was important.

"I think it is a significant moment for people of colour — mixed race people, black people, anyone who sees themselves in Meghan," she says. 

Pervasive racism

Others in the black community, such as artist Neequaye Dsane, are far less optimistic. He goes by the name of Dreph, and has painted a series of murals featuring black women who've made a difference in their communities across London, including artists, educators and a psychotherapist.

"I didn't feel like black women from my community who were doing amazing things were being celebrated enough. [It's] really as simple as that," Dreph says.

This mural by the artist Dreph, one of 10 he has done of inspirational black women around London, is of a friend named Mimi Fresh. (Dreph)

Raising their visibility, he says, provides an alternative narrative to what's on offer in the mainstream media. The view can't be dismissed when Alexandra Shulman, the last editor of British Vogue, featured a black person on only about a dozen out of 300 covers over a 25-year period. She claimed black cover subjects wouldn't sell magazines.

"I don't think you can be awake and be black in this country and not feel racism," says Dreph, who identifies as British-Ghanaian.

He suspects the conversation around Markle might be different if her skin wasn't as light as it is.

"I definitely think we'd be having different conversations if she was, you know, super dark-skinned with like a head wrap, you know what I'm saying?"

Dreph grew up in Windsor, where Prince Harry and Markle will wed in St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle on Saturday. He actually used to deliver papers to the castle as a boy, as it was on his route.

London artist Dreph, whose real name is Neequaye Dsane, sought to celebrate strong local black women who do not show up in mainstream media. (Lily Martin/CBC)

But he has no real interest in the royals, and his attitude toward the when-Harry-met-Meghan story is mostly one of bemusement. 

"When it was announced, people were like, 'Oh my God, got a bit of colour in the Royal Family.' And I'm just looking and I'm like, really? It's one person getting married. I remember the night when Obama [became] president and everybody was like, 'That's it, it's the end of racism,' you know. Really?" 

The Windrush scandal

The flurry of interest in the royal wedding comes at a time when many fear racism in Britain is actually on the rise.

The recent Windrush scandal — which revealed that the Conservative government, obsessed with immigration numbers, had allowed a system to develop that essentially hounded tens of thousands of legal Caribbean residents — has shaken the black community to the core. 

"I think it was deliberate," says Brixton resident Wayne Graves. "Because they got what they want and don't need us anymore." 

The Empire Windrush was the first big ship carrying migrants invited from former British colonies to rebuild the country after the Second World War. Nearly half a million people came, and they and their children were guaranteed permission to stay, provided they'd arrived before 1973.

This photo from 1948 shows newly arrived Jamaican immigrants on board the Empire Windrush ship at Tilbury Docks in London. (Douglas Miller/Keystone/Getty Images)

Four years ago, the British Home Office started questioning their legality. People who'd lived, worked and paid taxes in the United Kingdom for half a century were suddenly being denied health care, the right to work or a driver's licence. 

"People have died waiting for treatment, people have been thrown out of their houses," said Lennox Drummond at a demonstration against the government over the scandal a few weeks ago. 

Drummond's parents were part of the Windrush generation, and he calls the government's recent decision to destroy thousands of arrivals records — making it difficult for anyone who'd never applied for a passport to prove when they had come — a betrayal. 

"You know, my mother has never called this country anything other than the mother country," says Drummond. 

Black history in Britain

Britain's black history doesn't begin or end with the Windrush generation, but critics say most Britons simply don't know the depth of the history, that it's absent from the country's school curriculum and its collective memory.

The government of Prime Minister Theresa May apologized after it emerged that some people who arrived from the Commonwealth decades ago as children were now being incorrectly identified as illegal immigrants. (Neil Hall/EPA-EFE)

Reni Eddo-Lodge is the bestselling author of a book called Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race, which looks at structural racism in Britain and the author's efforts to convince white people it's their problem, too. 

She says "there's no national push" to "talk about current black British history of people who defied the odds or the odds that they were defying — i.e., British colonialism and racism." 

Eddo-Lodge says black British history — slavery in particular — is often glossed over as a North American issue, even though British traders forced an estimated three million Africans onto boats and into slavery in the British colonies over the course of more than 200 years. 

That legacy, says Eddo-Lodge, doesn't disappear with a royal wedding.

"In what absurd situation is it representative or even democratic to be chosen by a prince? It's simply not. I will rejoice when the British population elects a person of colour to be our prime minister." 

Tense relations

Britain's population is 87 per cent white. People from black, Asian or other minority ethnic groups are twice as likely to be unemployed in the U.K. as white people. 

Black workers with degrees can expect to earn 23 per cent less than whites. And black people are eight times more likely than whites to be stopped and searched by the police. 

Author Reni Eddo-Lodge says Britain's complicity in black slavery is often glossed over. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

Last month marked the 25th anniversary of the death of Stephen Lawrence, an 18-year-old black student who was set upon and stabbed to death by a gang of white racists in South London.

All of British society seemed to be represented at the memorial, including Harry and Meghan, a testament to the impact his murder has had on this country. The Lawrence family's long fight to see his killers brought to justice culminated in a groundbreaking inquiry highlighting institutional racism within the police.

"That political or societal landing mark was far more monumental for Britain's relationship with race than Meghan Markle, in my opinion, because then it allowed people to do assessments of their own organizations using that criteria," says Eddo-Lodge.

That's partly why people feel so full of anger and despair over the Windrush scandal — it's the sense that somehow things are going backward in the United Kingdom.

Journalist Georgina Lawton points to the climate in the country after a majority of citizens narrowly voted in favour of leaving the European Union in a 2016 referendum.

"The level of hate crime that spiked just after the Brexit vote in London and throughout the country was shocking," she says. 

Souvenirs related to Harry and Meghan are everywhere in London in the run-up to their wedding on May 19. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

"And I think it made a lot of people of colour feel really unwelcome in their own country." 

But she says it doesn't mean there is no reason for optimism in the future. And that is what she believes Markle represents. 

"So although I'm still a staunch republican, I am kind of rooting for Meghan, and I will be paying attention. I do think it's exciting, and it will shape some of our identities." 

Even Dreph says he'll be watching.

"Does it create a situation where we're going to talk about things that maybe we don't talk about? Yes, it does. It has nothing to do with my life, really — but I definitely know that I'll be sitting there with my popcorn, listening to the conversations."


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.