Examining Meghan Markle and Prince Harry: An African Journey

"Mixed" reactions highlight mixed-race issues in the US and the UK.

Posted Nov 18, 2019

ComposedPix_Shutterstock
Source: ComposedPix_Shutterstock

Co-authored with Dr. Jennifer Sims.

Even before the full documentary “Harry & Meghan: An African Journey” aired on ABC, social media was abuzz from a teaser clip of Duchess Meghan Markle being interviewed. In the video, an off-screen Tom Bradby is heard asking Markle how she is doing. She thanks him for asking, saying that not many people do, and answers that the media attention has been difficult on top of being a newlywed and a new mom. Here, Meghan noted her struggles not just as a mom, but as a newlywed and a new royal. Her multiple identities—both those that were newly obtained and those she has always had such as being multiracial—were highlighted in this documentary. Thus, this documentary reminded viewers around the world how easy it is to be judged and excluded particularly when you represent multiple groups.

Many were moved by her words. On Twitter, messages of support, crying GIFs, and jokes of being ready to fight for her were tweeted under the hashtag #HarryAndMeghan. Others, however, were less sympathetic. Talk show host Wendy Williams said that “nobody feels sorry for” Markle and that the Duchess “knew exactly” what she was doing marrying into the British royal family. Jane Ridley of the New York Post noted that “Something’s off when you’re bemoaning your lot as a VIP;” and author Dominic Green called it entitlement to say one is “existing, not living” when that existence is “on millions of pounds of taxpayers money.” 

From a psychology angle, these “mixed” views of Markle (pun intended) correlate with the confusion and varied reactions that mixed-race individuals often face. Past work highlights the constant identity questioning and denial that mixed-race individuals face since they often don’t fit into either of their racial in-groups. In Markle’s case, she not only is mixed-race but also is now bicultural as she balances both U.S. and UK expectations.

In fact, the experiences that Meghan outlines in this documentary and elsewhere in the media highlight many of the topics in the new book Mixed-Race in the US and UK: Comparing the Past, Present, and Future. In this book, Dr. Sims and Dr. Chinelo L. Njaka analyze the understandings of being mixed-race in the US and the UK and explore mixed-race people’s everyday experiences. While none of their interviewees faced the level of intense media scrutiny that is reserved for the British royals, they did talk about difficult daily experiences. For example, many of those interviewed were frequently asked questions such as “What are you” in the US and “Where are you from” in the UK. While no interviewees in either nation felt that people ask these questions purposefully to be malicious, two-thirds nonetheless felt that they are “unnecessary,” “annoying,” and serve only to “put you in the pigeon hole.” As one interviewee explained: “It’s not like I go home and I’m depressed because someone asked me what race I am.  But it’s just, like, frustrating I guess.”

Pixabay, Free for commercial use No attribution required
Source: Pixabay, Free for commercial use No attribution required

Mixed-Race people in the US and UK face this type of intrusive and often unwanted attention when simply going about their daily lives. Though on a larger scale for Markle who is constantly in the spotlight, for all mixed-race people this extra attention stems from the fact that people of color in both nations are still perceived, first and foremost, in an unequally racialized manner.

For example, the moment Meghan and Prince Harry’s son was born, obsessions over pictures grew, and questions surrounding if he would be “raised Black” took over the Internet. Moreover, on the day of their first public posing with their newborn son, the BBC’s Danny Baker tweeted “Royal Baby leaves hospital,” accompanied by a photo of a well-dressed couple holding hands with a chimpanzee in a suit. Despite Baker’s claims of ignorance, there is a long history of racist tropes likening people with Black ancestry to primates. This same ignorance is often applied to biracial Black/White individuals as well, highlighting what scholars call hypodescent, or a “one-drop rule,” of perceiving someone with any discernable African ancestry, no matter how slight, as Black.

But how can Markle cope with the constant questioning she will undoubtedly face? Recent collaborative work shows that biracial individuals do show an increase in their cortisol levels as a stress marker biologically when their racial identity is denied by someone else. However, biracial people show faster recovery from that stressor compared to Asian Americans who are more commonly studied within this identity denial framework in psychology. This suggests, that biracial people clearly experience these stressors so often that they must build up coping mechanisms allowing them to persevere. Demonstrating what Dr. Remi Joseph-Salisbury calls “post-racial resilience,” mixed-race people in the US and UK are clearly aware of the racial inequalities they face and have developed strategies to weather and overcome them.

Pixabay, Free for commercial use No attribution required
Source: Pixabay, Free for commercial use No attribution required

Some of the interviewees in Sims and Njaka’s book pushed back on being objectified by responding to racialized questions from strangers with “sassy” remarks that do not answer the question. Others spoke of supportive family and friends who helped them navigate inequality.

Calculations in the US and UK show that the multiracial population is increasing in both nations, therefore more people may find themselves sharing some of Meghan Markle’s psychological and social experiences. For this reason, whether one sympathizes with her or considers her to be the epitome of entitlement, she is nonetheless a high profile reminder of the significance of multiraciality.

This post was co-written with Dr. Jennifer Sims, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

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