The Meghan Markle Interview: How it can help us to identify racism within the British media and ourselves

Image: Marjan Blan via Unsplash. License found here.

Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle (The Duke and Duchess of Sussex) aired on the 8th of March on ITV at 9pm. It was watched by more than 49.1 million people worldwide, with 11.1 million viewers from the UK alone. During the interview, the Sussexes accused the Royal Family of failing to protect them, both emotionally and financially. However, it was the allegations of racism, following Markle’s revelation that there were “concerns and conversations” about how dark her son (Archie) skin would be, that sparked global discussion. In this article we will dissect the British press’s treatment of Meghan Markle then, we will look into what we can learn from the interview.

Meghan Markle and the Jezebel

The Jezebel is the antithesis of “The Mammy” caricature. It originated in the 15th century when white Europeans journeyed to Africa and saw what they perceived as inadequately dressed individuals, and interpreted their semi-nudity as crude and primitive. They observed their tribal customs and decried that Africans were uncontrolled sexual beings, though they were captivated by their sexuality. Written accounts by merchants like Willem Bosman and William Smith reduced Black women to physical bodies as they referred to them as “hot consiution’d ladies” who were “continually contriving stratagems how to gain a lover”. Their accounts introduced the idea of the Black man as the brute and the Black female as the Jezebel whore. English colonists then proceeded to use this Elizabethan perception of Africans to justify their enslavement (and systemic rape of Black women) as they proclaimed that Black individuals were barbaric in comparison to their civilised white counterparts and deserved to be subjugated.

Although the slave trade was abolished in Britain by the 1800s, the Jezebel stereotype has evolved with time into what Elise Holland would later call “The Contemporary Jezebel”. Holland’s version can be identified in the British media’s depiction of Meghan Markle. The Contemporary Jezebel is dual natured; she is an ““autonomous liberated sexual agent” whilst also being “a malign cunning sexual object”. Her duality is predicated on the belief that while the Jezebel’s body is unruly and uncontrollable, she is also fully in command of her actions. This is what makes her so immoral, she ‘willingly’ uses her body to be cunning and tempestuous.

From my perspective, the media adopted and then perpetuated this stereotype by subtly painting Meghan Markle, a biracial woman, as a deceptive and deviant character whose sole intention was to bring about the destruction of the British monarchy in an attempt to villainize her in the eyes of the British public. The general coverage of Meghan Markle, particularly in comparison to the other members of the Royal family, further prompts me to take this view.

"Not long to go! Pregnant Kate tenderly cradles her baby bump while wrapping up her royal duties ahead of her maternity leave - and William confirms she's "due any minute now" - The Daily Mail
"Why can't Meghan Markle keep her hands off her baby bump? Experts tackle the question that has got the nation talking: Is it pride, vanity, acting or a new age bonding technique?" - The Daily Mail

The ‘Angry Black Woman’: The politics of emotional expression

The ‘Sapphire’ stereotype, better known as the ‘Angry Black woman’, is proliferated strongly  throughout mainstream media and is, therefore, easily identifiable. Unlike the ‘Jezebel’ and the ‘mammy’, the ‘Sapphire’ originated in the 1950s with the radio show ‘Amos n Andy’. It was then adapted into a television show on CBS which ran from 1951-1953 where the predominantly white cast was replaced with an all Black cast. The show’s main character, Mrs Sapphire Stevens, a hot-tempered wife who constantly berated and emasculated her husband George Kingfish Stevens. She is best described by Dr. David Pilgrim as “a perpetual complainer, but she does not criticise to improve things; rather, she criticises because she is unendingly bitter and wishes that unhappiness on others”.  The ‘Sapphire’ caricature portrays Black women as rude, loud, malicious, stubborn, and overbearing. The trope is often utilised by the media in order to dismiss issues raised by Black women when they express signs of discontent or dissatisfaction, they are swiftly labelled as angry and are consequently ignored; arguably another stereotype projected onto Meghan Markle.

"Meghan made Kate cry: bride's strict demands over Charlotte's dress reduced her to tears." - The Sun
"It was reported that the Duchess of Cambridge requested her favourite scented candles and toiletries from luxury fragrance brand Jo Malone be delivered to scent the Abbey" - The Daily Mail
"Kicking up a stink: 'Dictatorial' bride Meghan wanted air fresheners for 'musty' 15th century St George's Chapel but the palace says no" - The Daily Mail

The “Strong Black Woman” and the permission to feel.

The ‘Strong Black woman’ evolved from the ‘Angry Black woman’ trope in the 1960s. She is the antithesis of her predecessors and acts as a “beacon of superiority” that overcame any obstacle and was immune to pain. In her 2011 book, Sister Citizen, Melissa Harris Perry states that this stereotype was “constructed by Black women as a way to escape the pervasive negative stereotypes of the mammy, Jezebel and the Sapphire”.  However, Harris Perry argues that it is just as limiting as its antecedents: “By adopting and reproducing the icon of the strong Black woman, African-American women help to craft an expectation that Black women should be autonomously responsible and self-denying care givers in their home and communities”.

Like the Jezebel, the mammy and the sapphire, the strong Black woman is proliferated throughout mainstream media. In film, she acts as a tool that is used by the white protagonist as, even though she herself suffers hardships, she is continuously expected to offer her never-ending strength to those around her. The dilemma with this characterisation is that the ‘strong Black woman’ is only ever credited for her behaviour and not who she is as a person. Harris-Perry acknowledges this as she says: “Loss of social standing is ever present for individuals whose social acceptance is based on behavioural traits rather than unconditional human values.”

This is seen in the case of Meghan Markle: When she did not behave ‘selflessly’ or in an ‘all caring manner’, like she was expected to, the British tabloids quickly depicted her as selfish and gluttonous.

"Kate and Wills Inc: Duke and Duchess secretly set up companies to protect their brand just like the Beckhams" - The Daily Mail
"A right royal cash in! How Harry and Meghan Markle trademarked over 100 times from hoodies to socks SIX MONTHS before split with the monarchy - with new empire up to £400m" - The Daily Mail

The most prominent issue with these stereotypes is that they police the way Black women express their feelings by limiting the range of emotions they are permitted to express. Dr Marc Bracket in his book, Permission to Feel, says these stereotypes are damaging because they result in implicit bias. If you were to look at the people you interact with, unless you have an extremely diverse friendship group, your understanding of different races and cultures will be largely based off the media you consume.

Thus, the term “implicit bias” is used to describe when we have attitudes towards people or associate stereotypes with them without our conscious knowledge. A fairly commonplace example of this is seen in studies that show that white people will frequently associate criminality with Black people without even realizing they’re doing it.

Mainstream media constantly associates Black people with criminality and Black women with rage and resentment, confirming people’s implicit biases which further fuel damaging stereotypes. This can be seen again in the case of Meghan Markle.

"Kate's morning sickness cure? Prince William gifted with an avocado for pregnant Duchess" - Express
"Meghan Markle's beloved avocado linked to human rights abuse and drought, millennial shame" - Express

The Daily Mail summed it up perfectly when detailing Meghan Markle’s upbringing:

“Meghan Markle was brought up in a large yellow-colored detached home in central Los   Angeles, while her rumoured royal boyfriend spent much of his childhood between Kensington Palace and Prince Charles’ Gloucestershire mansion, Highgrove. But Harry’s literally palatial homes couldn’t be more different from the tatty one-storey homes that dominate much of Crenshaw.

And while there have been a total of 21 crimes in the immediate area around Highgrove over the past 12 months, 47 have taken place in Crenshaw in the last week alone – including murder and robbery.”

The Redefinition of Racism

Arguably, the most shocking statement from the Meghan/Oprah interview was the revelation that there were “concerns and conversations” about “how dark” Meghan Markle’s child would be. It resulted in a media storm that left Brits either horrified or offended at the (to quote Piers Morgan) “damaging claims of racism”. Perplexingly, it seems in Britain the fear of being labelled a racist is larger than the fear of racism itself. The fear of being labelled a racist prohibits any conversations surrounding the issue of racism and, therefore, prevents progress in the way people think.

The current definition is not helpful: “prejudiced against or antagonistic towards a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized”. However, the definition is outdated because society has evolved into a place where overt racism is no longer ‘socially acceptable’ and consequently people can no longer be easily labelled as ‘racist’ or ‘not racist’ because they can hold private biases about different races whilst not publicly discriminating against someone for the colour of their skin. The current definition allows people to believe that racism is a conscious hate when, in actuality, it is far more complex than that.

Systemic racism

To quote Scott Woods: “The problem is that white people see racism as a conscious hate when racism is bigger than that. Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on behalf of whites at other people’s expense”. Racism is systemic; it is seen primarily in the criminal justice system. Between 2012 and 2016 Black males convicted of a crime received 19% longer than white males convicted of the same crime. It also exists within the education sector in the form of institutional racism.

Although I don’t dispute the idea that people are not born racist, I find it strenuous to countermand the fact that racism is a powerful system that everyone is born into. However, just as it was constructed generations ago, I believe it can be and will be deconstructed as we continue to venture into a more conscious age. In order to achieve this it is essential to become comfortable discussing the uncomfortable. It is vital that in these conversations we are prepared to listen, learn and educate. Thus I introduce my new definition:

Racist: A refusal to acknowledge your inherent racial prejudices either because you believe them to be true or because you do not care to.

The new definition has the potential to stimulate important conversations that can result in mass growth and development. It allows people to acknowledge their inherent racial prejudices and implicit biases and, consequently, rectify them through education. Instead of violently denying any accusations of being racist, the British press, the monarchy and the public can recognise their prejudices and correct them, for only then may we acheive Boris Johnson’s ‘Post-Racial society’.

“The opposite of racist is not ‘not racist’ it is anti racist and this requires work” – Ibram X Kendi

The primary issue with the phrase “I am not racist” is that it means “I am passive when it comes to the topic of racism and I accept it without active response or resistance”. If racial slurs are not embedded in your day to day vernacular that does not mean you are against racism. Anti racism is a state of mind and being an ‘anti racist’ is an active process where a person learns to identify and oppose racist practices wherever they take place. Being an ‘anti racist’ requires you to challenge any implicit biases you may have and re-educate yourself. It’s a daunting prospect and a lifelong commitment that demands constant self-reflection and cultural awareness but as Ijeoma Oluo said: “The beauty of anti-racism is that you don't have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it's the only way forward.”