The complex history of race relations in England can’t be healed by one wedding alone.
Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images.
I love a good royal wedding, but it’s not because I’m obsessed with the British monarchy.
Being of Ghanaian descent, I have questions about what it represents culturally and racially. While Ghana was once part of the British Empire, when my parents moved to the United Kingdom for work, they never got the sense that they or their children, one of whom was born in Britain, were fully accepted. So as you can imagine, my relationship with the U.K. often feels complicated.
I belong to two worlds: Africa and Britain. And sometimes, I feel stuck between them.
Despite this, royal weddings give me the “warm and fuzzies.” It’s because they allow Brits, who are famous for keeping a “stiff upper lip,” an opportunity to relax, celebrate – and even show off just a little bit. All this results in smiles — and even a feeling of unity.
I recall feeling this way as a kid as I watched my first royal wedding. It was when Harry’s parents, Prince Charles and then-Lady Diana Spencer got married. I recall the silence as they said their vows and the cheers reverberating in the apartments on the Ivybridge estate in Isleworth, West London, once they became man and wife.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]It was without a doubt one of the blackest royal weddings in history.[/quote]
While on a personal and community level, royal weddings have the power to unify, they can also feel exclusionary. Royal weddings are culturally specific to a British – rather – English tradition. Even the religion is specific to the region: the Church of England. While Catholics can marry in, they can’t ascend to the throne. People of a certain high class or lineage tend to marry into the royal family, so never in my lifetime did I think I’d see a person of color marry a Windsor.
The significance of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s union isn’t lost on me. I was moved. And watching it here in the United States made the experience all the more special — it was a nice reminder of home.
The ceremony didn’t disappoint, but the celebration of Markle’s blackness was surprising. Before her wedding, Markle emphasized her mixed identity, which appeared, to some, to downplay her blackness. This, in turn, begged the question: Was she trying to make herself more acceptable to white audiences?
That question was answered at her wedding ceremony.
Her guests included black royalty like Oprah, and her hymn choices included popular songs from the civil rights era like “This Little Light of Mine” and “Stand By Me.” All of this signaled a celebration of her blackness. While I’m extra happy the wedding ceremony celebrated her black heritage, it was — to be clear — a celebration of American blackness, which means it was a bit exotic to us Brits. Different, if you will, not too close to home, therefore, acceptable. Then she gave a nod to her new community — the black British community – by including performances by the local singers of the Kingdom Choir and the cellist from London, Sheku Kanneh-Mason.
And all of this delighted us.
It was without a doubt one of the blackest royal weddings in history.
Photo by Dominic Lipinski/WPA Pool/Getty Images.
Yet, I’m still skeptical, as the media ponders whether the royal family was finally being dragged into the 21st century. People want to know what this means for race relations in the United Kingdom. The apparent consensus from the media is that their marriage is a sign that Britain is more accepting of race than people previously thought.
This is where I become conflicted.
On one hand, I loved watching these two people who are so in love get married. I’m also happy to see Harry, who once used racial slurs against Pakistanis, grow into a man who will call out the press for using “racially tinged” comments about his (then) future wife.
These are all signs of progress to be sure. However, we shouldn’t let this wedding distract us into thinking that Britain is post-racial.
Britain is still struggling with classism and racism. A few weeks before the royal wedding, the British government came under fire after black Britons of Caribbean descent — who were invited to come to Britain after World War II to help rebuild the nation — were incorrectly identified as illegal immigrants. Some of these people — who spent most of their lives in the U.K. and whose children were born there – were denied basic rights, like health care. Others were even deported.
This, while Brits of color continue to report that Brexit has contributed to what one U.N. representative described as “an environment of increased racial discrimination and intolerance.”
That’s not to say there isn’t plenty to celebrate about modern Britain’s relationship with race or our brand of diversity. I am, however, hopeful that Markle, who showed us how to successfully bridge two worlds, might show us the way.