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Why Harry and Meghan’s ‘Megxit’ is a crossroads for the UK on race

When Prince Harry and Meghan, the duke and duchess of Sussex, first announced that they intended to “step back” from their duties as “senior UK royals,” palace officials were reportedly taken aback by the decision.

But it came as no surprise to close watchers of the young royals — particularly among the United Kingdom’s communities of color — that the couple made the historic decision to renounce their “Royal Highness” titles and spend most of their time in North America.

“Minority communities expected this to some degree,” said Nels Abbey, a London-based media executive and author of the novel “Think Like a White Man.” With “the level of hostility and racism that Meghan has been on the receiving end of, it’s no surprise that she’s chosen to leave,” he added.

Queen Elizabeth ultimately voiced her public support of her grandson and his wife’s move. “I recognise the challenges they have experienced as a result of intense scrutiny over the last two years and support their wish for a more independent life,” she wrote in a statement released on Saturday.

Harry told the crowd at a charity event in London on Sunday that they did not make the decision lightly. “It was so many months of talks after so many years of challenges. And I know I haven’t always gotten it right, but as far as this goes, there really was no other option.”

The decision now official, “Megxit” has prompted people of color in the UK to speak out about what the biracial actress has meant for representation, and why the country has yet to reckon with racism in its media and institutions.

Visibility and ‘a fairy tale come true’

When Meghan married Harry in a much-watched ceremony in 2018, dozens of articles were published about what her biracial identity meant to black women in Britain and the U.S. alike.

British writer Afua Hirsch called the nuptials, which featured a gospel choir and a sermon by the African-American Episcopal Reverend Michael Curry, a “celebration of blackness.” University of Pennsylvania professor Salishmisha Tilley praised the “bicultural blackness” of the wedding in a column for The New York Times.

“It had a very feel-good factor,” Abbey said of the event. “That a descendent of American slavery, someone who could trace her lineage back to that, could find herself in the royal marriage by virtue of love…it was a fairy tale come true.”

“Her wedding — with its explicit connections to the black and African American communities — is something the world will never forget, since those examples of black culture are rarely highlighted within positions of power,” Sarah Gaither, a Duke University psychologist, wrote in an email to the PBS NewsHour. Gaither, who specializes in biracial and social identities, added that Meghan “is living proof that a real princess doesn’t have to be white.”

But some cautioned that the narrative that she served as a “beacon of hope for black women” was overblown, as Jenne Osterheldt wrote in a column for The Charlotte Observer at the time of the marriage.

Meghan Markle walks down the aisle as she arrives in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle for her wedding to Prince Harry in Windsor, Britain, May 19, 2018. Photo by Danny Lawson/Pool via REUTERS

Nonetheless, Abbey countered, the ways in which Meghan has presented herself on the public stage since becoming Duchess of Sussex have meant a lot to minority communities living in Britain.

While urban centers such as London draw people from all over the world, the UK remains 88 percent white. Just 3 percent of UK residents are black, but the country played a major role in the global slave trade and in the colonization of Africa and East Asia during the 17th and 18th centuries. A UN special report released last year found that significant inequalities persist in the country, calling the “structural socio-economic exclusion of racial and ethnic minority communities” in the UK “striking.”

In June, 2017 a fire at London’s Grenfell Tower housing complex killed 72 people — many of whom were Muslim and hailed from countries such as Morocco and Somalia. The disaster raised awareness of the racial and economic divide across the UK. In the fire’s aftermath, Meghan visited the Hubb Community Kitchen, started by individuals who came together to cook meals for people affected by the tragedy. She also worked on a cookbook with the women who worked in the kitchen.

“As far as minorities are concerned, she didn’t run away. She didn’t pretend as if she doesn’t know us,” said Abbey, adding that the duchess also expressed support for sex workers and volunteered with the charity Smart Works, which provides clothes and styling for unemployed women ahead of job interviews.

With the global refugee crisis and nationalism on the rise around the world, tensions over who is really British have come to the fore in recent years.

Meghan joined the royal family two years after the UK voted to leave the European Union, a decision that exposed fissures along socioeconomic and racial lines in Britain. Politicians campaigning for the UK to leave the EU used propaganda that suggested the country had reached a “breaking point” due to a large influx of migrants coming from different countries. The campaigns used maps to incite fear that the EU could expand to include more people of color.

From 2011 to 2018, the year Harry and Meghan married, racially and religiously motivated hate crimes in the country increased by more than 100 percent, according to a study by the Centre for Social Investigation at Nuffield College. Racism and anti-Semitism have played out publicly on the soccer field and within the British government itself this past year. And a survey conducted by the Guardian in December 2018 found that 53 percent of minority individuals living in Britain “believed they had been treated differently because of their hair, clothes or appearance, compared with 29% of white people.”

Arianne Chernock, a professor of British history at Boston University, said that Britain is “at a crossroads” in terms of its identity. On the one hand there is “the little England,” which is “inward-looking” and has “a more monolithic understanding of race and culture.” On the other hand, there is “a more outward-looking, pro-EU version of Britain,” which celebrates the “multicultural” aspects of the country. She added that “People were excited because this marriage” because it “tapped into that [latter] version of what it meant to be British.”

Meghan has not shied away from her biracial identity in her official capacity as duchess. During a royal tour in South Africa — a majority-black country and former British colony — she gave a speech in which she declared, “I am here with you as a wife, as a woman, as a woman of color and as your sister. I am here with you and I am here for you.”

By virtue of embracing her own multicultural identity while reaching out to people in a personal way, said Chernock, the duchess has “pushed [the monarchy] to be in keeping with a more flexible, more outward-looking identity.”

Megxit shows where the UK falls short on reckoning with race

With the blessing of Queen Elizabeth, Meghan and Harry are now primed to lead a much different life than Prince William — who is second in line to the throne — and his wife, Kate. A Buzzfeed article that went viral last week compared headlines about Meghan and her sister-in-law, showcasing the stark differences in how the two women have been covered over the past two years.

From the moment Meghan Markle’s relationship with Prince Harry went public, she was targeted by the British tabloids. The Daily Mail published articles marveling at how the actress’ family went “from cotton slaves to royalty,” and declaring that Meghan — who is from Los Angeles— was “(almost) straight outta Compton.”

The harassment grew so intolerable early on in the relationship that Harry issued an official statement asking the press to “pause and reflect” before inflicting further damage on his partner. That didn’t stop a BBC journalist from tweeting out an image depicting the couple’s child as a chimpanzee last year. The journalist was fired soon after.

“They will sell racist newspapers and be on the receiving end of racist headlines for many many years to come,” Abbey said of the royal couple.

This critical coverage of Meghan extends beyond the UK, too. In an interview on the French network BFM-TV, Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, a columnist for the British paper the Telegraph, criticized Meghan’s claims about racism in the press as overblown: “[Prince Harry] thought he was marrying Halle Berry and instead he found himself with Rokhaya Diallo,” said Moutet, comparing the duchess to a black French writer who is outspoken on issues of race.

Diallo was shocked to hear herself compared to Meghan on television. “She was supposedly a quiet black woman, and we found out that she wasn’t,” said Diallo of the duchess. “The only thing that came up to her was my name, because I was the personification of what a negative black woman could be.”

To Diallo, Moutet’s reduction of the issue showcased the intolerance of the press when it comes to issues of race: “Meghan Markle wanted to escape from something that was unbearable, and suddenly she was an activist,” she said.

The myth of “post-racial” societies

As an American, Meghan grew up in a country that still grapples with its own history of racism, which plays out in almost every institution in the country, from public schools to the justice system, all the way to the White House. But Abbey said that this condition has made some members of the U.S. news media more adept at having frank conversations about race.

In another television interview last week, CBS News anchors Gayle King and Tony Dokoupil called out Harry’s biographer for casting doubt on the seriousness of Meghan’s treatment by the British press. Citing the BBC journalist who was fired for his chimp tweet, King denounced such commentary as “very hurtful and in fact, very racist.”

“I think people kind of ran away with the whole black princess [narrative],” said Sierra Sangetti-Daniels, a 25-year-old journalist based in Albany, New York, who wrote a column on the media’s coverage of Markle for her local newspaper, The Daily Star, two years ago. “Does this really change anything?” she had asked of the royal wedding at the time.

Sarah Gaither wrote that Meghan and Harry’s experience with racism in the British tabloids is not unlike what happened when Barack Obama was elected president.

Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, looks at Britain’s Prince Harry during the WellChild Awards pre-Ceremony reception in London, Britain, on Oct. 15, 2019. REUTERS/Toby Melville/Pool/File Photo

Both the duchess and Obama sparked conversations about the movement toward “post-racial,” more evolved societies in the U.S. and UK. But both have also been subject to intense scrutiny (such as clothing choices that were cast as scandals), in addition to more blatant forms of racism and suspicion.

Obama’s White House successor first gained political attention by spreading the falsehood that Obama was not born in the U.S., and has repeatedly used rhetoric that plays on white Americans’ fears about immigrants and communities of color.

In becoming symbols of power, “Barack Obama did not fix all racial issues in America and Meghan Markle clearly continued to face similar forms of racial discrimination,” wrote Gaither.

Even as Meghan and Harry seek to distance themselves, some people of color say that the pernicious racism of the media will get worse before it gets better.

“Speaking to all the people I know, one thing we all knew and all agreed is that it doesn’t matter how much money, connection, education you have,” said Nels Abbey. “Once you are black or biracial, escaping racism in Britain is very, truly, impossible. ”