This article originally appeared on Marie Claire SA (17 Nov 2016)
November brought with it a lot of pomp and scandal in the form of England’s royal family. The Crown, a new Netflix series about Queen Elizabeth’s reign, coincidentally premiered during the week news broke of Suits actor Meghan Markle’s new relationship with Prince Harry, and it was hard to overlook the common thread: representation.
The Crown’s first episode, Wolferton Splash, is beautifully shot and the costumes are immaculate but it’s also striking for its lack of racial diversity. Yes, many would say that Wolferton is set in the late 1940s England. But during that time, people of colour had long assimilated into English culture.
The first black people to enter Britain were probably black Roman centurions, hundreds of years before Christ. While the country’s long history of colonialism, starting in the early 1600s, saw Africans and later Indians taken to England as slaves and servants.
Centuries later, in 1947, when The Crown’s first episode is set, there was already an influx of black people into England from the Caribbeans and West Africa during and after World War II.
Despite the presence of black people on my screen, they weren’t part of the country’s high society and monarchy. And totally invisible in that gargantuan church spilling with spectators witnessing Prince Elizabeth marry Philip. So as The Crown played out, hurtful headlines of Meghan went viral, and I understood how important representation is in constructing value, maintaining racial supremacy and erasing or retelling history.
Into the second episode, the princess and her new husband visit Kenya, which she refers to as once having been a ‘savage place’ before the British invasion, and where her husband tames a charging elephant bull. Here there is only one side of a mainly white saviour narrative, and The Crown doesn’t tell the other side of the story: pillaging, death and destruction.
As The Crown played out, hurtful headlines of Meghan went viral, and I understood how important representation is in constructing value, maintaining racial supremacy and erasing or retelling history
Discussing the British monarchy in relation to Meghan, Professor Kehinde Andrews writes how Britain’s yearning for colonial nostalgia is key for some of its citizens connecting the nation back to its ‘glory days of imperial pomp’.
‘As a symbol of empire and Britain’s great past, the monarchy therefore become a symbol of whiteness and purity of the nation. In their hereditary, they are a direct link to the Britain of former glories. A time where Britain dominated the darker peoples of the world, and did not have to live with us in their cities.’
So when news broke that Harry was dating Meghan, a biracial woman from the US, the issue of representation in the royal family was at the forefront. Some media houses decided to dig up her family lineage and discuss her proximity to whiteness (or lack of), almost as a way of validating her worth.
One paper described Meghan as having a ‘visibly black mother’, as if being visibly black is a bad thing, and for coming ‘(almost) straight outta Compton’, a predominantly African-American neighbourhood in the US. ‘Harry’s literally palatial homes couldn’t be more different from the tatty one-storey homes that dominate much of Crenshaw,’ goes one article.
As overtly prejudice reports attempt to show just how unfit she is to court with English royalty, all this really exposes is how racist views are perpetuated. And how white supremacy is upheld by structures that continue to other on the basis of race and bloodline.
Huffington Post columnist Rachel Décoste writes in response to a report, in which Brit journalists poke at Markle’s mother for being ‘visibly black, with dreadlocks’: ‘It isn’t surprising that Brits would recoil at the hint of racial impurity infiltrating their blue bloodlines. Cultivating whiteness is, after all, their family business.’
‘Cultivating whiteness is, after all, their family business’
And looking at the present royal family, one wouldn’t say it’s totally renowned for its racial diversity, despite existing in a country where ‘1.2 million people across Britain describe themselves as “mixed”‘. So it was surprising to learn that if Meghan were to marry Harry and possibly become queen, she wouldn’t be the first head of state of mixed heritage.
Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz – referred to as the first black queen of England – was the wife of King George III in mid-1700. Described at the time as ‘mulatto’, or of mixed heritage, she is reported as having descended from an African line of the Portuguese Royal House, Margarita de Castro y Sousa.
Like in 2016, where a ‘non-white’ woman is harshly criticised, in the 18th century Queen Charlotte didn’t have it much better. Charlotte, whose facial features were ‘conspicuously Negroid’, was ridiculed for her appearance and called ‘ugly’ by observers. And the artists who painted her portrait had often anglicised her face.
So as Meghan solidifies her relationship with Harry and The Crown plays out, I do wonder how invested some Brits, and those who rule them, are in in representation, creating a racially inclusive monarchy and telling a history that considers all sides of the story.