When Virtue Comes in Color: The Historical Implications of The Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s Voyage to South Africa

By Camille Davis

The Duke and Duchess in South Africa. Photo Courtesy of Yahoo News.

Recently, the world watched Prince Harry, Meghan Markle, and their four-month-old son, Baby Archie, as they spent ten days touring South Africa. The media images of a royal, Western, interracial couple visiting a country that is notorious for its recent, segregationist past presents a poignant and powerful message about the progress and transformation that is present in both the British royal family and in the former apartheid-ridden, South Africa. Even more so, the racial context of the Duke and Duchess trip is palpable because of the criticism Markle has faced for her racially mixed heritage. The royal family has fully accepted Markle, but the British press has not.  There are also those within the American press who are relentlessly indignant about the African blood in Markle’s veins.  During her tenure as a royal, the duchess has not spoken explicitly about her ethnicity, until her most recent visit to South Africa. While addressing a crowd in Cape Town, she referred to herself as “a member of the royal family, a mother, a wife, a woman, a woman of color, and as your  [the people of Cape Town’s] sister.” This statement is powerful because it attests to the ability of Markle to represent multiple components of herself simultaneously. In essence, she exhibited that being a woman of color and being a British royal are not mutually exclusive. One can be both — and represent both—exceptionally well.

One of the great Western misconceptions about people with non-European heritage or racially mixed identities is that they are incapable of filling roles outside of those traditionally prescribed for them. For those who think this way, it is difficult to conceptualize a person of color operating in a position that has been historically preserved — either by law or custom — for those who are white. The Daily Mail’s infamous reference to Markle as being “straight out of Compton” and other pejorative comments of that sort are rooted in the idea that a black woman could not effectively navigate the responsibilities of a British royal. Her ethnicity and/or the culture that the ethnicity represents imbue her with a limited capacity.  In short, a woman of color is not fully a woman.

The Duchess of Sussex guest editing British Vogue. Courtesy of @SUSSSEXROYAL

Such marred perceptions create a proverbial tight rope for which Markle must walk. With each step, she must carry multiple layers of her identity with dexterity and grace because a misstep means that one or all of those layers will be marginalized and diminished by a jeering, chanting critical onlooker. A misstep means that she is criticized about her race, her role as a wife, her role as mother, her role as a royal, her identity as a woman — she is critiqued about her success or failure at being all of these things at once. The cynicism about her race creates a sense of dubiousness about the other parts of her. “Can a black woman be a  ______?” This is why Markle’s public, multi-faceted identification of herself in her various roles is so important. By simultaneously claiming her familial roles, her royal role, and her race, she asserts her awareness of the tight rope and her willingness to walk it. And what better place to do this than in a country that is still healing from its deeply embedded, historical, racial wounds?

The Duchess cooking at the Hub Community Kitchen, a place for victims of the 2017 Grenfell Tower fires. Photo Courtesy of the LA Times via Jenny Zarins/ AFP/Getty Images/Kensington Palace

The cover of the September issue of British Vogue.

M.M’s birthday cake by Luminary Bakery. Photo Courtesy of Marie Claire.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A thank you note from M.M. to Luminary Bakery for her birthday cake.

Talking the Talk and Walking the Walk

As is the case with all of us, the ultimate test for the Duchess of Sussex is what she does — not just what she says. In Markle’s case, the ease in which she delivered her Cape Town speech was indicative of the life she is living and has lived. During her two years as a member of the royal family, she has accomplished a tremendous amount. The most well-documented achievements include working with fashion designer Misha Nonoo  and the charity Smart Works to create a clothing line for unemployed British women who are attempting to re-enter the workforce; being a co-author and royal patron of the Together: Our Community Cookbook to raise money for victims of the  June 2017 fire in  the Grenfell Tower high-rise; guest editing the September issue of British Vogue and creating a theme for the issue that focuses on women who are creating positive social and political change in the world; also commissioning  her birthday cake from Luminary Bakery, a bakery that hires women who have survived trauma that includes abuse, homelessness, and incarceration. Additionally, she recently flew commercial in order to attend the U.S. Open in support of her friend, another woman of color, Serena Williams.

The Duchess at the U.S. Open on September 7th. She is sitting next to her friend, Serena Williams’ mother, who is on her right. Photo Courtesy of Fox News.

Do these actions tell us everything there is to know of her? Absolutely not. However, they do say that she has the ability to be a representation of feminine excellence for a woman of any race in the same way that her storied and beloved, late mother in law, Princess Diana was – and still is. By being an excellent woman of color, Markle will contribute to the eventual characterization of women of color as simply and unequivocally “women” by the Western world.

 

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