Meghan Markle and Britain's Obsession With Race

On October 31, 2016, the romance between Prince Harry of Wales and Suits actress Meghan Markle, now the Duchess of Sussex, became official. Since the couple’s initial coming out, the British media has been obsessed with Markle’s race.

A few days after the couple’s romance went viral, Daily Mail reporter Rachel Johnson expressed anxieties about Markle’s Blackness using coded language to describe her mother as “a dreadlocked African American lady from the wrong side of the tracks who lives in LA.” Johnson also characterized Markle as a gold digger who would never gain the royals’ approval. Yet Johnson conceded that the former actress possessed redeeming qualities inherited from her white father, describing Markle as “easy on the eyes,” and “genetically blessed." "If there is [offspring] from her alleged union with Prince Harry,” Johnson stated, “the Windsors will thicken their watery, thin blue blood and Spencer pale skin and ginger hair with some rich and exotic DNA.”

Johnson’s reference to Markle’s physical features and exotic genetic make-up reflects a deeply entrenched racism, which reinforces an Eurocentric standard of beauty and Britain’s long-standing notion of a racially pure nobility.

The notion of blood purity can be traced back to medieval times — a period in which social status was primarily defined by blood relations linked to birth and kinship. The elite class of Castile, Spain, for example, believed that quality familial traits and characteristics were inherited through the blood. This notion was codified through terms such as sangre azul (blue blood), which was presumed to flow through the veins of ancient and aristocratic families who had not been tainted by “foreign blood.” Many Spanish elites were fair complexioned with blue veins showing prominently through their skin, unlike the dark-skinned masses who had been “tainted” as a result of the Islamic Moors’ occupation from the 8th to the 15th century.

This belief provided a distinct visual difference between aristocrat and commoner. Lines of descent were often depicted in natural terms such as a tree whose sap (blood), nourished and allowed it to thrive, expand, and reproduce. Hence the visual portrayal of lineage in the form of the family tree.

In Strangers in Blood, Jean Feerick notes the appropriation of Spanish notions of blood purity in 16th and 17th century England, in which “the separate and competing bloodlines of powerful families of England ultimately coalesced into one and the same consanguineous line, whose origins was expressed and embodied in the figure of the sovereign.” King James’ ascension to the throne, for example, was represented by a map of a genealogical tree with its root being William the Conqueror, and numerous branches with royal scions budding into the King and his Queen, Anne. Such a representation excluded the commoners of England, who without name, blood, or place to claim had to be kept separate from “the elite body-unified across time and space.” In 1701, writer Daniel Defoe satirized England’s obsession with blood purity in his poem The True Born Englishman”:

Thus from a mixture of all kinds began/That het’rogeneous thing, an Englishman/ The Scot, Pict, Britain, Roman, Dane, submit, And with the English-Saxon all unite/And these the mixture have so close pursu’d/ The very name and memory’s subdu’d.

While Defoe’s poem was part satire and part celebration of British imperialism, he conveniently forgot to include within England’s heterogeneity peoples of African descent, whose earliest known presence in England dates to at least the 12th century. By this time, people of African descent had become a visible and sustaining presence in Britain due to European colonial ventures.

Following the tradition of intermarriage between the royal families of the conqueror and the conquered, King George III married Sophia Charlotte, a direct descendant of a Black branch of the Portuguese royal family, in 1761. Charlotte, who was described “as a true mulatto,” reigned as queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from its inception in 1801 until she died in 1818. This was the first of many examples of interracial couples in the British royal line. Ironically, England was as enthralled with Queen Charlotte’s granddaughter Victoria as they are now with her great-great-great-granddaughter Queen Elizabeth II.

Contrary to popular belief, Markle’s relationship with Harry does not represent the first or only interracial union in the British royal family. Yet, white privilege allows white Britons to pretend that is the case.

The perpetuation of this deeply rooted genealogical fiction is glaring due to the heightened vitriol directed at Markle on social media now that she is in the last few weeks of her pregnancy. In 2017, the late Buckingham Palace Spokesman David Williamson dismissed the hoopla over Markle’s racial identity and affinity to Queen Charlotte. “[Mixed ancestry] really is so remote,” he stated. Williamson believed “all European royal families somewhere are linked to the kings of Castile,” stating that the “Moorish blood in the Portuguese royal family” had “diffused over the rest of Europe.” “Who cares?” he concluded. Yet the answer is obvious: the British care a lot.

About the Author

Arica L. Coleman is a historian whose research focuses on comparative ethnic studies and issues of racial formation and identity. Her additional research interests include indigeneity, immigration/migration, interracial relations, mixed race identity, race and gender intersections, sexuality, the politics of race and science, and popular culture. She is the author of That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia.