Piers Morgan and Other Responses to Meghan Markle Interview Are a Reminder That the U.K. Is (Somehow) Not Used to Talking About Race Issues
Since the Meghan Markle interview, it has been interesting watching a section of white Britons be so invested in protecting the Royal family from yet another woman speaking about its antiquated system.
Watching people like Piers Morgan and his friend Sharon Osborne flounder and sputter when faced with even a bit of pushback is laughable, but also a reminder of how rarely white British people are asked to deal with their own special Earl Grey blend of racism.
Meghan Markle’s entry into the British Royal Family shouldn’t have been a revolutionary concept. Meghan is not an anti-royalist nor showed any indication, even in the interview, of wanting to tear down the system. However, as a biracial woman with a Black mother, there was no way she could just be silent as abuse after abuse was flung at her, from the media and from inside the royal family. Not to mention as a lighter skinned biracial woman, she is as close to “acceptable” as one can get.
I remember Thomas Markle, Meghan’s stain of a father, saying that England doesn’t have the same race problems there as we do in the United States, and I think in that we see something that is a bigger part of the narrative surrounding Meghan’s entry into royal society.
Despite being an imperialist nation, somehow the United Kingdom has gotten a softer image than the U.S. when it comes to racism, especially in the states. The absence of chattel slavery on their mainland (despite it happening in the Commonwealth), the fact that it was abolished there before the states, and the fact that when we teach Black History, it tends to be nationalistic rather than global have all contributed to this. So many of us are simply not aware of what exactly the Black struggles are globally, especially when so often they are minimized and under taught in our own country.
When people, especially Black people, wonder why Meghan was so ill prepared, I think in addition to her own lighter skinned privilege, there was an idea that the U.K. had more “class” than “race” issues. (Which ignores that the two are very much linked, but lemme put my Black socialist hat down.) Meghan may be a lighter skinned biracial Black woman, but that just puts her into the mixed bracket that already exists.
For a long time, England and Europe was painted a refuge in many ways from Black American Jim Crow. During WWII, when Black GIs came to England, they were seen as a boon to the economy and were seen in some ways as better behaved than their white counterparts.
As David Olusoga wrote in Black and British: A Forgotten History:
They were repeatedly described by British civilians as ‘self-controlled’, ‘reserved’ and ‘disciplined’. ‘Everybody here adores the Negro troops, all the girls go to their dances, but nobody likes the white Americans. They swagger about us as if they were the only people fighting this war. They all get so drunk and look so untidy while the negroes are very polite, much smarter and everybody’s pets’,7 wrote a British woman from Marlborough in Wiltshire in March 1943.
In December 1943 George Orwell noted that ‘The general consensus of opinion seems to be that the only American soldiers with decent manners are the Negroes.’8 A pub in Bristol displayed a notice that read ‘Only blacks served here’ and when the landlady in another bar was confronted by white Americans who were angry that coloured customers were served their drinks and treated as equals, she responded, ‘Their money is as good as yours, and we prefer their company.’
It paints a very positive image and in many ways it speaks to the way race is always going to be different. Modern England has always had a smaller Black population than the States, therefore the relationship is different. But this almost rooting for the underdog mentality doesn’t mean that Black British people and Black people in the commonwealth were not treated or talked about in belittling ways.
David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1916 to 1922, who once said that Britain “reserve the right to bomb the n*ggers” and suggested that half-American Churchill “undoubtedly had n*gger blood in him.”
Look at his build and slouch. The Marlboroughs [Churchill’s family] were a poor type physically, but Winston was strong. Another characteristic of Winston is that when he gets excited he shrieks: again the n*gger comes out.
Additionally, while yes, in comparison to white GIs, the Black GIs were better behaved, it didn’t mean that the British were okay with Black men suddenly being around their white English Roses. Ann Meader, a novelist, was “horrified” to see two Black soldiers with two blonde white girls in Weston-super-Mare, where large numbers of GIs were stationed. Meader wrote to her diary that she felt the British girls should be “shot” for taking the risk of introducing “coloured blood” into their children.
Conservative MP Maurice Petherick wrote,
[…] as in other parts of England women of the lowest order are consorting with the blackamoors . . . There is very strong feeling about this’, he warned Eden, before suggesting that the Foreign Secretary should ask the Americans ‘to send those we have to North Africa, where the poor devils, they would be much more happy and warm.’ He also recommended that the black GIs be transferred to the Italian front where they would be free to ‘go and fertilize the Italians who are used to it anyhow’.
But slowly, as we go through WWII and this influx of Black bodies in England like never before, the racism jumps out, despite there not being segregation there before, they for sure came up with some social forms of it. Was it better than America? In some ways absolutely, but that didn’t make it a sanctuary.
In 1919, African, Afro-Caribbean, and Asian sailors were targeted because of the highly competitive nature of the job market and the perception that these minorities were “stealing” jobs from white British workers. The race riots took place between January and August 1919 and white rioters lynched Charles Wootton, a young Afro-Caribbean in Liverpool. The rioting crowd reached up to 10,000.
700 ethnic minorities were removed from their homes and put under police protection. Black, Arab, and Chinese homes and businesses were damaged or set ablaze by angry white rioters. The government often did not reimburse victims for property damages.
While researching this piece I found myself shaken because for some reason, my mind had not connected lynching as something that would happen in England. But of course it could. Lynching can happen anywhere Black and BIPOC people live.
Following WWII, Olusoga says that “twenty-two thousand children had been born to British mothers and white American soldiers.”
The number of ‘brown babies’ was not known but became the subject of feverish speculation, with estimates ranging from a plausible five hundred and fifty to a ludicrously exaggerated twenty thousand. The most reliable estimates were carried out by the black British civil rights organization The League of Coloured Peoples, which was founded by Dr Harold Moody in 1931. Their 1946 estimate was five hundred and fifty-three. By 1948 that figure had grown to seven hundred and seventy-five.
These mixed-race children were often ostracized and also became a political liability. After all, how would it look to the commonwealth if the state threw away all these children? So they were now part of this new post-WWII Britain. Then came Windrush.
On 22 June 1948, the Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury docks and four hundred and ninety-two men from the West Indies came to England, seen by many as the beginning of modern Afro-Carbbiean Black Britishness. The “Windrush generation” was lured to England, but often not wanted.
The British people fortunately enjoy a profound unity without uniformity in their way of life, and are blessed by the absence of a colour racial problem. An influx of coloured people domiciled here is likely to impair the harmony, strength and cohesion of our people and social life and cause discord and unhappiness among all concerned. In our opinion colonial governments are responsible for the welfare of their peoples and Britain is giving these governments great financial assistance to enable them to solve their population problems. We venture to suggest that the British government should, like foreign countries, the dominions and even some of the colonies, by legislation if necessary, control immigration in the political, social, economic and fiscal interests of our people.
Today, many Black British people of Caribbean and African heritage live in the shadow of how Windrush defined Blackness and government. The 2018 British political Windrush scandal had Black British people who were wrongly detained, denied legal rights, threatened with deportation, and in at least 83 cases, many of those affected were born in England. Mixed race Black people are a big part and visible of British Black society, so Meghan slid right into a pre-existing British specific racial politics she was not fully prepared for.
Meghan Markle is a Black American and so may just have not been familiar with this stuff, but it all informs her treatment. It speaks to how we as Black people have to navigate all spaces and can never assume safety. But just because Meghan Markle has become the de-facto face of this, doesn’t mean she is the only one who has been saying this. Black British academics, especially women, have been screaming about this for ages. Markle’s privilege allows her to be a face of this, but she is by no means the only voice.
Bernadine Evaristo, Nelarine Cornelius, and Kelechi Okafor are just some, to name a few.
(image: Harpo Productions/Joe Pugliese via Getty)
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