An American in the palace

Photo of the Royal Family
Mark Jones/Creative Commons
Mark Jones, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Without a doubt, one of the most insane things I’ve ever done was convince my parents to let me go to England for Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s wedding. I was really going to visit and spend time with my aunt, but the former was a line I couldn’t resist telling people for the sheer ludicrousness and laughter it brought on.

London was thrumming with excitement that day. Growing up in a country where embarrassing politicians and fickle celebrities are the closest things to royalty, I never understood the full spectacle of monarchy until that moment. Dozens of Union Jacks hung across city streets and swayed under the soft breath of the summer’s morning wind.

The flag, which I’d normally seen as a symbol of the violent and oppressive colonial system my ancestors were forced to live under, took on a new meaning that day. It fluttered under small children’s excited waves, over jubilant partiers in the park and decorated the table my aunt and I sat at as we made our way through heaps of scones, pastries and overpriced champagne.

But after the wedding was over, stuffed and buzzed, we placed bets on when they’d split. Ten years, she said. Five, I countered. Looking back, we sound like a bunch of jaded cynics, but I was a rosy, fresh-faced, optimistic teenager at the time; I think I must have known, deep down, that the transatlantic, interracial fairytale was not going to last — not when stacked up against an institution who not only invented our modern conceptions of race, but exported their ideas out to the rest of the world, turning it into a playground for their flag-planting empire.

Those who dismiss the British royal family as being trivial or inconsequential ignore what they represent and the enormous amount of influence they still hold in the United Kingdom.

Queen Elizabeth II does not hold a merely ceremonial role. As uncovered by the Guardian this February, the government often acts on the advice of the queen. More than 1,000 laws have been vetted by the queen or Prince Charles through a secretive procedure before they were approved by elected members of Parliament.

These policies are vastly encompassing, covering everything from race relations, social security, pensions and food policy to obscure matters on car parking fees and hovercrafts.

So how does this unelected institution — which only 22% of British citizens believe should be done away with and which cost taxpayers in the United Kingdom $96.28 million in 2020 — continue to exist in an age where, I conjecture, people are more likely to believe in colonial reparations than the divine right of kings?

Through a carefully orchestrated mirage of smoke and mirrors, with their lavish, globally broadcasted weddings and rituals anointed and adorned in myth, the royals give their subjects an escape to turn to when things get hard. Or, more crassly, as Hamilton Nolan put it in The New York Times, “The crown would greatly appreciate it if you could tune in to this show rather than spending your time reading Karl Marx.”

It only took the addition of one Black American woman and an Oprah special to pull back the curtains of spectacle for the mirage to lose its mystique and come crashing down.

There’s irony in the fact that a dynasty that built itself off of the subjugation of bodies of color could, in the end, be possibly ended by two Black women.

Really, the royal family’s alleged racism against Markle should come as no surprise — it’s not the first we’re hearing of it. When Princess Michael of Kent — wife of the queen’s cousin — met with members of the royal family, including Markle, for a Christmas lunch, she wore a blackamoor broach, a style which many agree fetishizes slavery. The same cousin once allegedly told a group of Black customers at a New York restaurant to “go back to the colonies.”

Despite 44% of Britons thinking the British Empire is something to be proud of, the British press’ reaction to Markle’s story, which sounds like she’s escaped from some sort of bizarre cult instead of one of the world’s richest families, exposes a nation frightened over the fact that the sun is beginning to set on its relevance.

She embodies what they fear: a Black woman exposing a nation’s hypocrisy through speaking her truth to power. The empire is striking back, except this time she’s taken their prince and opened his eyes.

At the end of the interview, Oprah shifts her tone, asking the couple if their story has a happy ending. Harry responds by saying yes, “without question,” and that Markle “saved” him.

But did she? If Harry hadn’t married her, no doubt he’d still be in England, not financially cut off trying to afford security through cutting deals with Spotify and Netflix.

Perhaps this is the modern fairytale. It’s the former Nazi-costume-wearing and racist-slurring prince transformed into someone aware of the privilege he holds, someone who now openly questions “what it must be like for someone else of a different colored skin” to exist in a world that “has been created by white people, for white people.”

The Sussex’s newfound independence signals a divergence from a silent culture of complicity in the face of a complicated history. It’s also a union I’d now bet on, any day of the week.

Contact Zara Khan at [email protected].