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Emily Benn: Never have I been so aware of my mixed race heritage

Wednesday 10 March 2021

This has been a week of hypocrisy, sexism and racism, in which a single interview has revealed appalling double standards. Do we have the courage as a society to enact real change?


For the past few weeks, my social media feeds have often been flooded with memes, chats and even T-shirt designs with the hashtags #FreeBritney. I have had many conversations with friends about how we have to fundamentally reassess how the pop star (locked for so many years into a “conservatorship”) and women like her have been treated; how unacceptable the harassment they suffered from the press was; how we didn’t care about their mental health issues anywhere near enough – and the double standards applied to them, compared to counterpart men in the public eye. 

Yet when I woke up on Monday morning, it seemed that the clock had been turned back. A wave of online notifications and comments, this time about a different woman – in this case, a villain: Meghan Markle herself. The reaction to the initial US screening of the Oprah interview could not have been more different, nor more morally and politically troubling. 

Some people who were celebrating International Women’s Day, replete with inspirational quotes about supporting the sisterhood, had picked the very same day to do their best to bring this particular woman down: to question her motives; to call her calculating, manipulative, insincere – claiming it was a disgrace that she even dared to speak publicly about her own experience. The gist of much of it was: blame the women alone; they manipulate the men, they are the problem. An archaic form of sexism from which, I thought, we had moved on: apparently, naively.

The issue, really, is not whether you have particularly strong feelings about Meghan Markle herself, or her in-laws, or agree with all of the decisions they have made. I personally feel no special connection with the individual members of the royal family, or a personal stake in what they do or say. I neither like nor dislike them; I don’t know them, let alone their complex family dynamics. Frankly, there are other issues that demand far greater concern and attention.

But what I have never quite understood is the disproportionate hatred directed at Meghan: the sheer vitriol. I find it remarkable that, even now, so many people are still blind to its toxicity and – most importantly – the ripple effect that such hostility can have.

I have read some of the press reaction in astonishment. True, Piers Morgan has now been forced to leave ITV’s Good Morning Britain after he questioned Meghan’s honesty. More generally, however, it has seemed at moments in the past three days as though all the progress that had been made on mental health – and the gradually-improving openness about it – has suddenly screeched into reverse. 

Talking about suicidal thoughts is both brave and a first step in recovery. The next is to seek help. Meghan did both, and should be congratulated for an honesty that may indeed encourage those who are suffering in silence to speak to friends, family and mental health professionals about what they are going through. Instead, there has been far too much scorn and sullen contempt in response to her disclosures. What message does that send?

The poisonous brew of sexism and racism is striking: the double standards, the language used, the colonial undertones. I am not sure any issue has made me more aware of my own mixed race heritage.

Phrases crop up such as “she should know her place”. Is this really a mentality with which we are comfortable in 2021? What of the psychological and social impact upon young women of ethnic, or mixed race backgrounds? What does this reaction tell them about their power to speak up (or lack of it), if the response when they dare to do so will be opprobrium, overt and subtle? 

It is less than ten months since the world was claiming near-universal hostility towards racial injustice and support for Black Lives Matter in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Was all that just lip service, a purely performative moment rather than a serious expression of collective commitment? You be the judge.

It is not immediately clear, for that matter, what, exactly, Meghan is being “blamed” for. No crime has been committed, after all: a clearly unhappy couple merely decided to move away. But scratch the surface of the fury and you soon see that Meghan’s supposed offence was one of etiquette and non-conformity.

Her alleged sin was to disrespect the monarchy; to challenge a cosily unspoken ideal of Britain, its perfect heritage, and the way we like to do things here. How dare she upset that apple-cart by speaking about her feelings? 

Above all, she demanded to be treated equally, in a deeply hierarchical institution. This has clearly touched the most sensitive of live nerves. Is our collective identity as Britons really so fragile that we cannot cope with one woman speaking about her experience? 

The Macpherson Report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence may be 22 years old, but the “institutional racism” which it famously identified continues to be regrettably prevalent in this country: whether conscious or unconscious in its manifestations. And its impact is disproportionately felt by Black and ethnic minority women. 

The sorry saga of Meghan’s experience – from “fairy tale” wedding in 2018 to withdrawing with Harry to the US only two years later – ought to encourage reflection upon these issues. Yet the reflex of so many is to seethe, to adopt a defensive posture, and to attack the supposed outsider: Meghan as “the Other”. 

But then this latter course is, by a tidy margin, the easy option. It’s much harder, psychologically, to examine our own country, our own institutions, biases, and the misunderstood legacy of the Empire – and how they operate at the very apex of the social structure, as well as throughout it. 

Though one can rarely second-guess the verdict of posterity, I think it’s fairly clear how history is going to look back at this moment: how it will judge the disproportionate hatred that Meghan Markle has faced, and, widening its lens, look upon the racism and sexism woven into the way in which she has been treated. 

But here’s a better idea. Instead of waiting ten years for such an audit, why not start changing the way we talk about such issues, right now, today, and challenge, without fear, the outdated assumptions that have been so unpleasantly evident this week?

Because if you are an advocate for Britney, for Princess Diana, for all the other women subjected to unfair and disproportionate treatment, but not for Meghan Markle, you need to ask yourself: why? 

Photograph Getty Images