Saturday, February 24

Do not pretend celebrity princess Meghan Markle can meaningfully advance the cause of racial justice | Sisonke Msimang

YoI’ll be honest: I know nothing about the British royals. I have my plate full managing the shenanigans of my own recently crowned monarch, King Misuzulu, who heads the Zulu Nation, which means I have not paid much attention to the travails of the Markle-Windsor-Sussexes. (What even is their actual name?)

Like others, I have occasionally chuckled at Piers Morgan’s weird obsession with them, and I’ve made fun of British people who think Markle – rather than Prince Andrew – is responsible for the demise of the royal family. As a non-British Black person from a former colony, I’ve basically viewed the duo as overhyped celebrities who have inherited privilege and blood money, so I’ve paid scant attention to their family dramas.

But this week, as Markle launched her podcast with a viral and cringe worthy interview in The Cut, it was impossible to ignore them. By the end of the bafflingly narcissistic interview, I found myself wondering what Markle has done to deserve her spot de ella at the top of the celebrity social justice advocate food chain.

To be sure, Markle has been on the receiving end of much racist vitriol since joining – and then leaving – the British royal family. And this has made it difficult to criticize her politics.

And yet there is no denying the fact that Markle is a princess/not princess who married a prince/duke/former royal/current son of the next king of England whose family wealth is the consequence of ill-gotten gains at the expense of millions of Black and brown people around the world.

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I am astounded, and frankly dismayed, that she is held up as a role model for Black girls. It disturbs me that Markle can tell girls – without irony – as she did this week: “You have the power within you to create a life greater than any fairytale you’ve ever read. I don’t mean that in terms of ‘You could marry a prince one day.’ I mean you can find love. You can find happiness.

“You can be up against what could feel like the greatest obstacle and then you can find happiness again.”

Markle’s message is perniciously deceptive. The love, happiness and triumph of which she speaks has primarily focused on her marriage.

It shouldn’t be surprising, of course. As the Black Lives Matters movement has moved off the headlines, so too do the conditions of racialized socio-economic injustice that captured the world’s attention.

In this environment, it makes sense that Markle, and others like her, are gaining such prominence. Hers is an activism that can be listened to, but doesn’t have to be enacted. Her de ella politics that can be commodified and sold to the highest bidder; can be consumed, but doesn’t have to be lived.

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But the revolution will not be Spotified, and Markle is not an activist. Instead, the ex-duchess signifies the sort of empty race politics that is popular among elite American celebrities: she is thoroughly unremarkable – as many celebrities are – and her personal struggles have little to do with those of the majority of Black women who live in the countries she and her husband flitted between in recent years.

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In the US, Canada and the UK, many Black women struggle with poverty, racial profiling and poor access to healthcare. Markle has yet to raise these questions in any meaningful way. Instead, she has penetrated a rarefied world of privilege that Hollywood stars can’t seem to get enough of.

Whereas her friends like Tyler Perry, Oprah Winfrey and Serena Williams have earned their places in the spotlight based on decades of hard work, Markle has parlayed her clever marriage into multimillion-dollar media contracts.

This is great for her, but we should be mindful of assuming that her personal success will have wider social applicability.

Markle seems vaguely aware that there isn’t a lot of substance to her status as Mrs Windsor-Sussex-Mountbatten. In one of the most talked-about quotes of this week’s interview, Markle recalls a South African cast member from the Lion King pulling her aside from her in London a few years ago.

According to Markle, “He looked at me, and he’s just like light. He said, ‘I just need you to know: When you married into this family, we rejoiced in the streets the same we did when Mandela was freed from prison’.”

It’s a ridiculous statement to make. Whether or not someone said these words, they are so patently incorrect that any self-respecting person would never have repeated them in public.

Of course, invoking Mandela’s name is not uncommon among celebrities: It’s a shortcut to legitimacy. Everyone from Piers Morgan to madonna to Bill Cosby has tried to burnish their reputation by comparing themselves to the Nobel Laureate who faced the gallows without blinking and then spent 27 years in prison.

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As Mandela’s grandson Mandla said in a response to the Markle article, “every day there are people who want to be Nelson Mandela, either comparing themselves with him or wanting to emulate him.” The younger Mandela has urged Markle to pull up her sleeves and get some work done.

To be fair, Markle seems poised to try to do some work. Her media projects by her all discuss racism, gender equality and social change. Still, there can be no mistaking her positionality from her: Markle is uber-famous for marrying a prince. We cannot continue to behave as though a celebrity princess can advance the cause of racial justice in any meaningful way.

Once we cut out the noisy racists who hate Markle because of her Black identity, it is plain to see that holding a rich out-of-touch woman up as a role model makes the road ahead feel that much harder for those of us trying to carve out lives that aren’t defined by beauty, royalty, celebrity or wealth.

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