“American cultural imperialism is not just about McDonald’s or Disney; America also exports identity politics.”
2020 is already the year of “Megxit.” Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle have decided to resign from their duties as royals. Some commentators are concluding this decision was the result of Meghan’s mistreatment by the royal family and by the media because of her race. Back in the 18th Century, Britain surely shaped American cultural customs. Now, cultural imperialism is working the other way, and it is the United States shaping British culture. American cultural imperialism is not just about McDonald’s or Disney; America also exports identity politics. And, perhaps for the first time in the history of the British Crown, American-style identity politics is overtaking royal affairs.
Looking at Meghan, one’s first thought probably would not be that she is black. Her complexion is surely on the darker side, but one could just as easily take her to be Spanish or Italian, as African-American. In Jim Crow Alabama, Meghan surely would not have been sent to the back of the bus. But, Meghan made sure everyone knew that her mother is black, and she never missed an opportunity to present herself as biracial, all to her convenience.
In America, being black might very well be a disadvantage if one is pulled over by the police—or if applying for certain types of loans. But, this does not hold in the entertainment industry. Let’s face it: black is the epitome of coolness. But only to an extent. If you are too dark, you are less likely to be as glamorized (and if you are dark, as in the case of, say, Naomi Campbell, you have to make sure you acquire some white features, via make-up or hair products). But, if you are slightly darker than white (enough to appeal to black culture, without being accused of cultural appropriation) yet have every other physical feature that the white establishment wants (even if it comes from straightening your hair), then you are at an advantage. Meghan knew how to play this game, and so she very subtly exploited her own racial identity.
Now, tabloids certainly attacked Meghan, saying that she had “exotic DNA” or that she came, “straight outta Compton.” But, that is what tabloids typically do in all their nastiness: they give hell to any new member of the royal family. Sadly, in the case of Meghan, tabloid attacks were racialized. But, who brought race to the table in the first place? Again, look at Meghan: most people in Britain would not make a big deal out of her looks. Yet, it seems to me that—dancing to the tune of identity politics—some in Britain wanted to have an Obama moment and obsessed over a potential “first black princess,” even if Meghan did not truly look the part. So, in order to make her an icon of identity representation in the mold of Obama—and meet some concept of a racial quota—her race suddenly became very important. Her race was trumpeted over and over, as a cause for celebration, and she, herself, was also quite histrionic about her racial origin. So, Brits were for the most part colorblind in their approach to a new member of the royal family. However, once—in the name of identity politics—Meghan’s race was brought to the table, colorblindness turned into a nasty color consciousness.
This is the precise danger of identity politics. Racism, of course, exists. So, if you obsess over it (and make everything about racial identity), dormant racists will awake and will, in turn, make racism worse. We now know that this is how Trump got elected in the first place. If everyone gets to be histrionic about race, it was only a matter of time before whites wondered why they should be the only ones not to play that game. This lesson should now be clear: integration and indifference towards racial identities are a more efficient way to end racism.
So, Meghan’s racialization worked to her advantage in promoting herself as an Obama-like figure, but it eventually turned against her. Was she treated unfairly? Yes, but only to the extent that all foreign new members of royal families are put on trial. In our modern age, that is what monarchies are about: nationalism. The Windsors had to change their name in 1917 because Brits would not tolerate a German-sounding name (Saxe-Coburg) when the country was at war with Germany. Foreign queens are not especially liked at the beginning, and just as any new kid on the block, they have to work hard to gain affection. Some eventually do gain the affection (Grace Kelly in Monaco, Queen Noor of Jordan); others fail (Czarina Alexandra in Russia, Queen Victoria Eugenie of Spain). To a large extent whether or not they succeed, depends on their own performance.
Surely, the most hated foreign queen of history was Marie Antoinette of France, who had been born in Vienna. Of course, her fate was unfair, and many nasty and untrue things (e.g., having intercourse with her own son) were said about her. But, in her extreme vanity, Marie Antoinette was wildly out of touch with the plight of the French common people. I hate to say it, but Marie Antoinette did have it coming. Tellingly, the Duchess of Sussex is called “Meghan Antoinette” by many. In an age of increasing inequalities, her self-righteous snobbery (lecturing about climate change yet flying all over in private jets) and lavish lifestyle did not endear her to Brits. But she made it even worse by playing the victim: in all her privilege, somehow, she believed herself to be oppressed (blowing the whistle that it was all because of her race), whereas the blue-collar, increasingly impoverished common Joe of urban Britain was the oppressor, simply because his skin color was slightly lighter than hers.
So, as it often happens, identity politics quickly derided into playing the race card. Meghan was yet another failure in the ruthless game of royal popularity. But, as opposed to the failures of past queens, this time, commentators succumbed to the temptation to say that it was all about race. Marie Antoinette had no one to come to her defense, but Meghan has been lucky enough to live in the age of identity politics, where one can use race to get off the hook.
You see, inequality as such is not a problem for them. What they really care (or rather, obsess) about is representation.
It is also very symptomatic of our age that people so seemingly concerned with social justice are also so interested in royal affairs. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the “social justice warrior” variety prefer to read Hello! over Das Kapital. By any standard, monarchies are unjust institutions; they run counter to the most elementary notion of meritocracy. Yet, somehow, ever since Harry proposed to Meghan, many social justice warriors were captivated by the glamour of royalty. You see, inequality as such is not a problem for them. What they really care (or rather, obsess) about is representation. As Adolph Reed Jr. acutely observes, in this strange worldview, “a society in which 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources could be just, provided that roughly 12% of the 1% were black, 12% were Latino, 50% were women, and whatever the appropriate proportions were LGBT people.”
In this weird activism, blue blood is still valued, as in the feudal world. The only thing these social justice warriors request is that some people with blue blood must also have darker skin. “Queen” Beyonce suddenly becomes an icon of social justice, even if her very image is built upon the utmost vanity of quasi-royal privilege and mindless consumerism. Good-old fashioned Marxists would have called this, “false consciousness.” If, as a black person, you think that having a black queen will improve your condition, you have been duped by the powers-that-be. Representation is overvalued, and obsession with it not only leaves real inequalities intact but, ultimately, also further fuels racism.
Dr. Gabriel Andrade is a university professor. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post. His twitter is @gandrade80