Soon, #WeLoveYouMeghan began trending on Twitter, an outpouring of respect and admiration for the former actress.
"Colorism, society's preference for lighter skin, is alive and well," wrote Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong'o in an Instagram post.
She shared a picture of her 5-year-old self and promoted the release of her upcoming children's book, Sulwe, which is about a little girl who "has skin the color of midnight. She is darker than everyone in her family. She is darker than anyone in her school. Sulwe just wants to be beautiful and bright, like her mother and sister. Then a magical journey in the night sky opens her eyes and changes everything."
Cultural bias towards lighter skin is embedded in society after centuries of racism and colonial propaganda. Its political ramifications lurk in the disproportionate rates of police brutality in black communities as well as the multibillion dollar cosmetic industry flooded with skin-lightening ingredients, chemical peels, and creams promising to enhance skin's "brightness." But no matter how many studies and surveys highlight the ubiquity of colorism, the "rigid cultural perception that correlates lighter skin tone with beauty and personal success" still exists. That cracked lens has become so commonplace that it's sometimes difficult to recognize, let alone object to.
But in a week of public stances against colorism and its endproduct of racism, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are calling bulls*it. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are suing the British tabloid The Mail on Sunday for its "ruthless campaign" against Meghan Markle, the first American and first biracial member of the British royal family. As an actress, Markle was candid about how her racial identity had impacted how people treated her all her life on the basis of her "ethnically ambiguous" skin color. "I wasn't black enough for the black roles and I wasn't white enough for the white ones," she wrote, "leaving me somewhere in the middle as the ethnic chameleon who couldn't book a job."
Now, in a marked departure from the royal family's stoic dismissal of the tabloid press, Prince Harry published an emotive personal letter (which, reportedly, was not handled or approved by senior aides of Buckingham Palace). In his frank 570-word letter, he makes it clear why silence is too close to complacency in the face of hate-fueled bullying against Markle: "There is a human cost to this relentless propaganda, specifically when it is knowingly false and malicious, and though we have continued to put on a brave face – as so many of you can relate to – I cannot begin to describe how painful it has been."
He describes the "intrusive" and "unlawful" press coverage that has purposefully targeted Markle to deride and defame her with "lie after lie." In particular, he cites The Mail on Sunday's publication of a personal, handwritten letter Markle wrote to her estranged father. British copyright law states plainly that private correspondence cannot be published without the author's explicit consent, making the tabloid's actions clearly illegal. However, Prince Harry goes on to state, "In addition to their unlawful publication of this private document, they purposely misled you by strategically omitting select paragraphs, specific sentences, and even singular words to mask the lies they had perpetuated for over a year." He concludes, "There comes a point when the only thing to do is to stand up to this behavior because it destroys people and destroys lives. Put simply, it is bullying, which scares and silences people. We all know this isn't acceptable, at any level. We won't and can't believe in a world where there is no accountability for this."
But when does bad press turn into bullying? And what can be done about it?
As repeated scandals between celebrities and the press show, frenzied and overzealous press still break down high-profile women as if it were a sport. "For these select media this is a game," Prince Harry writes, "and one that we have been unwilling to play from the start. I have been a silent witness to her private suffering for too long. To stand back and do nothing would be contrary to everything we believe in."
To conclude, he invokes the powerful memory of his mother, Princess Diana, whose volatile relationship with the press ended with her fatal car accident while being chased by the paparazzi: "Though this action may not be the safe one, it is the right one. Because my deepest fear is history repeating itself. I've seen what happens when someone I love is commoditized to the point that they are no longer treated or seen as a real person. I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces."
The media's (brief) period of shame over dehumanizing the mother of two left an indelible mark on our modern cultural consciousness, but we continue to struggle to identify the line between gossip and bullying. In The Mail on Sunday's repertoire of unprofessional, mean-spirited, and illegal reporting tactics, they've used racially charged and sexist language describing the Los Angeles native as "almost straight out of Compton" and "from the cotton fields to royalty."
"This is not bias. This is racism," says Sunil Bhatia, a professor of human development at Connecticut College. She's referring to the internalized racism that affects social hierarchies and how we as a society envision people in power: Lighter skin is correlated with success, and thus lighter-skinned people are raised to power. In speaking about Meghan Markle in particular, Vogue's editor Edward Enninful says, "Was the criticism racist? Some of it, yeah." Enninful worked with Markle when she guest-edited the magazine's "Forces For Change" edition, which received a shockwave of backlash that called Markle "uppity" and even "anti-white" for focusing on diversity. Enninful says, "Actually it was more than racism. I thought it was personal – attacking someone you don't know, attacking her."
It's true that the press' attacks against Markle haven't been merely racist—they've been classist and sexist, too. From listing the crime statistics of her mother's neighborhood and recounting her mother's financial history to using Markle's departures from royal protocol as evidence that she has a "difficult" and diva-like personality. When Prince Harry and Markle's first post-engagement interview was streamed on Periscope, comments ranged from "Jungle fever," "gold digger," and "biracial commoner" to "whitest black girl" and "unsuitable." In 2016, the royal family even broke their usual silence and issued a public statement on the Markle-hatred, observing that "a line [had been] crossed. [Prince Harry's] girlfriend, Meghan Markle, has been subject to a wave of abuse and harassment. Some of this has been very public - the smear on the front page of a national newspaper; the racial undertones of comment pieces; and the outright sexism and racism of social media trolls and web article comments."
Would Meghan Markle receive such treatment if she weren't half-black? If she were from the U.K.? If she weren't an outspoken feminist? If she weren't a former actress, or divorced? Fickle comparisons and contrived reportings of "feuds" between Kate Middleton and Markle suggest that's the case. Predatory press coverage has shown clear bias towards Middleton, who "was born in the UK and has a certain respect for the country," while Markle has been generally referred to as a "disrespectful" outsider who doesn't know her place.
Overall, criticism of Markle, both in the press and on social media, has been a stark indicator that racism, like all forms of colorism, "is alive and well," as Nyong'o wrote in her Instagram post. Nyong'o also noted that colorism is far from just a western problem, writing, "Throughout the world, even in Kenya, even today, there is a popular sentiment that lighter is brighter." She wrote her children's book because she never saw images of girls who looked like her as a child: "As a little girl reading, I had all of these windows into the lives of people who looked nothing like me, chances to look into their worlds, but I didn't have any mirrors. While windows help us develop empathy and an understanding of the wider world, mirrors help us develop our sense of self, and our understanding of our own world. They ground us in our body and our experiences."
In 2016, years before she met Prince Harry and became Duchess of Sussex, Markle wrote a similar sentiment in an Elle essay about her racial identity. "Just as black and white, when mixed, make grey, in many ways that's what it did to my self-identity: it created a murky area of who I was, a haze around how people connected with me," she wrote. "I was grey. And who wants to be this indifferent colour, devoid of depth and stuck in the middle? I certainly didn't. So you make a choice: continue living your life feeling muddled in this abyss of self-misunderstanding, or you find your identity independent of it."
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