Can Meghan Markle change the monarchy?

LONDON • There were quiet rumblings in the press when they started dating, a whiff of snobbery: Meghan Markle - half black, American, divorced, actress - was a curiosity.

Perhaps it was a phase. There were comparisons with previous girlfriends, all of whom had been waifish blue-blooded blondes. There was a half-sister wheeled out, who declared Ms Markle's past behaviour to be "not fitting for a royal family member" and pitched a tell-all book to publishers.

All of it came with the implication that Ms Markle was an unlikely candidate to be taken seriously. She would never join the House of Windsor.

And yet, she will. In an announcement that went out last Monday morning, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales declared that Ms Markle would marry Prince Harry in the spring.

In the era of Brexit and United States President Donald Trump - a time when we've seen an increase in racially motivated crimes, hateful rhetoric and fear mongering - Prince Harry's union with Ms Markle is not only a bold antidote, but it is also astonishingly political (even if Ms Markle, who has discussed the complexity of her identity as a mixed-race woman and says she has found the conversation about her race "disheartening", may not view it as such).

Admittedly, for the most part, until recently, I'd been indifferent to the monarchy. It felt old-fashioned, an archaic and exclusive institution people of colour could not connect with nor would feel particularly invested in, given its long historical association with colonial projects.

Prince Harry openly and defiantly dating Ms Markle made me, a black British woman, see the royals slightly differently. Suddenly, they - or Harry, at least - seemed more open-minded.

And it was not just me: Other women of colour, I found, had begun taking notice and talking about the monarchy.

Friends discussed the possibility of an engagement, whether the royals would be forward-thinking enough to give Prince Harry permission.

When the announcement finally came, the reaction from people of colour on both sides of the pond was explosive. Memes were deployed immediately.

Something was happening.

Not since Diana, Princess of Wales, has there been this kind of interest from young people in a member of the royal family.

Even before last Monday's announcement, Prince Harry had exceeded Britain's expectations of him. Over the last few years, he had matured from a mischievous, slightly unruly young man (his unclothed escapades on a laddish trip to Las Vegas in 2012 spring to mind) into the more mature version of himself we see today.

There had been contrition, progress, a new level of comfort in his skin, a clearer sense of direction.

He served in the military, created the Invictus Games, did charity work - all the while retaining a certain cheekiness, warmth and accessibility. He was the prince who took his duties seriously, but did not appear to take himself too seriously.

Now, with his engagement, he has thrown the royal rule book on who can and cannot be a princess out of the window.

In his choice of partner, he has shown a certain courage, a propensity to do things on his terms.

It is an act of royal rebellion nobody saw coming.

Are we being ushered into a new era where the boundaries of race and class will be blown open in Britain, when people will grow more open-minded about who they can consider as a mate?

This is probably optimistic, though in some ways not: Interracial marriages are on the rise in Britain. In this sense, the prince and Ms Markle are following, not leading.

What is more intriguing is the question of whether, as a result of this unlikely pairing, more people of colour will come to feel they have a stake in the country's most old-fashioned institution.

There have been some racist responses to the announcement, just as there were racist reactions when they started dating.

There will probably be more. It is impressive to see a prince who is not afraid to ruffle a few feathers, who has made a clear statement against those prejudices by refusing to allow them to affect his personal choices.

Prince Harry feels millennial, current, like a prince for our times.

His impact on modernising the royal family's image cannot be underestimated. He has made the royals seem more in touch with the public. His union with Ms Markle has shaken to the core the country's ideas about who is entitled to a seat at the royal table.

We live in strange times, with an American president who panders to right-wing hate, in a world that seems to have taken several steps backwards.

And so, in these times, when a British prince goes against both royal and societal norms to propose to his biracial girlfriend, it is worth taking a moment to smile.


•Irenosen Okojie is a novelist and short story writer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 03, 2017, with the headline 'Can Meghan Markle change the monarchy?'. Print Edition | Subscribe