Editor’s Note: Ayesha Hazarika is a British political commentator, writer and former political advisor. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
Prince Harry is very much his mother’s son. As he grew from boy to man, the nation fell in love with his cheeky, fun-loving personality and his natural warmth and kindness.
Over time, Harry’s love life became a matter of national obsession. He was always seen with a beautiful – normally blonde – society girl with a cut-glass accent and from a family steeped in wealth and status.
The burning question on every royal watcher’s lips was: “Who would snare Britain’s most eligible bachelor?” The answer took everyone by surprise.
Harry didn’t end up with the sort of person everyone thought he would – a wife born and bred in the upper echelons of British society. Instead, he fell head over heels with someone who has already done more to shake up the royal family since his mother, Princess Diana, did in the 1980s.
The first thing to put unequivocally on the record is that this, clearly, is a union based on love. It’s not a statement about race relations or an attempt to recreate a Benetton ad. Here are two people who are crazy about each other.
However, Meghan Markle marrying into the royal family is a seminal moment in the evolution of British society precisely because she is not from the traditional background that one expects a British royal to mix with.
Meghan is from a modest background compared to Harry’s previous partners: she was married before and is a divorcee; her parents split when she was young; she was effectively raised by a single parent; and most interesting of all, as well as being a celebrity, she is a woman of color.
This is a big deal. Britain likes to pride itself on being a tolerant, inclusive and multicultural society. Yet it still clings to rigid class structure and at the very top is the royal family – the pinnacle and global symbol of elitism.
Power and privilege in Britain are still very white and exclusive. Barely 3% of Britain’s most powerful and influential people are from black and minority ethnic groups according to a study by the Guardian and Operation Black Vote from last September.
Of course, people of color would be invited to big royal events, but often in an official capacity rather than as a personal friend of the family. High society is still very closed on class and race.
While many historians argue that Britain had its first black queen in 1761 when Princess Sophia Charlotte married King George III at the age of 17, her place, status and contribution to the royal family are not well known because she was near enough airbrushed from public record.
Meghan Markle is, of course, having a very different experience. While Markle is unlikely to be our Queen, she is the first person of color in modern history to enter the hallowed, magic circle that is the royal family. And this means something particularly in terms of where politics, culture and social issues are right now.
Cupid’s bow has gifted the royal family a unique opportunity to open itself up and show the country and the world that it can more than just tolerate diversity and modernity – it can live it.
It is telling that the Queen herself has welcomed Meghan so warmly: that very much set the tone. However, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. The British media was warned about its coverage of Meghan, which the palace rightly complained had a nasty tone. And of course, there has been blatant racism.
But it’s this that makes Meghan so interesting. We will have in our royal family, for the first time, someone who has experienced racism and prejudice. She will have an empathy that will mean a lot to people of color – not just in Britain, but around the world. That ability to be a role model who can connect and walk in someone else’s shoes will be a rare and vital quality. And Harry knows that better than anyone.
Programming note: No royal wedding invitation? Not to worry. You can stream every moment on your mobile phone, laptop, or wherever you get CNN, starting at 5 a.m. ET on Saturday, May 19.