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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Multicultural Lovers–Meghan Markle, The Queen Of England, And The Neutering Demands Of Race

The recent wedding of Meghan Markle to Harry, Prince of England was certainly a milestone.  Only a generation ago, the Royal Family would never even considered an American (shades of Wallace Simpson) let alone a woman of mixed race.  The Queen is old enough to remember her troubles with Africans; and although her advisers suggested that she apologize to all Kenyans for British ‘abuse’ during the long and bloody struggle against the Mau Mau, she did so reluctantly.  Her world was colonial empire, tutelage if not patriarchy of the colored races of Africa and Asia, and a profound belief in and absolute respect and admiration for British rule.  If it hadn’t been for the British,  East Africa would have never have developed.  From the forest to Westminster in a scant few decades was the accomplishment of British rule, less satisfactory and complete as that in Asia, but significant nevertheless.

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For decades after the British successes in East Africa, West Africa languished as the white man’s grave.  Democratic justice, civil service, and physical infrastructure lagged far behind Kenya, Tanzania, and especially South Africa.  What are now Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Liberia barely moved forward since colonial times.  In fact, according to many observers, they have regressed. 
Independence and home rule only enabled the dictatorship of African autocrats – big men who had debts to pay to family, tribe, and region and profited from a surprisingly tolerant ex-colonial power.

Winston Churchill, hero of WWII, champion of British sovereignty, and apologist for continued colonial rule, insisted that the lessons of Western democracy, established in Ancient Greece, ratified by philosophy and revolution, were universal.  African nations would do well to acquiesce to European rule for a time, he said, until the roots of progressive liberalism took root; but the demands for African independence, encouraged by Roosevelt and his geopolitically naïve nation, were respected; and British and other colonial power rule dismantled.  The results of this precipitous leap to autonomy are seen today.  Big men still rule Africa, poverty rates remain intolerable, crime and civil unrest persist; and the continent, free for almost as long as Asian colonies, regresses while India, China, Indonesia and Malaysia and the rest of Southeast Asia record double digit increases in GDP.

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The Queen, now well into her nineties, and a child of Empire, cannot be but discouraged by the current state of affairs.  British sovereignty should never have pulled back ‘East of Suez’ let alone from the desperately disadvantaged countries of Africa.  British rule was of course good for Britain, but there could be no denying its positive influence on its colonies.  By the time Britain left India in 1947, it had left behind a modern physical infrastructure, an efficient civil service, a rule of law, and a set of moral and ethical principles unchanged for over 2000 years.

The Queen has presided over a radical and remarkable transformation of Britain itself.  There was no way that divestiture of its colonies could mean insulation from their refugees.  Africans quickly took stock of the venal, self-centered, and arrogant leaders who took over former British colonies and fled while the fleeing was good.  Britain was understanding, tolerant, and ethical in its treatment of those who wanted to leave the tyranny that had replaced English liberalism; and for a while, members of the British Commonwealth were admitted without question to the UK.  In short order Britain became multicultural and diverse.  Fortunately, immigrants from their former colonies had not been radicalized like French Algerians, and assimilation was a rather easy affair. Bangladeshi Muslims were of a very different order than Salafi-indoctrinated immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East.

Britain had always had a very productive colonial relationship with both the Union and the Confederacy in the United States.  Money and influence were to be had in both, and sides were hard to take during the Civil War.  Britain knew, however, that slavery could not last, that they outlawed it in its Caribbean colonies, and that only thanks to very productive and mutually beneficial trade with the American South, did it not take sides against the Union.  The most sophisticated observers of the American scene agreed with Thomas Jefferson that although slavery was an unfortunate institution, its repeal would result in more civic chaos than ever imagined.  Jefferson in the early 19th century tried to design a program to either return freed slaves to Africa or to third party countries in the Caribbean and Europe.  He knew that freed slaves – in 1865 still African, unschooled in the ways of the West, still animist and in many ways primitive – would be a disruptive influence on white, stable, Western America.

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So Elizabeth II is no stranger to racial geopolitics either in America or the UK; but given her age, her family, and her family’s almost 1000 year history, she cannot but have qualms about the state of race relations in Britain and America.  She cannot help but have at least a residual feeling of superiority to Africans and questions about their descendants. She of all people has a right to wonder how Britain so miserably failed in its colonial enterprise; and equally wonder what it is about African culture, society, and history that has contributed to this developmental delay.

On the other hand, 150 years have passed since slavery was abolished in America, and many American blacks have joined the middle class. Women like the Queen's daughter-in-law are perfect examples of the success of liberal democracy. Meghan is highly-educated, talented, principled, and intelligent.  Under any other circumstance, she would be welcomed into the royal family without question.  Yet because the issue of race has been deliberately and inevitably introduced into the equation, it cannot be ignored.  Meghan herself, a child of the multicultural generation, a believer in the importance if not primacy of the signifiers of race, gender, and ethnicity, has made it clear that she wants to join the family not just as a unique, desirable individual, but as a black woman.

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She is happy to be judged according to her racial profile.  She has willingly subsumed her own, unique, personal identity within the context of race.  Since race-gender-ethnicity is at the heart of a politically progressive ethos, being black in America confers an automatic membership.  While she has spoken out in favor of only some progressive causes, one can conclude nothing about the rest; but given the cultural ethos in America and the demands on black men and women to conform to and participate in a progressive racial and political agenda, one may assume a certain conditioning.

If this assumption is correct, she could no sooner be sympathetic to Israel than she could to the Mississippi grandees of the antebellum South.  She might have reservations about full support to the police or the armed forces in racial matters. She might even suspect multinational British corporations for their investment policies. Meghan's public, progressive stance on race, gender, and ethnicity, however cloaked in humanitarian globalism, is still highly political. If there is one truly revolutionary change in the palace, it is this very obvious political agenda.

Worst of all, like many black people, her own own, unique, and very personal identity has at least in part been co-opted and neutered.

Who knows how the dynamics of race and generation influenced Harry in his choice for a bride. He must know that his marriage to Meghan Markle is not incidental – an expression of cultural zeitgeist, expected in a time of inclusivity – but purposeful. Not only is Markle an American, but a divorcee and black – a combination that itself makes a political statement. 

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This is all well and good.  Britain is no longer culturally homogeneous, and unlike the monarchy of kings past, today's sovereign rule must include all British subjects. The acknowledgement of this new heterogeneity and a willingness to serve it is politically necessary.  Harry knows well that the British crown has come increasingly under attack for its isolation and elitism.  From that perspective, marriage to Meghan Markle is an undisputed good thing.

Yet, by raising race to such a public level in the marriage and by including the signifiers of a racial upbringing of which the bride had little part - black preachers, black gospel choirs, and references to American civil rights leaders - it sends the wrong message. Once again black people are being asked to wear the same mantel, enlisted willingly or unwillingly in a common legacy.  Black first, they are told;  individualism, enterprise, and soul second. This may be temporarily comforting - black Britons now have a voice in the palace - but the bargain is Faustian. 

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No one asked to represent, speak for, or promote the interests of one’s color, national origin, or religion can ever be free or unique.  Characterizing someone first and foremost by race, gender, and ethnicity puts them into an inescapable box.  Meghan will never be asked about her moral principles, her faith, her personal aspirations, or her philosophy.  Her humor must always be circumscribed and correct; her affections politically mediated; her aspirations heady, given her titled position, but predictable.  Because she is who she is – black, American, and a woman – it is inevitable that she will be co-opted and used.

A close American friend and colleague had had numerous affairs with foreign women, some in passing but many quite serious.  He had been very much in love with a Danish doctor, considered moving to Buenos Aires with an Argentinian artist, and had a two decade affair with a Pakistani Parsi biologist among others.  He had never once considered race or national origin in either his choice of women or their promise.  Their attractiveness, allure, and excitement had nothing to do with where they were from or what language they spoke but who they were – strong, playful, seductive, insightful, vulnerable, brilliant, or beautiful.  While some, almost stereotypical aspects of their culture, added to the mix – African forwardness, Asian deference, and Eastern European intrigue – they never occluded the truth. 

Usha’s muhajir history, her family’s forced emigration from India to Pakistan, their economic enterprise similar to the Birlas and Tatas of the country they left were incidental to her humor, her sexual inventiveness, her revealing honesty, and her unquestioning affection.

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The lovers of my colleague never thought twice about such things.  They took transnational affairs as a matter of course.  A sexual liaison with a Saudi, Brazilian, or Laotian was expected if improbable.  The zeitgeist was permeable cultural borders, not multiculturalism.  My colleague in turn never considered anything but female sexual response.  The fundamental, hardwired, but unique biological imperatives of sexuality were hard enough to figure out let alone distracting complications of race or national origin.

Which is to say that Harry and Meghan might have a normal, demanding, difficult but ultimately satisfying personal relationship, but the socio-political overlays are too obvious; the scenarios too precisely and predictably written.  Perhaps this is the real legacy of the throne, part of patronage and rule.  Its what they inherited.

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