Brixton, a multiethnic neighborhood in South London, is a crossroad so central to the story of the African diaspora that local historians call it the black capital of Europe.
It seemed symbolic when Meghan Markle, a biracial American actress, visited the neighborhood with her fiance, Prince Harry. Markle is the subject of deep fascination in Brixton and beyond.
What exactly will it mean to have a biracial member of the monarchy after Prince Harry and Markle exchange vows on May 19? For many reasons, race is not talked about as openly in Britain as it is in the United States.
When race does emerge, the tone of the conversation can sound strange to American ears, as in the Daily Mail headline: "Now that’s upwardly mobile! How in 150 years, Meghan Markle’s family went from cotton slaves to royalty via freedom in the U.S. Civil War . . . ”
So far, Markle has faced some opposition as a mixed-race woman in Britain. (Her mother, Doria Ragland, is black, and her father, Thomas Markle, is white.)
An extraordinary palace statement in November 2016 condemned media coverage of Markle’s relationship with Prince Harry, the “racial undertones” of opinion pieces and “the outright sexism and racism of social media trolls and web article comments.”
Such commentary has continued at a low boil. This year, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party, which played a pivotal role winning the vote for Britain to leave the European Union, came under fire — and ultimately lost his job — after his girlfriend sent text messages saying that black people were “ugly” and that Markle would “taint” the royal family.
Mixed-race British royals are rare. Some historians believe Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, was of African descent.
For many British blacks, it’s worth celebrating that the family that symbolizes Britishness will look a bit more like modern Britain, especially its capital city, which has experienced soaring rates of interracial marriage.
Afua Hirsch, author of “Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging,” is keen to see what Markle does and how her arrival in Kensington Palace might change society.
As an all-white dynasty, the royal family “influences perceptions of Britishness as white identity,” Hirsch said. But having a senior member who is visibly of color will “change the subconscious messaging about what it means to be British.”
It’s not just Markle’s ethnicity — it’s the way that she owns it, Hirsch said.
“I think that’s because she’s American,” she said. “I think that’s a really refreshing message. People will notice that you can be a person with a different identity, with different cultural and ethnic heritage, and you can be in a senior position in the establishment and you don’t have to ignore or downplay it.”
L.B. Brown, a 52-year-old activist and office manager, also said Markle will “bring a new vibrancy” to the royal family.
Case in point, Brown said, is that a prominent British rapper has been rumored to be performing on May 19. “You have the prospect of [grime musician] Stormzy coming to your wedding,” Brown said. “I mean, come on!”
Markle will find differences in the way race is addressed in the United Kingdom, which is 87 percent white. Blacks are about 3 percent of the population, according to census counts, compared with more than 13 percent in the United States. Britain was a slave-trading nation and built its colonial economy on slave labor and subjugation. But unlike the American South and the Caribbean islands, the farms of England were not tilled by black slaves. Most black British families date their arrival here from the 1950s onward.
Britain didn’t have the same kind of civil rights movement that America did. Segregation wasn’t enshrined in the law as it was in the United States. When riots erupted in Brixton in the 1980s, it was because Britain was experiencing a sort of Black Lives Matter movement, with black residents objecting to being unfairly targeted and harshly treated by police.
Today, many blacks in Britain are part of, or descended from, the Windrush generation — Commonwealth citizens from the Caribbean who were welcomed to England to help rebuild the country and fill a massive labor shortage in the decades after World War II.
In recent years, as Britain has sought to crack down on illegal immigration, Windrush migrants who couldn’t provide all the paperwork to prove they were in the country legally have lost jobs, been denied health services and in some cases been threatened with deportation.
Britons discuss “immigration” as a proxy for race, said Nels Abbey, a former columnist for the Voice, Britain’s black newspaper, and co-author of an upcoming book, “Think Like a White Man.”
People will “swear to high heaven that when they are talking about immigration they are not talking about race, when clearly they are,” Abbey said, adding that in the context of immigration, they “are never talking about white people from Australia.”
“If you accept that the immigration debate is a racial debate, then Britain talks about race more than anything else,” he said. “If you don’t accept that, then Britain doesn’t talk about race at all.”
Merle Mitchell, a 57-year-old nurse who was strolling through one of Brixton’s street markets, said she wasn’t a royalist, but Markle might change her feelings about the monarchy — not because of her race, but because of her activism.