“Harry and Meghan’s union was seen as a beacon of hope for all interracial-intercultural couples,” reflects Dr Reenee Singh, founding director of the London Intercultural Couples Centre at the Child and Family Practice, at the end of a week of non-stop press coverage of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. “It was heralded as the legitimisation of intercultural couple relationships in the UK.”
Just over a week ago, when the Sussexes announced their intention to “step back” as senior members of the royal family via their website and social media, one topic was absent from initial reports: racism. However, in the days since that announcement, many people have spoken to HuffPost UK – as well as the New York Times, CNN, Daily Mail and Good Morning Britain – about the ways in which they think racism impacted on the couple’s decision.
Some of those people are in mixed-race – or interracial – couples themselves and see aspects of their own lives reflected in the royal couple’s experience. This does not surprise Singh, who is a practicing psychotherapist and CEO of the Association for Family Therapy. “Despite changing demographics in the UK, where one in every 10 couples identifies as intercultural, intercultural couples still experience considerable racism,” she tells HuffPost UK.
In November 2016, when Harry and Meghan first went public as a couple, Kensington Palace issued a statement that addressed the media’s treatment of Meghan head-on, calling out “the racial undertones of comment pieces and the outright sexism and racism of social media trolls and web article comments”.
HuffPost UK parenting columnist Robyn Wilder believes the discourse around Harry and Meghan throughout their relationship may have something to tell us about attitudes towards mixed-race relationships in Britain.
“Those race-baiting tabloid headlines have been despicable, but they wouldn’t have gained so much traction if an ugly undercurrent of increasingly legitimised racism wasn’t already running through the country,” says Robyn, who is from a mixed family and also has a mixed-race marriage.
“However, I think it’s good that the de facto racism has been exposed, because it’s shocked so many people – mainly those it doesn’t affect. You’ll already know about everyday bigotry if you’re part of a minority group.”
Dr Nicola Rollock, a reader in equity, education and race at Goldsmiths College, University of London, cautions that the media coverage and discussion of the announcement shows us all “playing out our insecurities on the royal couple” despite the fact we don’t know exactly what has fuelled their recent decision.
“Given the nature of the criticism levelled against the Duchess of Sussex, it is clear that her racialised identity matters to both people of colour in the UK and to white people (whether or not the latter group explicitly acknowledge it),” Dr Rollock tells HuffPost UK.
“The Sussexes seem to have become the vehicle through which we are playing out our racialised insecurities and discomforts and, for some, our hopes and dreams,” she adds. “That – what we might think of as the ‘burden of race’ – alone is a heavy burden to carry even while acknowledging there may be additional factors which have shaped their decision.”
Gabriella Haile, 22, from Bradford, who is in a mixed-race relationship, agrees that “race plays a part” in the way Harry and Meghan’s relationship is reported.
“Whatever they do is wrong. I’m not surprised they are stepping down,” she says. “I would do the same. Media rhetoric has been negative towards Meghan from the start.”
Gabriella says she and her boyfriend, 24-year-old Ethan Quesne, have never had big problems being in a mixed-race couple, but when they started dating three and a half years ago she was nervous about the potential challenges.
“In the back of my mind I was nervous for his parents to meet me, but they were totally fine,” she says. “It was my dad who more had something to say, but he’s over that now.”
However, she does still worry how they’ll be treated outside of multicultural Huddersfield where they’re now based. “I do worry when planning trips abroad or perhaps going somewhere more remote in England,” she says. “I guess there will always be racism, sadly, but we just need to teach kids from a young age that skin is a colour and not something to judge others by.”
Robyn, who is from Sussex, says the biggest challenges of being in a mixed-race marriage come in relation to her children, who, in her words, “pass” as white. Robyn’s mother is French and Nepali and her father was Italian and Spanish. Her husband is white British and one-quarter German.
“Reactions can be as benign as a waiter showing my family to a free table, but asking me to ‘please wait in the queue, madam’ because he assumes I’m with another party. Or they can be problematic, like when my brown-haired toddler ran away, giggling, in a garden centre, and a random woman refused to give him back to me until he started crying for me in distress,” she says.
Another couple got in touch with HuffPost UK to say the majority of racism they’ve encountered has related to their children. The dad in this family is Nigerian British and the mum is white British. They live in Essex but wish to remain anonymous to avoid being “ostracised” within their community.
“My five-year-old son was told by another child he could not play with them because he was not white. As you can imagine the poor boy got home and was asking why he was not white enough,” the father told us.
“My wife and I dealt with the situation appropriately by writing to the school and made sure it was addressed. I know of a friend who had to pull his son out of another school because of this same issue.”
The couple believe “the further you move out of London, the more the problem is prevalent”.
But Nick Richardson, 32, and Qiuyan Tang, 27, known as Chewy, have faced racism in big cities, too. The pair now live in London, but got together in 2015 when Nick was working in San Francisco. Nick is white British, while Chewy is Chinese American.
“It’s strange, because one might think that in a diverse, urban metropolis like London or San Francisco where there are people here from all over the world, being a mixed-race couple wouldn’t stand out. However, this is not always the case,” they wrote in a joint email to HuffPost.
While their relationship has only ever had a positive reception from friends and colleagues, they’ve been experienced verbal racial stereotyping from strangers on the street.
“When strangers engage in stereotyping us based on race, this only highlights a difference that we don’t see ourselves and reduces us to our ethnicities – quite a minimising experience, and one that we need to support each other through,” the pair said.
The couple believe public interracial couples such as Harry and Meghan “have definitely brought the conversation to the forefront, which is a change from before when they happened privately within families”.
“Even though dating someone who is not of the same ethnicity is not as taboo as it was a few decades ago, there still needs to be more work done,” they say. “Beyond dating, the simple act of judging someone based on the colour of their skin or physical appearance is still more common than we all think.”
Criminologist Dr Mike Sutton has been researching the experiences of interracial couples for more than a decade, as founder of the former Centre for Study and Reduction of Hate Crimes, Bias and Prejudice at Nottingham Trent University. “What this royal couple are experiencing in the media is reflective of the hard gaze that others on our streets and other public and semi-public places so often feel they have the right to focus on the private lives of other mixed heritage couples,” he tells HuffPost UK.
Harry and Megan’s relationship has brought this issue to the attention of a wider public, adds Sutton, who is in a mixed-raced marriage himself. He is white British and his wife is British Jamaican.
Sophie Fish, 24, and her boyfriend Mahlik Johnson, 26, have been together for two years. The couple, who live in Rhode Island in the US, echo some of the same sentiments expressed by couples in the UK. They add that their respective experiences of being in a mixed relationship differ – particularly when they’ve received “dirty looks” for showing affection in public.
“Mahlik tends to pay them no mind, but I always feel defensive and often glare at them back,” says Sophie. “From a white woman’s perspective, it breaks my heart that someone as genuine, kind, and open-minded as Mahlik is judged instantly based on his skin colour, because that’s something I, of course, had the privilege to never experience.”
Mahlik adds: “The reality of being together in 2020 as a mixed couple is we have it a lot easier than the people who came before us. I’m not saying we don’t see or experience racism, because we do.
“We’re just able to live our life with little to no racism due to the fact our ancestors fought for our lives to be better than theirs, in hopes to one day live completely unaffected.”
There are huge joys to being in a mixed relationship. Couples told us about the pleasure of making new friends, experiencing new family traditions and trying new food – as well as the obvious, finding love, just like any other couple.
Stacy*, 26, from Manchester, says being black British with a white British boyfriend has never been an issue and is “pretty much the same as being in another couple”. “His family have never made me feel anything other than welcome. Even when I first whipped my wig off and they had to pretend to not be shocked!” she laughs.
But she does say that race has posed challenges within the relationship in the past.
“It’s extremely hard and emotionally draining to explain racism to people who have never experienced it and don’t understand it. It is really depressing when you realise how deep rooted it is in society and in literally everything you do,” she says. “It’s way more than people shouting in a street or not being let in somewhere. It’s in politics and policies and fashion and beauty and schools - literally everywhere.”
Stacy’s boyfriend is originally from an area of the UK with very few people of colour, she explains, and they once had a race-based argument that almost ended their relationship.
“He was playing ‘devils advocate’ and it upset me so much, it was the first time I thought: ‘This is why some black people don’t date outside of our race,’” she says. “It was exhausting and upsetting and I kept on thinking: ‘Imagine if we have kids and this is your mindset.’”
The pair didn’t talk for two days, but when they reconnected, Stacy’s boyfriend revealed he’d started listening to the audio book of Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch and was “actively trying to understand the black experience”. Two and a half years into their relationship, he now “views the world so differently”, she says.
“He’s read so many books on race, he holds all of his friends accountable, and educates them when he’s in white spaces with only white people.”
Harry and Meghan’s announcement may have left many lamenting the fact that it’s come to this. But Dr Reenee Singh views the move as understandable.
Based on her practice as a family therapist, Dr Singh says that most couples find the transition to becoming parents challenging “and for intercultural couples where one is a migrant, this transition may be particularly challenging as it can bring up dilemmas of where home is, how to remain connected to grandparents in another country and how to keep alive both parts of the child’s dual heritage.
“Meghan and Harry’s decision to live between England and North America – the two cultures and two worlds that their child/children will inherit – makes perfect sense when understood as part of a significant family life cycle stage,” she says. “This decision should be celebrated by all intercultural couples as it points to a way in which young, multicultural families in the 21st century can embrace the richness of their cultural histories.”
Robyn, meanwhile, is hopeful that the couple’s decision to find a “better future” for their family could provide inspiration, both for individuals who are mixed race and couples who are part of a mixed-race relationship.
She says: “As Meghan and Harry are showing, even in troubling times like these, you can make positive choices and not get trampled by oppressive tradition just because everyone expects you to do so.”
Names marked * have been changed to offer anonymity.