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Meghan Markle and the Problem of Tokenism

Simmering underneath the surface of Oprah’s bombshell-loaded interview with Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, and Prince Harry, there’s an all-too familiar narrative: that of the token-diverse Black person who’s marginalized by the establishment that initially welcomed her as a symbol of its progressiveness. Looking at the way Meghan was treated by the media and (according to her and Harry) by royal family members themselves, we can see three social forces at play in her experience: tokenism, colorism, and anti-black racism. And the case of Meghan Markle reveals just how interconnected these three problems are. We can see this same tokenism cycle in countless contexts, including films and TV shows, which have a huge impact (for better and worse) on our collective assumptions about race. Here’s our Take on how Meghan’s experience illustrates how these three forces (tokenism, colorism, and anti-black racism) mutually thrive off and fuel each other to maintain existing racial hierarchies.

TRANSCRIPT

Simmering underneath the surface of Oprah’s bombshell-loaded interview with Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, and Prince Harry, there’s an all-too-familiar narrative: that of the token-diverse Black person who’s marginalized by the establishment that initially welcomed her as a symbol of its progressiveness. Looking at the way Meghan was treated by the media and (according to her and Harry) by royal family members themselves, we can see three social forces at play in her experience: tokenism, colorism, and anti-black racism. And the case of Meghan Markle reveals just how interconnected these three problems are.

In our colorist society, people of color who have lighter skin tones tend to be more accepted into predominantly White spaces. However, this acceptance is superficial, often rooted in tokenism and an attempt to perform an institution’s diversity. Eventually, the token is likely to be sidelined or othered due to systemic racism, which hasn’t been addressed by this tokenism process.

Although Meghan was initially hailed by the press as a tokenistic symbol of an evolving “modern” royal family, she was eventually driven out of that family in large part by deep-seated racial biases within publications that harassed her. We can see this same tokenism cycle in countless contexts, including films and TV shows, which have a huge impact (for better and worse) on our collective assumptions about race. Here’s our Take on how Meghan’s experience illustrates how these three forces (tokenism, colorism, and anti-black racism) mutually thrive off and fuel each other — not in order to disrupt but to maintain existing racial hierarchies.

Meghan Markle and the Tokenism, Colorism, Anti-Black Racism Cycle

Defined as the “practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing,” tokenism is a form of performative activism.

As the first biracial woman to join the royal family, Meghan Markle and her marriage to Harry were inevitably embedded with this form of symbolism. It’s evident that Meghan saw herself in symbolic terms — as a potentially effective tool for a new, more diverse royal family.

And the tokenizing of Meghan Markle was brought to light on her wedding day through the number of journalists who used variations on the word “modern.” Press focused on how this increasing diversity symbolized a moment of hope for the UK. The royal wedding programming — from Bishop Michael Curry’s address to a gospel performance by the Kingdom Choir — also made a point of celebrating Black culture and Meghan’s joining of the family as a woman of color.

More often than not, tokenism is deeply entangled with colorism, defined as “prejudice or discrimination especially within a racial or ethnic group, favoring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin.” Widespread bias in favor of lighter-skinned people of color makes it easier for them to be more represented in elite positions.

Dr. Joy DeGruy: “The darker you are, the less important, beautiful, viable, capable, all of those things that the society has imposed upon us based on that notion of supremacy.” - Good Morning America (July 2020)

Although the term was first credited to activist Alice Walker in 1982, the environment of colorism had existed for centuries going back to slavery.

As a biracial woman, Meghan’s complexion lies on the lighter side of the Black spectrum. And the colorist bias at play in her situation was most shockingly brought to light via her and Harry’s assertion that members of the royal family had concerns over how dark their son’s skin was going to be. In situations like Meghan’s, colorism and tokenism interact to create an environment where a single person of color (who is frequently light-skinned or biracial) is positioned as the face of a Black experience that’s deemed homogenous.

This not only false frames the Black experience as monolithic,

Margaret Sloan-Hunter: “One minority is propped up to cover the experience of an entire population…There is not a monolithic black experience.” - Mrs. America 1x04

but it also results in what Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter describes as performance pressure. According to Watkins et al. in the article “It’s Not Black and White,” the token’s heightened visibility often means that they “have fears about making mistakes because their performance is being heavily scrutinized.”

This intense scrutiny was apparent in the media’s treatment of Meghan before and after her wedding, which brings us to the third social conflict at play here, anti-black racism. While acts of tokenism might often be seen as antiracist, in fact, activist Helen Kim Ho explains that tokenism in itself is covert racism, as it gives institutions “the appearance of being non-racist and even champions of diversity because they recruit and use POC as racialized props.”

Soon after news broke out that she and Harry had begun dating, a number of British publications responded with hostile coverage of Meghan with clear and damaging racist undertones. A November 2016 article in The Daily Star was headlined, “Harry to marry into gangster royalty? New love from crime-ridden neighborhood” and described Meghan’s domestic situation as “one of the city’s roughest suburbs famed for its gangland wars.”

Aside from the obviously racist coverage, there were countless other stories just persistently interpreting all of Meghan’s actions in a negative light — like the many harping on Meghan’s and Harry’s costly renovations to Frogmore Cottage — which likely did as much or more damage to her reputation in the UK. The media’s narrative of a feud between Meghan and Kate Middleton — starting around six months after Meghan’s and Harry’s wedding — was also racially loaded in ways that weren’t always explicit.

Oprah Winfrey: “Do you think there was a standard for Kate in general, and a separate one for you, and if so, why?”

Meghan Markle: “I can see now what layers were at play there.” - Oprah with Meghan and Harry (2021)

Meghan and Kate were subjected to double standards to a degree that there are a laughable number of headlines vilifying Meghan for exactly the same things other headlines praised Kate for.

Pitting strong women in competition against each is also a feature of patriarchy, but the coverage betrayed a preference towards Kate specifically due to her Whiteness. Helen Lewis for The Atlantic explains that the “valorization of Kate is racially inflected because Britain’s most durable template of respectable womanhood — the ‘English rose’ — is much less accessible to anyone foreign or dark-skinned.”

As much as some publications relished headlines (for a time) about Meghan representing a “modern” era, there was no sustained, collective desire for her to be a modern princess who did anything differently or challenged elements of the status quo. Meghan’s overall experience illuminates how interactions between tokenism and colorism can work not to destroy but to uphold racial hierarchies, as they simultaneously place lighter-skinned individuals on a higher pedestal and other them for being Black.

The Tokenism Cycle in Film & TV

Examples in popular culture confirm that what happened to Meghan is a microcosm of a much wider situation. Writer Rhyann Sampson explains that “tokenism in television and movies is not a new concept: it’s the strategic move of hiring a minority solely for the sake of claiming inclusion and avoiding any criticisms or claims of discrimination.”

Movies and shows that cast token black characters frequently expose the same colorist bias seen in Meghan’s case.

Amaya Allen: “I also realized that darker people were not being represented in the TV shows and movies that I was watching. And if they were, they were the ghetto, ‘all-up-in-your-face-like-this,’ secondary character.” - TEDx Talks, 50 Shades of Black (2019)

Writer Tiffany Onyejiaka explains that “The range of young female blackness displayed on the big screen does not represent the range of blackness seen in today’s society.” She continues, “Hollywood producers and casting agents choose to endorse an incredibly narrow selection of black women, yet at the same time, want to get accolades for achieving diversity and representation on-screen.”

Zendaya, a biracial actress, opened up about the industry’s colorism issue sharing that she has a, quote, “privilege compared to my darker sisters and brothers… Can I honestly say that I’ve had to face the same racism and struggles as a woman with darker skin? No, I cannot.”

Nathalie Emmanuel, who played Missandei on Game of Thrones, has said that because she’s biracial and lighter-skinned, she should not play Shuri in Black Panther or Tiana in The Princess and the Frog — a part which she tweeted “has to go to an even more melanated sister.”

While Netflix’s Bridgerton aims to present a reimagined, diverse Regency Era, the most featured black characters — especially the two who are framed as attractive and romantically desirable — have light skin. And while there is historical basis to portraying Queen Charlotte as a biracial, light-skinned woman, overall, very few darker-skinned characters are shown in positions of power. The lighter-skinned Duke Simon Bassett is a social superior to the darker-skinned boxer Will Mondrich, and the notable power imbalance in their friendship scenes reinforces a colorist hierarchy.

Will Mondrich: “This will be the biggest match of my career. I am not favored to win it. Your smart friends know you frequent my saloon. Who will wager on me if you are not present?” - Bridgerton 1x04

Simon’s beloved deceased mother is played in flashbacks by a lighter-skinned actress, while his monstrous, cruel father is darker-skinned.

One of the problems with this tokenistic, colorist environment is that it tends to perpetuate color-blindness and a shallow, glossed-over approach toward its characters’ racial experience. Writer Renee Crozier explains that the narratives as “token” characters have “no recognition of their race,” which leads to them perpetuating the idea of a colorblind media, and not committing to “any in-depth or long term development of the character.”

This leads us to how the third piece in our cycle — anti-black racism — again comes into play for token characters in fiction. The plight of the token character is that they’re frequently thrown into a mostly White cast and given no real purpose. There’s a repeated failure to give many of these characters important plotlines that center and investigate their particular lived experience.

The Star Wars franchise was criticized for tokenizing Lando Calrissian in the original trilogy, but even more so for sidelining Finn in the sequel trilogy — and that’s because, upon the release of The Force Awakens in 2015, John Boyega’s character was met with praise and interest for appearing to be something new.

As both the first Black stormtrooper and the first individual inside Storm Trooper armor, Finn offered potential for a meaningful story about the experiences of oppressed, exploited people within the Star Wars universe.

Finn: “FN-2187.”

Poe: “F… what?”

Finn: “That’s the only name they ever gave me.” - Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Yet, the writing wasn’t interested in really going there. Already, by the end of The Force Awakens, we see the failure of tokenism at play, as Finn is knocked out during the film’s climactic battle scene, and he’s pushed to the peripheries of the trilogy’s narrative. Boyega himself called out the film’s tokenizing saying, “Do not bring out a black character, market them to be much more important in the franchise than they are, and have them pushed to the side. It’s not good.”

In Game of Thrones, we see tokenism and colorism at play in the fact that — as Vness Rising writes — “slavery and black experience were represented for the most part by two mixed-race people.” Moreover, near the end, Missandei is killed off in order to motivate a white character, while Jacob Anderson’s Grey Worm is left sidelined, his demands for revenge ignored — making him one of very few characters whose emotional arc is unresolved.

There’s a long history of films casting a token-minority best friend who gets little story development, and TV shows casting people of color as love interests who become obstacles for the couples viewers are really rooting for.

Ross Geller [to Charlie]: “You never really liked Rachel.” - Friends 10x02

Characters like Charlie on Friends, Robert on Sex and the City, and Karen on The Office were at first presented as interesting and attractive, but quickly reduced to stepping stones on the romantic leads’ way back to each other.

What’s perhaps surprising is that, for all our increased focus on racial issues, this sidelining still happens in the present. Even in 2021’s much-beloved Wandavision, fans felt disappointed with how Monica Rambeau was built up as central to the plot but ended up feeling somewhat peripheral in the climax.

Whether the Black character is dying first or their story is proved secondary, tokenism is a way of glossing over the choice not to tell a story that meaningfully challenges a white-centric point of view.

What is the Modern Princess?

As we saw, on her wedding day, Meghan was dubbed a Modern Princess — though this was often meant as little more than code for her race. But what exactly is a modern princess in a truer, deeper sense?

A modern princess stands for accountability and progress. In a culture that has radically shifted in just the past few years, she challenges traditions that need updating and shares what she’s been through honestly — because this isn’t just about her.

CONCLUSION

Politeness, decorum, or holding one’s tongue are no longer options when it comes to systemic failures that work against oppressed groups.

Sometimes, the solution to an establishment that’s refusing to catch up is to create new opportunities outside it. Meghan and Harry realized they couldn’t fit within the existing world of the British monarchy and are now thriving as a result of opting to leave and start their own initiatives.

In film and television, we’re seeing an ever-growing list of critically acclaimed, award-winning, and original Black narratives by Black creators. Due to their outsize impact on our perceptions and assumptions, film and TV bear an extra responsibility to step outside of this tokenizing cycle — and do better.

Ava DuVernay: “We should have images that reflect the real world, it’s really simple. So, you know, all of the all of the heroes and films shouldn’t look one way.” - The Real Daytime (March 2018)

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