There is a subtext to the story revolving around Prince Harry and Meghan Markle that you probably would not recognise if you are a part of the dominant majority in society. You might not even recognise it if you are a part of a suppressed minority, especially if new to it through migration.
I recognise it because I witnessed it as a boy and young lad, and then I have lived it for over 30 years. Let’s see if I can explain.
In “The Great Reset: A letter to my Father and my ‘Sliding Doors’ self” I was clear that it was only because of my Asian-Australian wife’s influence that I was able to become the best version of myself.
I know that many who read that would disagree viscerally – perhaps some who knew me in my younger life would do so partly out of parochialism, but objections are mainly out of xenophobia.
It is absolutely true that the life that I created with my wife allowed me to enter a path towards reaching my full potential as a human being, not that I claim in any way to be there yet as described in “Nobody Is Perfect: We men must keep trying“. Furthermore, my recent post “Morals and Merit: WEF Davos agenda panel with Prof Michael Sandel” should make it clear that it has nothing to do with our “success towards wealth’.
As explained in “Racial Prejudice and Bias: A matter of degrees” for many reasons this past year has been a breakthrough for me standing in my own truth about my racist upbringing. I truly shudder at the thought of who I would have become if I had not walked through that ‘sliding door’.
Of course if I had not I would have been none the wiser at the greater potential I possessed. I was fortunate to be raised by pretty decent human beings in the context in which they have lived their lives so, because of them, I was always destined to be a reasonable human being myself.
None of that is inconsistent or contradictory even though many may immediately reach that conclusion. Of course I love my parents and appreciate the start in life they gave me along with the genetic and learned elements of my personality that I gained from them which I cherish such as my capacity for empathy and compassion. I could not have become the man I am without those characters, and I have them because of my parents.
Equally, of course I shudder when I hear them express racist beliefs like recently when my father stated to me “who would want to live next to Indians!” I feel embarrassed especially when I look at my wife and our sons and many of our friends knowing that most Australians can not and do not distinguish them as being of Sri Lankan descent from people of Indian descent or other Asians for that matter. Anyhow, it would not matter if it was said about indigenous or African-Australians, it is still a sharp reminder of the racism and prejudice I was exposed to in my younger years and a glimpse of the culture I would have been immersed in if I had not stepped back from it in my decision to pursue a different life.
So what does all of this have to do with Prince Harry and his wonderful wife Meghan Markle?
Let me delve further and go back into my upbringing. I recall how a family close to ours had a daughter who married an indigenous man and I recall how the men would make fun of her father about that, and about his grandchildren when they came along.
Her father was a good bloke, and he just tolerated the racist nonsense. To protest would probably incite more of the behaviour from them and would likely mean the ending of his closest friendships since his adolescence. Outwardly at least these jibes did not appear to bother him nor did it appear he allowed this to affect how he behaved towards his daughter or grandchildren.
I even recall it being said on occasions by a close mentor in relation to mixed marriages, and I paraphrase, “you notice when someone marries an ‘abo’ they always go down to their level rather than raising them up?”
Now I readily admit that those memories are from my upbringing 30-40 years ago, and much has changed. But a lot has not changed, and when I recently watched Sacha Baren Cohen’s superbly crafted, often confronting, “Who Is America” television series some parallels were uncanny. Specifically the piece where his character Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello holds a community gathering to provide information on his plans to build an economically-beneficial mosque there, some of the dialogue was identical to what was relayed to me by my parents when they with other members of the committee objected at a recent meeting of a sporting group to the President commencing with (the now standard throughout most of Australia) acknowledgment of country to show respect for local indigenous communities. My indignant parents finished their recount saying “she won’t try that sh!t again!” It almost beggars belief that they would share the story with me, and I cannot decide whether they did so thinking I would share their righteous indignation or whether they were expressing pious passive aggression towards me and my family and at our values.
As they say, the more things change the more they stay the same…
I feel a great deal of empathy for Harry and Meghan, and I think many others who have lived mixed-ethnicity relationships will do likewise. I relate to their anxieties and pain that are difficult to overcome and which explain their need to be heard, even though many will consider this latest interview as a grab for celebrity and money at the expense of especially his family.
I have been estranged from my siblings for over a decade. The event that brought everything to a head was superficial and a convenient excuse to avoid dealing with the very real and deep underlying emotional issues. Undoubtedly a major aspect of those strong emotions was the difficult financial environment under which we lived in the whole-of-family mission to keep our family farm from bank foreclosure.
Still I am certain that my family’s inability to deal with diversity had a great deal to do with it. Racial issues were never far below the surface within my family from early in my relationship with my wife. Moreover, I think it is an entirely natural development for ‘expecting’ parents to prepare the environment in which they will raise their children, as we both were drawn to, and that greater drive to provide a safe family environment forces all to either truly accept the diversity in the family or reject it. I suspect that many people in mixed relationships naturally distance from their families of origin when their inability to accept the diversity becomes apparent with the next generation on the way.*
I need, also, to state emphatically that nothing here should he taken to infer that I suggest it is only Caucasians that are predisposed to these behaviours, not by a long stretch, and it is also true that in many ways the degree I have been accepted into my wife’s family has been less than she into mine.**
Alas, just as children from mixed relationships can feel like they fit nowhere, so too can their parents. For us we tend to search for belonging in our friendships, from within our close families that we create together, and from the roles that we inhabit trying to contribute towards better societies including ones that are inclusive and accepting of diversity.
I relate to Prince Harry in another way, though my experience of this is on an altogether other scale to his situation. As I explained on my “About” page my roots are a pioneering family in the northern Queensland town of Innisfail where my Great Grandparents moved when there were only 5 houses. My whole extended family is, rightly, very proud of our history with the town.
Having commenced university just one month after turning 17, then deciding at 20 years of age to not return to the family farm but instead starting a postgraduate degree, even my closest family insinuates that I am not a true ‘Innisfailite’. When I reminded them that I returned many weekends and every holiday period through my undergraduate years to work on the farm, and even returned when requested each year for a month to help at busy times well into my PhD program, my contributions were laughed off as insignificant.
I sometimes laugh to myself how they nor the broader township never applies the same logic to one of the greatest sons, Billy Slater, who left the town at a similar age (for an apparently more ‘noble’ contribution to Australian society) and who was given a town parade for scoring a try in a State of Origin rugby league game.
In many ways I have felt like my family has turned its back on me. (And you will understand that the hurt is all the more deep if you have read “Nobody Is Perfect: We men must keep trying” and realise that as a 15 year old I was actually the one who stood up to save our family from catastrophe.)
Yet they will tell you it is me who turned my back. And there has long been a very strong undercurrent of perception that I was disloyal to my family.
In recent years, however, I have grown more determined to reclaim my family history as my own and that of my sons. That is why I have been forthright in discussing the truth about my history on these pages.
Just because I chose a different path, living in a different place with someone who might not meet the expectations of many in my family or town, does not mean that I lose my birthright as a member of my proud family or my home town.
That, I believe, is why Prince Harry is determined to make sure that he continues to speak up. Just because he has taken a step back from his royal duties does not mean that he is no longer a member of his family, and he likely intends to remind all that is a birthright that nobody can extinguish!
It is well understood that prejudice and bias is not isolated or new to contemporary ethnically-mixed societies and they have long existed within societies across many artificial subgroupings of people. One form particularly relevant to the elites of society is based on social standing or ‘class’. Among royal families that can trace their ancestry for centuries and have jealously guarded their ‘bloodline’ this type of elitism is embedded in their culture.
Royals marrying below their rank was rare even in the 20th century but has become commonplace in the 2 decades of this century. Nonetheless, a quick google search of “Prince William or Harry and commoner” results in a plethora of articles ranging in quality and credibility listed over hundreds of search result pages confirming that this remains a topic of interest and discussion in societies.
All three most recent marriages of the highest ranking English royals were to ‘commoners’ – first Prince Charles to Camilla Parker Bowls (also a divorcee), then Prince William to Kate Middleton, and finally Prince Harry to Meghan Markle.
Prince Harry, however, is the first member of the English royal family to marry an ethnically diverse partner as well as a ‘commoner’ and divorcee.
As I explained in “Racial Prejudice and Bias: A matter of degrees” a major belief underlying racism is the genetic – i.e. bloodline – superiority of Caucasian people.
Even sexism plays a role in these matters in patriarchal societies where, contrary to the outdated though still highly prevalent view that behind every great man is a good woman, by inference behind every man of significant potential who is perceived to have diverted from a good and proper path must be a manipulative and deceitful woman.
Clearly in cultures with endemic, systemic racism, views over ‘contamination’ of the thinking and actions of a Prince who married a ‘common’ woman, in parallel with implications for the royal ‘bloodline’, are on steroids.
From this way of thinking, while Prince Harry might not have previously been ‘perfect’ in his actions, having been a bit of an ‘English lad’ at times, his pure ‘blue blood’ meant that he retained the potential to be the best version of himself, but with Meghan that is no longer possible as he has moved down to her standard.
On the contrary, I believe with the insight he is now gaining into humanity he has the greatest chance of reaching his full potential, as his Mother also instilled in him by her influence and example, and together with his wife and their family as role models may make significant inroads into some of the most deeply entrenched problems humanity confronts in reaching our collective full potential.
Sexism, classism and racism are each powerful undercurrents to oppose in isolation. This brave young family is battling all three, simultaneously. I sincerely wish them all the best.
From where I stand I have to say emphatically that Meghan is complementing and completing Harry in every sense, and I am enthralled to be an observer of how they continue to challenge outdated and entirely pernicious biases and prejudices within our societies.
Addendum 11 March 2021
*Firstly an admission – being Australian I was naive to the degree of concern the couple had raised over the race-based coverage of them in the UK media. I am not an ardent ‘royal watcher’ so I had not paid especially close attention to their press coverage even in Australia.
As for the interview, I have to admit to being surprised myself by the comment by a family member to Harry about the potential looks of their future children, which he and they assumed was a reference to their potential skin tone.
Before anything else it needs to be accepted that he and they took this not as a naïve question, and not as a question at all. He and they interpreted it as rhetorical – i.e. a statement – which Harry said in that moment shocked him and made him feel uncomfortable.
It has been amazing to see the ‘armchair experts’ swing into action and if not deny the racist undertones of the conversation, at least seek to cast aspersions on how Harry and Megan interpreted the conversation.
I consider the arguments about lack of context given for this conversation to be an utter furphy because they neglect the most obvious of contexts.
First, Meghan and Harry are intelligent people capable of interpreting contexts themselves.
The subtext of these points are that Harry and Meghan are so emotional that they jumped to the wrong conclusion.
But mentioning the discussion publicly has serious consequences, of which they were well aware, so it is inconceivable to suggest that Harry especially had not challenged himself rigorously before stating it and allowing it to aire?
The alternative, of course, is that they were being deliberately manipulative.
Either way, again there is the subtext that Meghan negatively influenced Harry’s thinking and actions.
The most important context, however, is that these people are not unknown to them. Harry grew up in his family. Context around racism within his family has been built up for Harry through his whole life – in specific events he recalls, and in less memorable events he has forgotten and a general feeling that he has experienced through his life.
In other words, Harry knows who in his family is racist better than anybody else outside of his family. And it does not matter when he became conscious of it, or when it became a significant issue to him, or when he was prepared to verbalise that to another or others.
Raising ‘context’ by people who have ZERO appreciation for the actual context is entirely without merit.
Moreover, that many who do raise this point have ZERO appreciation for contexts in which these conversations occur from the minority positions means that, yes, their viewpoint is of less value. And it is obvious that the media, in their scramble to make a soap opera of this very personal and hurtful situation, is trying their best in attempting to address this point by who they are interviewing on the subject.
The simple truth is that the only people of value listening to about those specific conversations are those who were directly involved.
Now that might not sell media advertising if those involved wish to remain discrete but that is the simple reality.
Interestingly, I personally had the opposite experience of Harry. In the lead up to the birth of our first child, with racism having been an ongoing uncurrent, even though the likely appearance of our children was a topic that was avoided, on an occasion where my heavily pregnant wife was absent I sat down with my sibling’s children and discussed how we were excited that their aunty would soon bring another baby into the family. And I subtly mentioned that, just like their aunty, our baby would be browner than I was.
The adults were around the periphery and stayed silent while the kids listened intently and excitedly. In reality it was a non-event from the kids perspective, as usual it was forgotten as soon as it was said, as it should be, because that was my aim – to begin to normalise this simple reality. But the quietness of the adults alluded to their displeasure, and soon after one of my siblings showed that annoyance with a sharp and irritated comment to me.
I have to give this person their due in that, previously when the partner of my other sibling hurt us greatly by relaying to our extended family (in the presence of my uncles/aunts/cousins, etc.) a story about how an “Asian bitch” had mistreated them (according to their expectations on the standards of service) during a shopping trip, they supported us by confirming to other members of the family that yes, indeed, that was a racist thing to say (and yes, that is what we have dealt with – denial that even that was racist – and then an expectation that even if it was ‘tactless’ that we should just suck it up and not make an issue of it).
At the time I was unaware of the classic historical research on how black children see race – e.g. the ‘doll test’ – but I think all parents instinctively understand the importance of providing an environment for their children where they feel they truly belong and are accepted for who they are.
I should also say that I do not consider myself blameless in our deteriorating relationships, and with this sibling in particular I was unduly critical and judgmental as a consequence of developing a sort of neurosis over saving my parents as a result of my post traumatic disorder from the event that occurred when I was 15.
Still this incident proves that my family was so sensitive about the issue of ethnicity and appearances that they would rather just try to ignore it and avoid any recognition of the plain and simple, and harmless, truth that our baby will be browner than others in our family.
That anger was expressed at an “insignificant issue” being raised only exposes the truth that it is a significant issue for them that they would prefer to avoid.
No doubt context is important in these conversations. Need I spell out the difference in an adult at the very early stages of a relationship questioning what inter-racial children might look like, when their full life experience ensures they know the answer as well as know that raising the issue then is likely to offend and hurt the person to whom it was directed as well as the couple, in comparison to excitedly discussing with children the imminent arrival of another family member?
The people present are the only ones who have any understanding of that context and even then sometimes some of those people may not have a high degree of awareness of their own racist or prejudiced frame of reference.
That may seem an entirely inappropriate viewpoint to those who tend to deny the existence of racism, prejudice or bias, but that is exactly why much effort at improving diversity and inclusion within society is and must be aimed at subconscious or unconscious bias.
**As I reread this piece and reflected further I realised that there is point which many racists and prejudiced readers will raise as ‘proof’ of internal inconsistency in my argument. I recognise it because of immersion in a prejudiced culture and my awakening to it.
The racist and prejudiced will argue that their beliefs are ‘natural’, thus all humans – regardless of cultural background – are inherently racist unless forced by society through political correctness or morals to suppress those ‘natural instincts’.
That is why the common refrain of the racist is “why would we be anti-racist when all of these other cultures are racist?”
Of course that racism and prejudiced views is not limited to one culture, or even may be common, does not make it a core, or ‘natural’, human characteristic.
On the other hand there is no doubt that these behaviours are learned.
Thus when I said in “Racial Prejudice and Bias: A matter of degrees” that my wife did not conceive that she may be treated differently in Australia because of her ethnicity, and in fact that her prior experience had been that Caucasians were treated as special in Sri Lanka, I can easily anticipate the prejudiced reader’s viewpoint as a mix between denial that this is the actual case while at the same time taking smug colonialist affirmation that Caucasians are special and naturally superior because even the indigenous inhabitants recognise it.
And in this piece above, when I stated the lack of acceptance of me by my wife’s family, that would surely be taken by the prejudiced to confirm their racism or prejudiced attitudes.
It was not and is not racism or prejudice, and this is why.
I first met my ‘in-laws’ when I was 20 and was extremely fit and muscular (at the time I was often asked if I was taking steroids, which I was not). I was also about as confident and forward as I ever was in my life.
My wife comes from an extremely conservative culture of patriarchy which is even greater within her family for idiosyncratic reasons. She was meant to go to university to study, and only to study, to pay respect to her parents’ sacrifices including migrating for a better future for her.
Any boyfriend would have been a shock to them at that time. That I was extremely well-built and confident was especially confronting to them.
Moreover, my wife was my first true love and as is clear from “How I Rebuilt Myself After A Breakdown” I was extremely inexperienced with women and relationships. I finished the last exam of my undergraduate degree on the last Friday of exam period, went to the club to party with mates, but celebrations felt empty without her after she had been (quite literally) summoned home a week earlier when her exams had completed. I called her and asked if I could visit and she mustered the courage to ask her parents, and to their credit they agreed to a visit over the weekend. I then went to bed and woke at about 1am and drove the 6 hrs straight arriving around breakfast time.
Now I realise how confronting that must have been to them, but for me I just wanted to spend as much time with my love as possible as we were to be 800kms apart for 3 months.
From this visit and our earliest interactions it was clear that, while I was respectful, at least from the perspective of my own cultural background, I was intelligent and strong, and it would be difficult for me to simply accept situations without discussions. In reality, my wife has her parents’ strength, and I have little doubt that subconsciously she was searching for somebody who was capable of allying with her to try to have her voice heard, even if that often placed her in challenging situations (anything else would be inauthentic to who she is, and she is the most authentic person I know).
In other words the differences are cultural and they persist to this day.
Over the years I have come to understand my in-laws better, perhaps they me, and with understanding comes appreciation even if our inherent incompatibility remains meaning that the relationship will always be one of tolerance rather than real acceptance.
I have noticed that many migrants seem to conservatively hold onto the culture that they left out of emotional security, and in saying that I am reminded by how the Greek people reacted negatively to the depiction of Greek-American culture in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”. Out of anxiety, migrant parents often try to hold their children to that culture within the tight cultural circles that they create, which increases pressure on the children as simultaneously they try to fit in at school. Thus these young people must straddle two highly conformational cultures at highly impressionable ages which creates enormous potential for emotional intelligence.
Many migrant families are rightfully proud of how they have found a way to simultaneously juggle the cultural terrains they must to establish flourishing lives.
It is, however, an altogether other scale for a strongly conservative, patriarchal family to fully and seamlessly integrate a person, especially a male, from a culture where respect is not a birthright but is bi-directional and earned every moment by actions, and where the basis of healthy relationships is unconditional love. And it is difficult on the other hand to accept that one’s partner’s parents’ prime objective is to be shown respect at all times, irrespective of how much they may be hurting their child in attempting to extract from them the behaviours that they perceive demonstrate the appropriate level of respect.
If that seems like superiority on my part I admit it is something I have challenged myself on at times and I am aware that self awareness is never perfect even in hindsight. Rather I believe it to be borne of hurt at knowing what has been the impact of this continual contest of culture, especially on my wife, but also on myself. And I cannot in all honesty say it is without anger because I came so close to losing everything on more than one occasion.
I am not an assertive ‘man of machismo’, and our authority within our own home is very evenly divided between my wife and I, but I found it impossible to standby and allow her (very assertive) father to enter our home and assume ultimate authority, for example to sit wherever he chose including in my seat at the head of the table if he so chose (which he often did), and to even pick up our newborn out of the bassinet without asking and without any consideration for whether he was asleep and for how long and how difficult it had been to get him to sleep – in other words regardless of whether it was good for the baby (which he also did).
Around the birth of our first born it became crystal clear in so many ways how their insecurities led them to assert that our baby must be inculcated with their culture; for instance during the early stages of childbirth they were in our room with us both chanting Buddhist mantras (thankfully the nurses moved them on), and in the first weeks they did help out by cooking for us at times, but refused to reduce the level of spice when we said that our baby had an upset stomach from it. Their insecurities were very strongly expressed at this time and were placing tremendous pressure on us as a family, but my wife – sensing that delivering their first grandchild was an opportunity to earn favour with them when she had been disfavoured for so very long – was too weakened to enforce appropriate boundaries.
Moreover I could not do them the honour of calling them Mother and Father because they felt it was their right to be shown that level of respect no matter how they had treated me or continued to treat me, irrespective of whether they reciprocated with respect let alone showed they even liked me (love was obviously a non-issue), and when they treated their son like he could do no wrong while every problem in the family was laid squarely at the feet of their significantly less favoured daughter and now me.
Nonetheless, because these tensions are rooted in the anxiety of potential loss and cultural difference, not perceived superiority due to culture or ethnicity, I do not consider it either racism or prejudice.
The ‘inherent incompatibility’ which prevents close family bonds, which sadly occurs in many families, is due to personalities, including mine, more than anything else even if the strength and manner that those personality traits are expressed are heightened due to anxieties.
Perhaps the biggest test is how we ‘feel’. Knowing our parents better than all others outside our family, our feeling is that with my wife’s family there has not been a moment or event where they have been embarrassed or felt conspicuous with me as a member of their family; in fact there have been many times that we have felt that they were obviously proud in public that I was a family member.
I cannot in all conscience leave this conversation without some deeply personal anecdotes of how this all translates to the life of our family. My wife and I had not been together as a couple for long – certainly less than 2 years – when we had a terrible fight. It was so long ago that I cannot remember the details but it was borne of cultural difference and a result of my wife being between me and her parents. In a rush of blood and anger she said and did something that was wrong (universally across cultures). In that split moment she realised that she had crossed a line and immediately began crying and dropped to her knees, and bowed down with her hands on the ground in prayer position at my feet as she sobbed asking for forgiveness. I immediately began crying and fell to my knees to be at the same level as her and asked that she never do it again, as I told her that she is and will always be my equal in every way no matter what happens. We were very young, and I only partially understood the cultural significance of her gesture which came from deep within her in that moment of extreme emotion. I admit I still do not completely understand why she did it. I reacted to it as if it was a gesture of subservience, and though that was part of it I now understand it was more about respect. She never has felt compelled to do it again, and I sincerely hope that I forever gained her respect and trust that I would never seek to use culture or any other means to assert dominance over her.
The second anecdote is that my wife has taught and encouraged our children to adopt this ritual – the same position – to their grandparents at Sinhalese new year as is her custom. The children enjoy it as a small part of Sinhalese custom of which they can follow as they have come to understand very little of it in our lives straddling the two cultures. However, on one occasion my parents were visiting and observed it happening. They were outraged. Somehow it was an affront to them.
I feel enormous gratitude to my wife for choosing to spend her life with me. Straddling culture was always going to be a way of life for her in migrating, but her path has been challenging and she never chose the easy options. She has fought for me, for us and for our family. She also has fought for her culture, her parents and her family. I hope she always felt she fought for herself, though I am certain at times she was unsure. Sometimes it pushed her and us to the brink. But we have loved each other with all of our hearts and as soon as I came to know her there was never room for another. She is my one and only, and it is because of her that I can accept the shy, socially awkward, lost young man I was up to the moment I fell in love with her. She completes me and I would be lost without her – that has been the universal truth of my life…
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© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2021