Is anyone really surprised that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have taken this decision? I’m not. We’ve all watched as they’ve suffered severe media scrutiny over the past year, constant speculation about their place in the Royal family, and immense pressure to remain poised and perfect in the face of it all. Interracial couples have always faced challenges. Even as we step into 2020, our society is more racially fraught than ever.
I am married to a white British man. When we first started dating, it was common to get stares from people, especially when we visited his family down in Devon. In a small seaside town, it was an anomaly to see a white man walking down the road hand in hand with a brown woman. Besides gapes and gawks, and people’s surprise when they realised we were together, or due to get married, we were lucky enough not to receive any explicit discrimination – we were sheltered by our very multicultural academic environs.
But that doesn’t mean we’ve avoided it completely. There have been times when I have received subtle hints that I was only marrying my husband to get a British citizenship. It was never the case, and I found myself anxiously explaining this to a number of people. Even registering for our civil ceremony (and then the ceremony itself) was much like a lengthy interrogation from the celebrants trying to make sure that we were indeed marrying for love.
At every step, I had to prove my commitment and intentions. Even today, I often realise that being married to a white man gives me a layer of protection in society, and I have written about it recently. It is seen as a privilege, a favour that I have been accorded, like being welcome into an elite group where I do not belong or deserve to have a place. Bringing up mixed heritage children is complicated in today’s world too, navigating not only our own cultural differences but also making sure that our children find their place in the society that tries very hard to put them into neat boxes.
Race has increasingly become more salient in the current turbulent political climate, and so racial anxiety has also increased manifold. In the case of an interracial couple, such politics can be heightened due to societal pressure and expectations.
Social norms underlie our gut instincts about people. Our default biases are associated with these social norms. Often bias is created when a particular object or person does not meet the normative standards in society, and our instinct is to view them with suspicion and to alienate or stigmatise them. Racial bias and prejudice manifest themselves in the form of implicit actions and microaggressions too, besides explicit hate crimes, and it is these subtle forms of discrimination that have a long-lasting effect on a person’s mental and physical health.
Do you remember watching that viral video where Robert Kelly, an associate professor of international relations at Pusan National University, is being interviewed live on BBC when his two children wander in, and a woman of East Asian racial heritage frantically tries to remove them? An anonymous survey I conducted via social media forums revealed that over 70 per cent of people – most of whom claimed to be liberal, open-minded and non-prejudiced – immediately assumed that she was a nanny. It prompted concerns about the racial biases in our society about people of certain ethnic origins being assumed to be in subservient roles as helpers or assistants. It also raised questions about the perception of mixed-race couples, with people naturally assuming that people have to mate with those who look the same as they do. Society does not take to marrying across these rigid racial divides kindly, seen by some as marrying outside the community, and destroying their own kind by “intermarrying”.
Even when Mark Zuckerberg married Priscilla Chan, an Ivy-league educated Asian-American woman, the media exploded with racial stereotypes. While writing my book, SWAY: Unravelling Unconscious Bias, I spoke with many couples from different ethnic backgrounds, and it was clear that such racial stereotypes and suspicion and scepticism against inter-racial couples remains deeply entrenched in our society even today.
Racial stereotypes mean that women, especially from minority ethnic communities are often expected to behave in a passive manner, and as we are seeing in Meghan Markle’s case, any sign of independence or self-assurance in a woman of colour is swiftly condemned. I know this from my own experiences too. Individually, many of these incidents may seem benign. But cumulatively I believe that they act like low-grade microtraumas that can that end up hurting a person deeply.
Trying to figure out what happened can consume cognitive resources, can lead to an increase in stress hormones, and is akin to being bullied. It is easy to ignore seemingly minor comments, but these microaggressions never exist in isolation. They are indicative of the insidious unconscious biases existing in our society and they have to be called out. Meghan and Harry have tried in vain to call them out in the past. No wonder they’ve had enough.
Dr Pragya Agarwal is a behavioural scientist, activist and writer. She is the author of upcoming book ‘SWAY: Unravelling Unconscious Bias’ with Bloomsbury.
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