There’s a particular look that women of colour know well. The tutting and the pursed lips. The eye rolls and the raised brows. The averted gaze and crossed arms. Their body language and unspoken words are designed to do one particular thing: Put us in our place.
As women of colour, we experience it everywhere we go. You might call it a microaggression, a chip on our shoulder or even a figment of our imagination, but it dictates our personal lives and careers, erecting barriers and keeping us within the confines of what people expect non-white women to be.
After the Queen’s death, when members of the Royal Family met mourners outside Balmoral, I saw this look again in how some of the public interacted with Meghan Markle. While some greeted her with the same warmth as they extended to Kate Middleton, others gave her a more icy reception. One video appeared to show a woman folding her hands while Meghan engaged with those around her, while others appeared to show royal fans shaking their heads and deliberately looking away to make their disapproval clear.
The racist treatment of Meghan Markle is plain to see: it’s documented across our media, to be found in derogatory headlines and the obsession of some talk shows (and their hosts) with her life.
The double standard between her and Kate Middleton is perhaps where this pernicious racism has been most exposed, and the past week was no different. Whereas Kate Middleton was seen as altruistic and motherly for not attending the palace following the Queen’s death, Meghan Markle was considered selfish and inconsiderate. It’s abundantly clear that in the eyes of some, Black women can never win – especially ones who dare to marry into the symbol of (white) elitism that is the royal family.
Women of colour who live and work in white spaces know how this treatment – often at the hands of white women – can come to dominate and limit our lives. As a mixed-race, visibly Muslim woman I have felt the brunt of this as the only Muslim on my course at university, as the only Muslim in some of my first jobs, and even at the hands of some members of my family who consider me foreign and threatening for wearing a hijab.
When I saw how some of the public reacted to Meghan and the gaslighting on social media that came in defence of it, I felt the full force of what it means to be a woman of colour in a country as divided and elitist as Britain. What Meghan Markle faces at the hands of the press and the British public who interact with her is what women of colour across the country are met with in job interviews and workplaces, from partners’ families who are unwelcoming of their race and from strangers on the street. It is what we internalise as we are systemically and purposefully beaten down by a country and a system that seeks to disenfranchise those who don’t conform to its narrow confines of Britishness.
The first time I experienced a look like this was when I went out of the house wearing a hijab for the first time. As a mixed-race teenager, I had been unknowingly passing as white my entire life, and I didn’t realise that the adults around me – in the supermarket, on the bus, and even my teachers at school – could be capable of regarding me in a way dripping with such loathing. It made me curl up into myself and feel uncomfortable – and even frightened – in white spaces that I had once inhabited with such ease. It made me feel like a foreigner in my own home town: something threatening and repulsive that grown-ups diverted their children’s eyes from in case my otherness was contagious.