The world Meghan Markle entered when she married Prince Harry is unlike any other. But, as a black American woman married to a member of Britain’s upper class, I have caught just a glimpse of it, from a roughly similar perspective.
For a while I lived in London and, through the man who would become my husband, I was introduced to some of the ancient class dynamics that permeate British society. He went to Eton, the elite boys’ boarding school attended by Prince William, Prince Harry, and many prime ministers.
Once, I went with him to the christening of an old classmate’s child. At the event, I sat across from David Cameron, an Old Etonian—or OE, as Eton’s former students are called—who was then the Tory party leader. His wife and my partner were both godparents to the new baby. If I were British, the christening and subsequent lunch with a gaggle of OEs and their equally posh wives would likely have made me nervous, angry, and uncomfortable. But I was somewhat insulated by the fact that, as an outsider, I didn’t have negative associations—or really any associations—with their traditions and ways of expressing themselves.
“Toffs,” as members of the upper class are sometimes called, have a language of their own that by turns obsesses and infuriates Britain’s middle class. More than once, my husband has leaned over during a film and whispered, “They’re speaking Etonian.” I’ve picked up some jargon over the years. Students call the residents of Windsor, where the school is located, “plebes.” They speak of “messing,” or of teatime prepared by the “boys’ maid.” When they say someone was in “Pop,” they are referring to the Eton Society, an elite club. Membership in the Eton Society comes with strange privileges, such as permission to wear decorated waistcoats under your tailcoats and keep your umbrella unfurled in class. I also came to know more than I ever wished about the King’s Scholars, the 14 or so people who score the highest on their entrance exams each year. They live in a separate residence house and are given distinctive gowns to wear over their uniforms. My husband is a firm member of the Labour Party, but Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s superiority as a King’s Scholar is etched into my husband’s memory and seemingly that of other OEs his age, regardless of their party affiliation.
My husband has said that he was drawn to me in part because, again, as an American, all that Etonian mostly washed over me. I suspect this was part of Meghan’s draw for Harry. My husband told me about previous girlfriends not of his background who had been terrified when visiting his family. One girlfriend, a fellow student at the London School of Economics, retreated to his childhood bedroom in tears. His parents’ accents, their formal meals with fish knives and grape scissors—all of these signs combined to remind her that she was not one of them and, as British society had been telling her all her life, that they were “better.” When I first arrived in England, these stories confounded me. Why were these accomplished people so fragile?
I never really cared about who was thought of as posh. While there are some silly efforts to claim membership in a black upper class in the United States by documenting longevity of homeownership on Martha’s Vineyard or by claiming an ancestor as the first black doctor or lawyer in the town, these distinctions don’t permeate the consciousness of most black Americans. That is to say: My race provided an added layer of protection from the tensions that permeate British social interactions. If a black American woman lets birth hierarchy affect her, she will be easily crushed. I’m made of different stuff, sterner stuff.
When I lived in the U.K., people usually expressed incredulity when I said I would never want to be a princess. But I wasn’t angry about the continued existence of the British monarchy; I was indifferent. Although many of my friends complained that the royals suck up precious funds, I didn’t have anything against them other than my general lack of interest in inherited position. In my opinion, they have boring jobs, and most people with phenomenally boring jobs should be paid well.
At yet another OE party, I sat across from a man whose wife was the private secretary to a member of the royal family. I asked him a few questions, not because I was impressed but because I was curious, and not about his wife’s employer. What I really wanted to know was why his wife, a wealthy woman with options, would choose to spend her life curtsying—literally and figuratively—to someone whose sole credential was her birth and marriage? If I divide people into a hierarchy, I tend to be guided by morals, intellect, and action. Most black Americans don’t have to reach too far back in their past to find relatives who worked as domestics or other servants. The legacy of our ancestral background is the inherent belief that drivers, secretaries, and cleaners could easily be our better, of character and intellect. Maybe this is why Meghan startles Brits by closing her own car doors.
Some commentators have posited that racism is driving the couple from the U.K. But racism is laying people low all across North America too. What I found more distinct in the U.K. was the collective acquiescence—physical and psychological—to dominance by birthright.
Although I was mostly bemused, not enraged, by the aristocratic world, I eventually had enough. About a decade ago, I scooped up my English husband and our baby and moved us out of the U.K. to Harlem. My husband, for his part, has become enamored of his freedom from the British class system, and with each passing year, he grows more reluctant to return.