At a recent Christmas luncheon with Meghan Markle, Princess Michael of Kent sent a message through her choice of offensive and racist jewelry when she wore a blackamoor brooch. Blackamoor is a style of artwork that depicts men and women with dark, black skin as slaves. Dating back to the Early Modern period of art in Europe, the image of the “black moor” often exoticized individuals of African descent. This art form gave white Europeans the sense that they could decorate their homes or their clothes with symbols directly tied to the oppression of people of color or non-Europeans. Using these art forms objectifies the suffering of human beings, and it attempts to “fetishize” slavery and colonialism.
Was Princess Michael of Kent deliberately sending a message to Meghan Markle? The history behind blackamoor jewelry is clear and particularly prominent in European culture. Some individuals pointed out a “cultural misunderstanding” when it came to the context of this piece of jewelry. Alberto Nardi, the owner of the jewelry store Nardi in the Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy, stated that they had made this piece of jewelry, but that there was a distinction that needed to be made. The individual depicted in the brooch was a Moorish Venetian Prince; what he calls the “antithesis of racism.” Even though it is important to understand the different histories behind these depictions, wearing this jewelry has a different cultural context in England, which was an empire dependent on colonialism and slavery. Anastazja Buttitta, a jewelry and art historian, placed the piece in the cultural context in which it was created,
“In Italy when you see a piece of jewelry depicting a black man, you don’t immediately think racism. We can’t use modern-day categorizations about racism when we’re talking about objects that were crafted during the early modern period. We have to put things in context and look at the society and the time in which they were created.”
Yes, we do need to put things in context, and we can use modern-day categorizations because these depictions have real cultural and racial implications in England, a society built on imperialism and colonialism. I understand the possible misconception of culture pointed out by both Nardi and Buttitta. However, I still believe that, given the context in which the princess wore the brooch, she should not have chosen to do so, especially at a luncheon meeting Prince Harry’s fiancé, Meghan Markle. While Princess Michael is a relative of the extended family and not representative of the entire views of the Royal Family, this incident bears the question of how Meghan Markle’s biracial identity will change the culture of the family.
Since the incident, Princess Michael of Kent has made a statement noting that this jewelry has been worn many times before but then apologized that “it has caused offense.” Yet, she failed to apologize for her actions and even excused her decision to wear the blackamoor brooch. Essentially saying that no one in the past has been criticized for wearing the same type of jewelry, and thus thought it was then okay to do the same. Identity politics has become increasingly employed on different international platforms. While individuals may not have been called out for wearing this offensive jewelry in the past, it doesn’t mean it was acceptable to do so.
To understand the context of imperialism and slavery in the British colonies, it is important to think about the history of this empire. The British Empire became incredibly powerful from the late 16th century to the early 18th century, amassing colonies and the wealth that came along with those capitalist holdings. In many of these colonies, slave labor fueled the entire economic system. A country with roots and ties to slavery will always have to address the issue of race as it was a construct used to subjugate other human beings. While it may be 2018, we still know that the ghosts of colonialism, slavery, and racial injustice loom in many facets and institutions of societies all over the world.
While some suspect that there have been other members of the Royal Family who were mixed race, Meghan Markle is the first person of color to be publicly acknowledged. However, it is important to understand that Meghan Markle is not the first mixed race person to enter into the royal family. According to Historian Mario De Valdes y Cocom, Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, was a descendent of a black section of the Portuguese Royal family.
Many commented on her appearance in contrast to those who were supposed to be royal. Why is Queen Charlotte’s mixed-race status relevant? The answer to this question is the same reason as why we are talking about Meghan Markle’s biracial identity. Valdes says, “‘In reaction to the horrors of what happened in Charlottesville, which is named after this queen, her ancestry is very relevant.'” To be black and to be royal have never been identifiers that could be held by the same person. Meghan Markle is now making this a reality, and some members of the Royal Family aren’t quite ready yet.