[Part 1 of 2]
During and in the direct aftermath of the May 19, 2018 wedding ceremony of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, the media generally framed the giggles, smirks, eye-rolls, and jaw-drops by some members of the British Royal Family during Bishop Michael Curry’s wedding address, as apolitical, descriptive, and/or as inoffensive, and even understandable due to the “quintessentially American address.” White British journalist and CNN international anchor, Richard Quest, defended the royals:
Look, there’s nothing wrong [with the negative reactions]. He went on for 30 minutes. [Note: Bishop Curry spoke for 14 minutes, not 30 minutes.] He could have taken a minute or two out and not done any damage to it. . . . This is a high church of England service in St. George’s Chapel. . . . You did not necessarily, normally expect to have an American-style preacher. … And I assure you, nobody was thinking oh, this is dreadful, this is awful. … don’t forget, multi-cultural Britain, there are large populations, Asian, Indian, African populations right across the country. So they will have welcomed. And the Prince of Wales, by the way, interesting, the Prince of Wales . . . has said he does not want to be defender of the faith. . . . He has said he wants to be defender of faiths. So multicultural Britain is really where it’s at in the future.
Live on the air, white British CNN contributor and author of Harry, Conversations with the Prince, Angela Levin, said that the Bishop and the gospel choir made her “uncomfortable.” Later in the day, she told CNN’s Don Lemon she changed her mind and liked both.
In the immediate aftermath of the wedding, an uncommon article by Afua Hirsch, who like Meghan Markle has white European and African heritage, counter-framed the wedding ceremony as “a rousing celebration of blackness.” Hirsch wrote about the wedding this way:
. . . talented black people were more than adornment. The sermon, delivered by the Episcopalian church leader the Rev Michael Curry, began with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr before enlightening the congregation on the wisdom of spirituals . . . and casting Jesus as a revolutionary. … Zara Phillips [grandchild of Queen] was visibly in a state of shock. … The teenage cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason . . . revealed the depth of talent that made him the first black person to win BBC Young Musician . . .. The Kingdom gospel choir sang soul classic Stand By Me: a love song, yes, but one that first rose to fame in the midst of the civil rights movement ….”
But even Hirsch, who has a significant book on racism and the British, did not take them to task.
As Bishop Curry—a US champion of civil rights—spoke, Queen Elizabeth II’s granddaughters, including Zara Phillips, with mouth wide open, and Princess Beatrice and Princess Eugenie, who donned matching smirks, were excruciatingly visible. As the Bishop addressed the mostly white congregation, the future Queen consort and sister-in-law to Prince Harry, Kate Middleton, side-rolled her eyes to another future consort and Prince Harry’s step-mother (Camilla Parker-Bowles). Clearly the eye roll was not meant to convey appreciation for the Bishop’s address. Future King William V also had a fit of giggles.
I argue that the white racial frame (WRF) is the core reason white adult royals, with assumedly every opportunity to learn proper manners and who should be exposed to the multi-racial nation in which they live (not to mention the world), would think it appropriate to giggle, smirk, open mouths wide in disbelief, and/or eye-roll during the Bishop’s address. The WRF also helps explain why so many whites (and others) are inclined to swiftly dismiss as harmless, or find amusing, or not even notice, such behavior. In the facial expressions of these white royals, the pro-white subframe, firmly reinforcing white superiority, civilization, virtue, and moral goodness, was on full display.
In his ground-breaking books Systemic Racism and The White Racial Frame, sociologist and social theorist Joe Feagin proposed the analytical concept of the WRF. According to Feagin, since at least the seventeenth century, this frame has provided the broad white-generated perspective from which whites (and others) in western countries commonly view society. Like a typical frame, with its customary edging meant to enhance, display, and protect a photograph or painting, the WRF includes five elements which heightens and preserves white superiority, civilization, virtue, and moral goodness. The elements are: the verbal-cognitive aspect (racial stereotypes and prejudices); the integrating cognitive aspects (racial narratives and interpretations); visual imagery and auditory aspects; racialized emotions; and tendencies towards discriminatory action. Within the wider WRF is the pro-white subframe and the anti-others subframe. “Others” are regularly framed as lesser than whites and all things deemed white are framed as superior in the minds of most whites (and some others).
Imagine if African American wedding guests Oprah Winfrey, Serena Williams, or Gina Torres had giggled, smirked, or dropped their jaws when the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke. Imagine Williams’ eye-rolling to Torres as the white male Archbishop spoke. Would their conduct be framed as a harmless response to a “quintessentially British address”? Would it go unnoticed or be deemed endearing? I doubt that even Queen Oprah could get away with such bad behavior because the difference is this. Bishop Curry’s “quintessentially American address” is code for “quintessentially African American address.” As Afua Hirsch put it, “For people used to being part of the majority, these may be symbols they don’t easily see.” I will put it less gently. Mocking the Bishop is in keeping with the WRF; whereas, mocking the Archbishop of Canterbury, a white male Briton with a history of whiteness behind him and who in many ways signifies white Britain, is in direct opposition to the WRF and its pro-white subframe. Mocking one is acceptable, if not tolerable; mocking the other is not. Incidentally, the Archbishop of Canterbury “gushed” very positively over Bishop Curry’s address.
This is not the first time that bemused royals captured the media’s attention for their (white racist) giggling and were excused for it. In 2017 Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, visiting the Canadian Arctic, laughed so hard when Inuits were throat-singing, that one reporter remarked, “The royal couple did everything but stuff handkerchiefs in their mouths.” Nevertheless, the same journalist admitted to finding “royals who get the giggles quite endearing.”
In contrast, in his address,* Bishop Curry honored Markle’s African American heritage. This was no laughing matter. The address may not have been relatable to the mostly elite white guests at the wedding. However, to the majority of people who occupy the Commonwealth, not to mention planet earth, Bishop Curry surely was more relevant than the elite (mostly white and male) British establishment. That’s too bad as he clearly has much to teach the giggling, smirking, jaw-dropping, eye-rolling royals. Dr. King’s daughter certainly approved. She understood what some of the royals could not. According to CNN’s Don Lemon, “Bernice King tweeted out after the MLK quote at the royal wedding, ‘Your life, teachings, and words still matter so much, daddy. Congrats Harry and Meghan.’ ”
*The full text of Bishop Michael Curry’s wedding address is here.