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Why Meghan and Harry's marriage story is resonating with people


Dodging paparazzi, learning when and how to curtsy, fabulous clothes, exotic travel and famous friends, along with shockingly ugly media coverage and a hyper-controlling PR machine - it's all part of the world of Harry and Meghan, the once-royal couple who tell their story in the Netflix docuseries that dropped last week. In it, the couple give their version of the events that led them to move across the Atlantic, to relinquish their titles and leave their royal life behind.

But while most people will never experience what it means to be royalty, there is something deeply resonant for many families, and that is the couple's experience with racism, both from outside observers and within the family itself. That's something our next guest has thought about, both personally, as someone who is part of an interracial marriage, and professionally, as a researcher. Sarah Gaither is a professor of psychology at Duke University. She spoke with my colleague Michel Martin, and they began by discussing what it is about Harry and Meghan's relationship that people connect with.

SARAH GAITHER: I think they have brought light to, in kind of our modern-day discussions of being biracial, being interracial, is this intersections of you can be extremely privileged and have access to everything in your life possible, and yet you still are going to face the same levels of racism as others without that same level of privilege. And to me, I think that's what's brought them into the spotlight.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Well, one of the reasons we found you is that you published a piece in Vox last year. It's titled, "Many Interracial Couples Know Exactly What Meghan Markle Went Through." And you talk about the fact that as a biracial person in an interracial marriage yourself, that you've experienced a number of the same things, like, for example, this concern about how your kids would look. Will you talk a little bit more about that?

GAITHER: Yeah. So I think the big pressures that lots of people face in interracial relationships is this expectation of what race is supposed to mean, what people are supposed to look like, why you chose to interracially marry outside of your racial group - right? - all of these kind of societal pressures. For me, I'm very white-presenting. My dad's Black. My mom's white. I'm even more white-presenting than Meghan Markle is. And I was pregnant at the same time she was, so I like to think I'm connected to her personally in lots of ways.

And people questioned me all the time, just like the royal family was questioning her, on what my kids were going to look like. I was pregnant with twins. I think in contrast, Meghan Markle, the question there was a little bit different - right? - in that it was because they were darkening or coloring this royal line, this royal lineage. But there were some mixed-race people back further in their lineage, but on average, she was the first modern-day drop of color to be considered within the royal family. And this one-drop rule of how it is we consider people who are mixed race and seeing them only as Black, not as anything else, and exemplifying those negative characteristics linked to being Black in both societies, in the U.K. and the U.S. - that's what we know lots of multiracial people, especially those who identify as Black-white, are constantly facing from others.

MARTIN: Well, to that end, though, your research indicates that - and research you've done and that you have reported on indicates that - I'll quote from your article here. You said that "recent research shows that people have high levels of implicit and explicit bias against Black-white couples in particular." You're saying that people who represent kind of a Black-white dynamic are far more likely to be subjected to these negative stereotypes and negative assumptions than other groups. That's fascinating in and of itself, isn't it?

GAITHER: Yeah, and it's linked to our history here in the United States with slavery. This white-Black binary is an obsession within our country. And this white-Black binary is what fuels all of our hatred between access that white people have, the inequities that Black people face, the systemic problems that these two groups are constantly competing over in different ways. And this is why the interracial relationship sphere - most research shows that perceptions of Black-white interracial couples are the least likely to be accepted in our society.

And we see this in media representations as well. More commercials, more families tend to portray Asian-white mixed-race families more often than white-Black because we have this standard way of thinking about white supremacy, white people being on top of our social hierarchy, Black people being at the bottom. And so when they end up marrying each other, this ends up being a huge kind of competition for us as a society to deal with.

So we do see much more backlash against those couples, and my own parents faced that growing up. We were not served at restaurants. My dad was targeted whenever we were driving down the street growing up with - we had skinheads living nearby, and they would throw rocks at his side of the car but not my side of the car. So we see this even, again, with couples that are not in the royal sphere or who are seen as celebrities.

MARTIN: I'm going to ask you to speculate now. Where do you think this goes from here? I mean, on the one hand, you've noted many people in the United States feel a sense of connection with them, and that, in a way, it has been a teaching opportunity. I mean, you talked about that in your piece. You said, look, it sometimes feels as if it's up to biracial people or people in interracial relationships to make white people feel comfortable about skin color. And you talked about, you know, how annoying that is, particularly at this stage of our sort of lives.

On the one hand, is this, in some ways, an opportunity to sort of teach people to think more deeply about this or just how, you know, stupid some of these distinctions are? Or is this a discouraging story, that even being pretty and wanting to fit in and wanting to enhance the institution doesn't save you from being kind of vilified and attacked? I mean, what do you think is the message here?

GAITHER: Yeah. I think it's kind of a combination of the two. I think, one, you know, Meghan Markle and her story and her experience with the royal family and Prince Harry is giving a lot of platform to interracial experiences that I think hasn't been talked about in these ways before. It is giving us new language, new things to consider. And you might not agree with all of their experiences or descriptions, but it's still giving everyone, I think, a moment of pause to recognize the fact that, yes, she is very privileged in lots of ways, but she's still facing the same aspects of racism to a certain extent, right?

Yes, she can still live in her fancy home in Montecito and those kinds of things, right? So it's not exactly the same in comparison. But what I'm hoping this is doing is that it's giving people more practice and more exposure to thinking about these issues in the first place. Research has sort of shown that talking about being biracial seems to be a little bit easier than just talking about racism in general, right? This biracial category, even though, again, it's existed forever - it is easier for people to talk about it in some ways.

So if that's kind of our gateway into starting these very needed discussions about racism and systemic forms of oppression in our society, that's where I'm hoping this documentary and other things going forward is going to be taking us, to provide just new ways for us to consider our social interactions with each other and the judgments and the stereotypes that we apply to people, too.

MARTIN: That was Sarah Gaither. She's an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, and we're talking about her experience as a biracial person in an interracial marriage and also her research in this area. Professor Gaither, thanks so much for talking with us.

GAITHER: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.