Meghan Markle’s mixed-race marriage isn’t unusual in the UK

A modern match.
A modern match.
Image: Reuters/Toby Melville
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Meghan Markle upcoming marriage with Prince Harry has been described as “groundbreaking” and dubbed a “cultural revolution.” But though the addition of a mixed-race woman to the British royal family is certainly profound, the racial dynamics of her relationship actually reflect the status quo in the UK.

Mixed race women (who are black and white), like Markle, are more likely to marry or cohabitate with white men in the UK. According to the 2011 census, 65% of mixed-race women (black and white) are married or cohabitate with white men. Around 16% are in a relationship with mixed race men (black and white), while just 14% are in a relationship with black men.

The opposite was true for black British women. They were most likely to be married or cohabitate with black men (79% said they were). Around 16% had partners who were white, while 2% had partners who were mixed race (black and white). White women were the least likely to be in an interracial relationship, with 98% in a relationship with white men in 2011.

Mixed people Brits were also most likely to be in an interracial relationship in 2011, according to the Office for National Statistics. (2011 is the most recent year the census was carried out). This could partly be explained by the fact that mixed-race people make up a relatively small proportion of the UK’s total population (2.3%); so unless they’re in a relationship with someone who is also mixed-race, they will—by definition—be in an interracial relationship. Overall, one in ten Brits said they were in an interracial relationship in 2011.

Although still small in numbers, mixed-race Brits are the fastest growing ethnic group in the UK. This was particularly true for young people; the number of dual heritage children aged up to four years old increased from 116,000 in 2001, to 220,000 in 2011. The census is, however, likely to be underestimating the number of mixed-race Britons because people are free to self-identity. And according to the UK Household Longitudinal Study, only 30% of adults with parents of different ethnicities describe themselves as having mixed—as opposed to mono—heritages.

Markle hasn’t shied away from the difficulties mixed-race people have in defining their race and identity. Indeed, she’s long resisted identifying as either white or black. In a 2016 article for Elle, she notes her “pride in being a strong, confident mixed-race woman.”

While Markle has been warmly embraced by black and mixed-race people on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s difficult to see what impact—if any—she’ll have on black women in the UK today. The 2011 census data shows there are key differences in black and mixed-race women’s lived experiences, especially within their relationships. However, that hasn’t stopped members of the press blurring between the two.

More importantly, race relations in the UK don’t mimic the US. First, the current makeup of the population differs significantly; while 86% of the UK population identify as white, 61.3% of the US population identify as Caucasian (non-Hispanic). Then there’s the matter of history. While anti-miscegenation laws were struck down in the US in 1967, they never existed in the UK. That said, while there were pockets of mixed-race communities in the 1920s, 30s and 40 across the UK, many were still subject to racial abuse.

These differences call for nuance. When that happens, we will finally be in the midst of a cultural revolution.