Perhaps by now—if not within minutes or hours—most discussion of George Zimmerman’s acquittal for shooting Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, will be crowded from the news cycle. What on earth could be more compelling to Americans than serious talk about the role of bias in jury deliberation, or gun laws and cultural codes of firearm manliness, or voting rights, or who really gets to stand their ground in America?
William and Kate’s royal baby, of course. I have a sense that certain newscasters will embrace this feel-good story a bit too eagerly, relieved by the chance to avoid any pretense of self-scrutiny (“All this talk about race makes me so uncomfortable!”). Again we’ll see that it’s not some simplistic cartoon of the neo-Nazi skinhead that embodies our most contemporary problems with race: it’s the spoken and unspoken insistence by so many folks that because they don’t see X factor of identity as a negative for themselves, X can’t matter as a problem for anyone else on a social scale.
The reportedly weepy verdict of six Florida women and the coming binge of royal baby madness seem to capture a larger spirit of denial. It’s a kind of denial that enables racial and ethnic prejudice, while also protecting and preserving the interests of patriarchy, meaning the domination of select men over other men, and the domination of all men over women and children. It shouldn’t be so shocking that women, schooled by violence both real and dramatically portrayed (The Killing, Game of Thrones), can take a long time to stand against the lighter-skinned cowboy, even if he’s already killed someone.
The American crush on royalty has haunted us from our earliest history, and it still speaks to our stammering unsophistication about our own social order. It’s a crush I experienced personally years ago and have mostly recovered from, yet I feel similarly haunted as the media now circles for its next big story.
Around the age of 12 or 13, I became obsessed with England’s royal family. I realize I was not alone in this. My interest piqued slowly, even reluctantly, with a single front-page newspaper report about Charles and Diana’s 1981 wedding, a ceremony I had stubbornly insisted that I was glad to miss or didn’t want to see, mostly because adults kept asking me about the new princess, and didn’t I think she was great? Something inside me was a little irritated by the idea, as if the point was that I could take a few lessons from her. But after the birth of Prince William, somebody bought me the People magazine containing official christening pics, and suddenly I was making scrapbooks.
My “habit” was fully sanctioned by my family. After all, it was about as vanilla as you can get. I became obsessed with Diana’s hats and wardrobe experiments, tried to calculate her shoe size as related to her height. She was tall, which I found reassuring, though the other disjunctions between us couldn’t have been more striking: I wore long braids in my hair, had no sense (or funds) for what was appropriate clothing for my body or my age, and tried to hide my crooked teeth.
I became a collector of books and biscuit tins and tea towels and calendars. Some artifacts I saved up to purchase for myself, others were given to me at Christmas or on birthdays. Some items dated back to George VI (the dude from The King’s Speech), and there were antiques marking the engagement of Elizabeth (now Queen E II) to Philip Mountbatten. The one day I ditched high school, I attended a polo match at a desert club where I managed to capture only blurry photographs: Prince Charles smiling from a window in his Jaguar motorcade; Prince Charles accepting the trophy for his team.
I did what I could to cultivate the hobby as an intellectual pursuit, focusing on biographies and histories of less-known royals as a cover for the soap opera sensationalism of Diana. (In this I’m not unlike certain Anglophiles of the Renfair and Monty Python varieties, who might justify their amusements in the name of English literature). By my junior year in college, my book collection was comprehensive enough to win a library contest (at most, there was one other entry).
I remember my father at the luncheon ceremony being particularly gleeful that Betty Friedan was present to supervise the award. He said something to the effect that the nature of my collection—by which he meant the pretty princess/traditional wedding and marriage/motherhood/monarchy thing—would certainly ruffle Friedan’s feminist and socialist feathers.
At the time, I probably smiled. I had learned that it was far easier to accommodate my father’s ideas in public than to challenge them, and I had taken my first lessons in mansplaining and gaslighting during those moments I felt bold enough to speak up. For this reason, though I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it at the time, Diana was more powerful than Barbie. The most public and hashed-out elements of her image included all the most conservative lessons: a lack of intellectual accomplishment that charmed a prince, an early marriage, an endlessly fetishized premarital virginity, and quick pregnancies (she delivered two sons, “the heir and the spare”).
Fixating on Diana permitted me an official way to hide from subjects I discovered that my family couldn’t acknowledge at the dinner table: race (more precisely, our whiteness); male privilege; our middle class home. Nevermind that Diana’s was a textbook fairy tale of white wealth based on birth and protected by male ascendancy. I was just a daughter in a “normal” family, the way other people should be—the way royalty was showing us how.
In my early twenties, my obsession with the royals eventually morphed into an uncomfortable curiosity as cracks appeared in the glossy story (Charles’s longtime infidelity, Diana’s interviews and “leaks” to the press—such confection during the narcissistic tabloid confessional 1990s). In addition, the separation of Charles and Diana happened to coincide with my own parents’ divorce. I began to feel some shame in the history of my lingering preoccupation, though I could not exactly explain it. I tended to pass it off as a joke. Besides that, I had gotten a real life—and my daily work as a teacher taught me to see my whiteness, my gender, my heterosexuality, my education and social position as it intersected with the complex identities of students and colleagues.
I know you’ll tell me that people of all colors and nationalities loved Diana, and I won’t argue that point. But it’s important to admit how white women especially identified with Diana as a persecuted victim, because she was a princess who just deserved to be happy. In this way she could be used to reinforce a blind, displaced sense of entitlement in the admirer. Why think about Rodney King’s brutal beating and the jury’s subsequent acquittal of the police officers and the reasons why frustrations boiled into the streets when you could wonder whether Diana and Charles’s marriage was really in trouble, and were they going to separate, and would Diana keep her title and her clothing allowance if they divorced? What would happen to their children?
For the most part, Diana’s break with the royal family was not a break with patriarchy or related systems of racial and class privilege; she just re-attached herself differently to its benefits and maintained an income. People told themselves she was just a good, normal person—a commoner, “the people’s princess.” Yes, Diana exhibited decency, and she touched AIDS patients and visited landmine victims and lepers, but what if we thought she was a great white saint doing good works on our behalf, so we wouldn’t have to? Through her and through other royal-ish narratives (we could include Downton Abbey here), we conceal our own whiteness from ourselves while also grossly indulging it.
At her funeral, Diana’s brother eulogized her as “the most hunted person of the modern age.” If we mourned then her untimely death in a Paris tunnel car accident, we must now question this overstatement of martyrdom. In the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, President Obama delivered a speech and told us, “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” It wasn’t until 2005 that Congress “apologized” for the violence of lynching, which has never been made a federal crime. We must remember that Diana was pursued in large part at the very end because of her romance with Dodi Al-Fayed, a man of color, killed alongside her. While Dodi’s grieving father alleged a racist murder conspiracy that was never substantiated, it is not difficult to understand how a legacy of British imperialism could inspire such a fear.
As Diana’s first son’s baby enters the world, it does no harm to wish the family well. We would do better to ask ourselves about the last time this land of liberty celebrated the birth of a black or brown child with similar international pomp and circumstance. Christ’s birth in that manger was so long ago.