Markle and Willemse: Making sure racism doesn’t live happily ever after
What do Ashwin Willemse, Meghan Markle and Bishop Curry have in common? They refused to conform to white norms of behaviour
There is no doubt that the wedding of Prince Harry and former actress Meghan Markle was extraordinary and rattled some in the British establishment.
The most powerful message from the way the couple planned their wedding was that this was a marriage between two cultures and a reflection of their personalities, not an assimilation of a “bi-racial” outsider into the British monarchy.
Most people in the United Kingdom welcomed the blending of the conservative traditions of the royal family with black American culture. But some others balked at being yanked out of their comfort zone when they least expected it – and in a place that is so quintessentially British, the centuries-old Windsor Castle.
The person who effortlessly revolutionised the wedding was Bishop Michael Curry, head of the US Episcopal Church, in an animated sermon on the power of love. Curry dared to colour outside the lines, delivering a political message on how redemptive love ought to overcome the inequalities and injustices in society.Poverty, hunger and slavery are not words usually uttered at a wedding, less so in the presence of the Queen of England. But because the new Duke and Duchess of Sussex were already breaking down so many barriers with the modern-day fairytale, it opened the space for some frank talk in front of a global audience of up to two billion people.
While Curry instantly became a social media sensation and has been widely praised for his valour, some others perceived him as offensive to their way of life.
Daily Mail columnist Quentin Letts frothed and fumed on Sky News on Monday about “that shouty American preacher”.
In his column on Monday, Letts wrote: “Yack, yack, yack went Brother Curry, emoting, thesping, at times crouching like Olympic skier Franz Klammer mid-slalom … With his staged fervour and jabbering crescendo, Pastor Curry certainly seized his moment in front of the worldwide audience. Pentecostal zeal barged its way into the cool quire of St George’s Chapel, Windsor.
“Preacher-man Curry hollered. He boinged up and down on the balls of his feet. He was a boxer in the ring! But he lost the House, as the parliamentary saying goes,” Letts wrote.
As if to reassure those like him traumatised by prospect of a black man stealing the show at a royal wedding, Letts concluded: “The memory of his shameless yankee-doodle pulpiteering will fade, as it invariably does.”
Conquering the spaces of the privileged in society is always met with resistance so at least Letts was honest enough to say what some others might have swallowed. While British society might be too polite to tackle such racism head on, in South Africa we are obligated to do so.
That is what former Springbok Ashwin Willemse did when he walked off the SuperSport set during a live show after the Lions vs Brumbies game.Exhausted by the patronising attitude towards him from rugby commentators Nick Mallett and Naas Botha, Willemse expressed that he was offended and left the set.
In order to contain the controversy, SuperSport and MultiChoice said after a meeting with the three personalities that they believed there was “no racism” at play.
What was it then?
A personality conflict? A difference of opinion? Perhaps a “misunderstanding”, as some have characterised the incident?
When black people venture into spaces that have been the preserve of white people, they are expected to conform and know their place. They are expected to understand the culture and hierarchy and not challenge it.
So whether it is Curry, Markle or Willemse, the expectation is that they adapt rather than assert their place. That boils down to accommodating white privilege.
None of these three people were willing to do this. Happily for the new duchess and the bishop, most people across the world and in Britain embraced the change.
In South Africa, there is still a debate about what happened during the SuperSport broadcast and the expectation is that the show must go on.Rugby remains a protected space for many white people, despite Nelson Mandela using the game as one of the first platforms for nation building and racial cohesion. The euphoria of winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup gave some people the mistaken belief that the game had facilitated national healing.
It did not.
The sport is still largely untransformed and the condescending attitude towards black players deemed to be in the game only because of the quota system is offensive.
Clearly there needs to be greater effort to confronting those attitudes and shaming those who project them – instead of glorifying apartheid-era heroes.
Whatever the occasion, whether it a royal wedding or a rugby match, privileged spaces should be conquered, backward attitudes confronted and racism exposed.
The redemptive power of love, for ourselves and others, should know no bounds.