LONDON — The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, whose marriage last year brought historic change to Britain’s royal family, on Monday welcomed a son, the first interracial baby in the monarchy’s recent history.
The newborn is seventh in line to the British throne, behind his father, Prince Harry. It is not clear whether the child will receive a royal title, like those bestowed on the three children of Prince William, Harry’s older brother, and William’s wife, Catherine.
The Duke of Sussex announces his wife has given birth to a baby boy.
— Sky News (@SkyNews) May 6, 2019
The baby is sure to be the object of uncommon fascination, adored and criticized as a symbol of the modernization of Britain’s royal family.
The duke and duchess — better known as Prince Harry, 34, and Meghan Markle, 37, have shaken up the royal family in a number of ways: Their wedding last May featured a gospel choir, a freestyling African American pastor and a gaggle of Hollywood celebrities.
They continued to set aside convention after the wedding, opening their own Instagram account and offering little access to the royal-obsessed British news media. In April, they announced they were canceling the traditional photo opportunity outside the Lindo Wing at St. Mary’s Hospital in the heart of London, curtailing the ritual hullabaloo that usually surrounds royal births.
The Sussexes, in short, have become another front in the British culture wars, like the vegan sausage roll or Brexit. The tabloids have pounced: Harry is making a television series on mental health with (gasp) Oprah Winfrey! The duchess keeps hugging members of the public! They may choose an American nanny! Baby Sussex may not attend Eton!
For many, the new baby’s importance will be indelibly linked with race.
Britain is 87% white, but interracial children make up its fastest-growing ethnic category and will soon be the country’s largest minority group. The entry of Meghan, the descendant of plantation slaves, into the royal family resonated deeply with many people of African descent, who almost immediately began to anticipate the birth of the couple’s first child.
“It’s hopeful for people of my kids’ generation to see a princess of mixed race,” said Lise Ragbir, who is black and has written of her own experience raising a lighter-skinned child.
Repeatedly, beginning when her daughter was 6 months old, she said, strangers have approached her to ask, “Is that your baby?”
“It will be such a recognizable baby that it could shift people’s awareness,” said Ragbir, 45, a gallery director in Austin, Texas. “When one of the most famous families in the world does not have the same skin tone, people might pause before asking a stranger, ‘Is that your baby?’”
Historians have noted that the duchess herself cannot be definitively described as the first interracial royal. Some scholars have argued that Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the wife of King George III, had African ancestry through the Portuguese royal family. If true, it would have been passed on to her own descendant, Queen Victoria.
Harry, in particular, has been alert for racism in the discussion of his young family.
In 2016, he took the unusual step of condemning British tabloids and social media commentators for the “racial undertones” and sexism of their coverage of Meghan. Last year, the right-wing U.K. Independence Party ousted its leader after it was reported that his girlfriend had used racist language to deride the future duchess.
The duchess, the daughter of a white man and a black woman, has sidestepped discussions of race in the months before and after her wedding.
But as a young actress, she discussed it passionately. She described growing up in an overwhelmingly white neighborhood, where her mother was often mistaken for the nanny. As a seventh-grader, she hesitated when she was asked to fill out a census form that identified her as either white or black.
“There I was (my curly hair, my freckled face, my pale skin, my mixed race) looking down at these boxes, not wanting to mess up, but not knowing what to do,” she wrote in an essay for Elle Magazine published in 2015.
When her teacher told her to check “Caucasian” because that was “how she looked,” she refused.
“I left my identity blank — a question mark, an absolute incomplete — much like how I felt,” she wrote. Her father advised her, “If that happens again, you draw your own box.”
As the duchess’s due date approached, some Britons voiced concerns about the conversation around the child’s race.
“Colorism is definitely a huge thing, and I think that links into it, because if the child does come out darker skinned, then you know that’s going to make the news — and not for a good reason,” Tanya Compas, a youth worker, told the BBC’s “Woman’s Hour” program when the pregnancy was announced.
Kehinde Andrews, a professor of black studies at Birmingham City University, said most Britons would carefully sidestep the topic.
“It’s awkward, it’s uncomfortable, it brings up conversations about race and about slavery and everyone wants to avoid it,” he said. “British media, and British people generally, just don’t like talking about race.”
This, he said, is in contrast to the United States, where slavery was an immediate physical reality. Britons, he said, whose own ancestors benefited from plantations in the Caribbean, “see slavery as something distant, both time-wise and, more importantly, geographically distant.”
Journalists have bridled at charges that their coverage of the royal family has been tainted by racism, pointing out that British news outlets have always been free to criticize the royals, whose luxurious lifestyle is supported by public funds.
Among the sore points this year was the baby shower hosted by celebrity friends of the duchess in New York, a privately financed event that was said to cost 330,000 pounds, or more than $430,000.
“The clash comes when a free-spending American TV celebrity, the independent Ms. Markle, becomes the British queen’s granddaughter-in-law and joins soberer ornaments on the cracked marble mantelpiece of ancient royalty,” journalist Libby Purves wrote in February in a column for The Times of London.
Last fall, the couple announced they would move out of Kensington Palace, in central London, and take up residence about 25 miles west of the British capital in newly refurbished quarters: Frogmore Cottage, near Windsor Castle. There have been rumors that the couple could be dispatched in the next few years on an extended tour of Africa, where 19 nations, mostly former colonies, are members of the Commonwealth of Nations.
Those moves appeared to hint of a rift between Harry and his brother, William, observers said, but no concrete evidence has surfaced.
In April, the couple rolled out their own Instagram account, @sussexroyal, which has since been examined minutely for clues to the baby’s arrival.
The duchess hinted of her hopes for her child when speaking on a panel for International Women’s Day in March, saying she expects it to be a feminist.
Citing a phrase she had seen in a documentary about “the embryonic kicking of feminism” during pregnancy, she said, “I loved that, so boy or girl, whatever it is, we hope that that’s the case with our little bump.”