Tuesday 9 March 2021

Guess who's coming to dinner


In the 1967 film Guess who’s coming to dinner a white woman brings her black fiancé Sidney Poitier to meet her parents Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn. They are shocked and initially Tracey opposes the marriage. Poitier’s parents too are shocked and his father too initially opposes the marriage. The film was powerful because it was one of the first positive depictions of interracial marriage. Many members of the film’s audience would have shared the doubts of both families and through the course of the film would have had their prejudices tested and perhaps overcome. But the difference between 1967 and now is that such doubts and prejudices could be expressed without immediate condemnation and because of that both the cast and the audience were able to move forward to a position of acceptance that love was more important than race. Today I strongly suspect Guess who’s coming to dinner would be itself condemned as racist.

When Prince Harry brought Meghan Markle to dinner it is unlikely that his choice of bride met with universal approval in the Royal household. In this the Royal family are no different from many families in both the United States and the United Kingdom. If there is no prejudice in either country about marriage between races why is it still the case that the majority of marriages take place between members of the same race.

People in both the UK and the US tend to live in communities where most people are like them and choose their friends and lovers from these communities. If this is due to racism, then racism must be universal otherwise all races would long since have merged. But in most countries of the world nearly everyone looks like nearly everyone else. Only in a few western societies like Britain and the US are there large communities of different races. Yet we are continually condemned for our intolerance, while nobody says anything about Japan, or Saudi Arabia or Nigeria which are barely multi-racial at all.

Members of the Royal family may have privately had doubts about Prince Harry’s choice of bride. Prince William expressed his, not because of Meghan Markle’s race, but because he thought Harry had not known her long and because he doubted that she would fit into the Royal family. It turns out that he was right. Other members of the Royal family might have had similar doubts to Spencer Tracey. I would be surprised if no one else in Britain had the same doubts. We are no longer allowed to express doubts about interracial marriage and so we carefully don’t. But 1967 is not so very long ago. A doubt that was almost universal in 1967 is hardly likely to have ceased to exist. But now it is hidden, unspeakable and so instead of being resolved by love in 1967 it festers into condemnation and accusations of racism.

Why did both black and white people in 1967 think it might not be a good idea for black and white people to get married. One reason is that they knew and acknowledged what society was like. They would have been concerned that the couple would face prejudice. They would have also been concerned about the children of the marriage who might face prejudice too. It would have been normal for Spencer Tracey to wonder about what a child might look like, but it is monstrous for a member of the Royal family to do so. But in fact, this thought will be universal for families in this situation, only today we are not allowed to express them.

But despite whatever doubts may have entered the minds of the Royal family, they did welcome Meghan into the Royal family as did the British people. The Royal wedding between Harry and Meghan had only positive comment. Whether people had doubts or not they overcame them and expressed great enthusiasm for the couple.

When Harry and Meghan’s child Archie was born, the Royal family were obviously delighted. The pictures of the Queen and Prince Philip show delight at their great grandchild no less nor more than they expressed delight at the birth of Prince William’s children. If there was any prejudice in the Royal family, expressed perhaps by expressing a doubt in private, that prejudice was overcome just like Spencer Tracey overcame his initial prejudice so that he came to genuinely welcome the marriage.

We cannot ask people not to feel or think things that might be prejudiced. Each of us feels prejudice because it is part of the human condition. Which of us has never felt prejudice about nationality or race even once? To suppose that we have never felt this way is to suppose that we are without sin, because prejudice is a function of our education and our experience. Have Prince Harry and Meghan Markle never once thought something prejudicial about another person because of his nationality or his class or his race? If so then they are to be ranked with the angels, perfect beings incapable of sin.

All we can reasonably ask of people is that they do their best to limit their prejudice and treat other people fairly and equally. We cannot ask that they never say something dubious in private. None of us would wish to be judged on a thoughtless private remark, because each of us has made them.

If Edward VIII had tried to marry a black woman in the 1930s it would have been unacceptable both to the Royal family and British society whether she had been married or not. A US presidential candidate with a black wife would not have been elected in 1967. But the Royal family today overcame whatever prejudices they might have had about Meghan Markle even though she was divorced and there was almost nothing written or said at the time of her wedding that was negative about her. Whatever prejudices people might have felt or thought, they were overcome.

Meghan Markle was unhappy in the Royal family, but there is no evidence that she was treated worse that Kate Middleton. Rather while Kate fitted in Meghan did not. Perhaps this was simply a function of her being an American actress. Perhaps she had mental health issues that required medical treatment. Did she have treatment? Did she take pills for depression? We don’t know.

In 1967 the task was to educate people to overcome their prejudices not by condemning them, that would have been unlikely to work, but rather by showing that good people can have prejudices but with good will can overcome them. Today racism has become the unforgivable sin. Even the least hint of it condemns a person no matter how good to the innermost circle of hell with no chance of redemption no matter what good he has done otherwise. Worse this unforgivable sin can only be committed by white people and the least unverified word, the least accusation even, by a black person is enough to condemn out of hand a King, a Queen a Prince, a Prime Minister or a President.

If the Royal Family knew in advance that admitting a black woman into their family meant that any unguarded word would lead to universal condemnation across the world, they would have been right to doubt whether this move was wise. Who would want such a person staying to dinner storing up whatever private remarks were made later to be used to condemn? It is not prejudiced to wish such a guest never came to dinner at all.