I can identify with Harry Windsor, now Duke of Sussex. Some years ago, I married a Vietnamese woman. Our wedding was pretty formal in a Vietnamese way, but no one sang “Stand By Me” to movingly express what should be between husband and wife, no matter what their ethnic or religious backgrounds.
My families are not of royal descent, but we are something of the white Protestant American national story. My Young ancestors came over around 1720; Winthrop took the oath of rebellion in April 1775 to “resist with arms the operations of His Majesty’s armies in the North American colonies”; my Otis ancestor was killed by Huron Indians sent south by the French in 1670 or so; my Hubbard ancestors came to Maryland in the 1670s, supposedly descended from Ragnar, the Viking who took Paris in 845; a Bonsal came over as a follower of William Penn; our Warren family allegedly descends from a sister of William the Conqueror and our Rosses from a Scottish highland fiefdom; the Morrises on my mother’s side produced Lewis, who signed the Declaration of Independence, and Gouverneur, who wrote the preamble to our federal Constitution.
When she learned of my engagement to Pham Thi Hoa, Grandmother Morris said, “I can’t understand what has gotten into Stephen. Two thousand years of WASP blood down the drain.”
Watching the wedding of Harry and Meghan Markle and looking at the gospel choir sing in St. George’s Chapel did bring tears, the reason for which escaped me intellectually. But something deep within me felt that something great and good was happening for all of us.
Privilege was shifting from what sociologists call ascriptive grounds to respect based upon individual achievement. Our ascriptive characteristics — ethnicity, national origin, skin tone, facial features, gender, social class at birth, sometimes religion — are only part of who we are.
The more important part is what we make of ourselves.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. put it well in 1963: It is not the color of our skin but the content of our character that should bestow privilege.
Harry, once the angry and conflicted son of Princess Diana, now poised and relaxed and happy. Meghan, not to the manor born but who radiated regal self-confidence and grace. Each had risen up from somewhere not of their choosing to shine in our esteem.
As I turned away from TV coverage of their wedding, I thought with some anger of how recently invented narratives about “white privilege” and “institutional racism” are so pernicious.
They perpetuate that consciousness of a presumed permanent inequity which we must put behind us.
If Harry and Mehgan can marry across social boundaries of color and status, then we all are free to make the most of ourselves.
Another song sung at their wedding — “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine” — makes my point. I remember singing that many times during marches and protests during the civil-rights movement.
What is equity, after all, but giving what is due in fairness and with consciousness of what we can achieve on our own when given a chance and when we make an effort?
The old law of equity developed by English courts to counter harsh applications of the law on those vulnerable taught that claimants seeking equitable outcomes for themselves must, in the first place, do equity. They must come before the courts with “clean hands.”
Hurt though they may have been, they are not in the eyes of equity cast forever into the darkness. Restitution and reparations can be given to them. But they must present a personal case for having the scales of justice rebalanced in their favor.
Before we ask to receive, we need to give of ourselves in fairness. We need to make a showing of good faith before we accuse others of acting in bad faith.
Once we do away with pointing fingers and blaming others for our place in creation, we can accept more easily that it is our true place in this world to take the bad with the good, to not succumb emotionally, to not belittle ourselves and our possibilities, and to have faith in ourselves.
Stephen B. Young, of St. Paul, is global executive director of the Caux Round Table, a network of business leaders working to promote a moral capitalism.