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May 19, 2018 03:01 PM

Meghan Markle didn’t just become the Duchess of Sussex on Saturday when she married Prince Harry in a gorgeous ceremony at St. George’s Church in Windsor Castle. She also became an important cultural icon of positive change in race relations around the world.

“The U.K. has one of the fastest-growing mixed-race populations in the world,” notes Dr. Sarah E. Gaither, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University who also runs the Duke Identity and Diversity Lab. “To the biracial community, she’s really serving as a symbol of this changing demographic that Britain is facing in addition to the United States.”

“Meghan and Harry’s marriage is really significant because the British monarchy has always been viewed as so, so white,” DaVette See, correspondent for Black Girl Nerds, tells PEOPLE. “Now, they will be seen as more a part of a multicultural world.”

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“Being a biracial American, I didn’t grow up with a lot of biracial exemplars in mainstream media or the books I read,” says Gaither, “so Meghan Markle is really an inspiration for a lot of women of color, a lot of girls of color across the United States in showing that you can help change the historical ties. You can start changing discussions about what it means to be biracial and what it means to be black in America and, now in Britain as well.”

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“I think we’re going to see some of the same things [happen] as after having President Barack Obama, when we saw a lot of discussions of being in a quote-unquote ‘post-racial society,'” Gaither says.

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Markle, 36, has spoken in the past about the importance of acknowledging both sides of her background. (Her mom Doria Ragland is Black, and her dad Thomas Markle is white.)

“While my mixed heritage may have created a grey area surrounding my self-identification, keeping me with a foot on both sides of the fence, I have come to embrace that,” Markle wrote for Elle in 2015. “To say who I am, to share where I’m from, to voice my pride in being a strong, confident mixed-race woman. That when asked to choose my ethnicity in a questionnaire as in my seventh grade class, or these days to check ‘Other’, I simply say: ‘Sorry, world, this is not Lost and I am not one of The Others. I am enough exactly as I am.’”

 

Gaither says she was moved by Bishop Michael Bruce Curry‘s energetic and passionate 10-minute sermon about love that referenced American slavery and quoted Martin Luther King Jr. While several members of the British royal family had visible reactions to the lengthy speech, Gaither says, “his words resonated a lot with Americans.”

“Bringing in the black church, bringing in a piece of that black historical lineage into the British royalty wedding sermon was a perfect balance,” she says. “Bringing American history into the church this day might have been confusing for some people within the British family, but for a marriage that reflects both American and British culture, it was a really nice way to bring in both historical ties.”

Gaither adds, “The black gospel choir singing ‘Stand By Me,’ which has been included in the Library of Congress now as one of these historical songs that marks not only love for each other but also civil rights movements, was another really symbolic piece… It was a perfect selection for not only a wedding day but also to mark this change in the historical lineage of who actually gets to be a prince or a princess.”

And many are in agreement.

Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., was clearly moved by hearing her father’s words during the royal wedding. “#MLK quote at the #RoyalWedding. Your life, teachings and words still matter so much, Daddy,” she wrote on Twitter. “Bless you, Bishop Michael Curry.”

British singer-songwriter Emili Sandé watched from the Long Walk and told PEOPLE she “loved” Curry’s speech. “To speak about love — it is so needed right now,” she said. “It was great to see black culture represented in the music… and the gospel choir were amazing. When the harmonies came in — it was a beautiful choice.”

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British rugby player James Haskell told the BBC that the ceremony was a game-changer “on a number of levels,” especially Curry’s remarks. “The world’s in a bit of turmoil at the moment… to talk about loving people a little bit more; we should be more accepting. I think it was amazing and I think it’ll go down in history.”

“Black America co-hosted this wedding,” Real Housewives of Atlanta star NeNe Leakes wrote on Twitter. “I’m crying with happiness.”

—Additional reporting by Elizabeth Corcoran

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