LONDON – It was a damning portrait of an institution unwilling or unable to help. There were allegations about personal and collective behavior that reflected racism, mental health and the failure to heed obvious warnings from past tragedy.
Revelations in Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have raised alarming questions about an institution that has developed over the last 1,200 years. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex claim the British royal family fretted about the skin color of the couple’s unborn child; that the stress of monarchical life contributed to Markle contemplating suicide; and that the couple were not being protected from invasive, hate-filled British tabloid newspapers and websites in danger of causing a repeat of the history that led to the death of Harry’s mother Diana, Princess of Wales.
Yet if for many around the world the Sussexes marriage was the story of a fairytale romance that played out under the gilded roof of one of the world’s most adored families, for some in Britain’s Black community the royal family has never quite lived up to the image of glamour, prestige and cozy tradition that gets projected abroad.
‘Premier symbol of white supremacy’
“What is the purpose of the royal family? Myth-making,” said Kehinde Andrews, an activist and professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University, in England.
“The British royal family is probably the premier symbol of white supremacy in the world. It is deeply linked to colonial violence through the British Empire, which was responsible for hundreds of millions of deaths. It has a mystique that is completely distorted.”
Patrick Vernon, a racial equality campaigner whose book 100 Great Black Britons will be published in the U.S. in June, said many Black Britons “embraced Harry and Meghan in a big way” because they believed their marriage represented an important step for a family and country that has long faced accusations of racism. Perhaps none more so than Prince Phillip – Queen Elizabeth II’s husband – who has a sizable track record of making racist and misogynistic statements stretching back many years.
“That is why a lot of people are quite sad and angry the way that (Markle’s) been treated and basically had to flee the country,” added Vernon, referring to the Sussexes decision last year to step-down from formal royal duties and relocate to the Los Angeles area.
Vernon characterized the Sussexes allegations as “another George Floyd moment.”(Jury selection in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who faces murder charges in the May 2020 death of Floyd, was paused Monday.)
“It goes to show the perpetual and underlying racism that exists in this country. For a person of color, we will never belong,” said Grace Powell, chair of the Basingstoke Caribbean Society, a community group, in southern England.
About 3% of Britain’s population is Black compared to 13% in the U.S, according to census data. A little over 2% of Britain’s population identifies as mixed-race. Minority groups in Britain, like in the U.S., have for years campaigned to raise awareness of institutional racism in public life from policing to health care.
Oprah’s interview ‘a hand grenade … thrown into the heart of the institution’
Buckingham Palace has still not commented on the couple’s interview with Winfrey. It also saw Prince Harry accuse his father Charles, Prince of Wales – the queen’s heir apparent – of no longer taking his calls. The couple said Palace staff, aides and courtiers decided not to extend a royal title to their son, Archie, or official secret service protection to their young family even though threat levels had increased because of Markle’s race. Markle has a Black mother and white father.
British taxpayers fund this protection and formal royal protocol decides which family members get titles. Under a protocol established by King George V, Archie would be expected to get a title when Prince Charles becomes king.
Still, the relationship between Britons and the monarchy is nothing if not nuanced.
Andrews, Vernon and other Black Britons who USA TODAY spoke to for this story noted that while they themselves saw no real positives in keeping the monarchy, for their parents and grandparents’ generations it wasn’t all negative.
“They valued the education system that colonialism brought with it,” Andrews, who is of British African-Caribbean heritage, said. “You couldn’t say nothing bad about the monarchy to my grandmother. She even had a picture of the queen in her house.”
Tina Brown, a British-born magazine editor and biographer of Princess Diana who has lived in New York for decades and is a CBS News “royal contributor,” described Winfrey’s interview as “kryptonite” for the royal family. “It’s a hand grenade that’s been thrown into the heart of the institution … it’s extremely hard for them to refute a lot of the things that were said … I think we we will be talking about this interview for 20 years.”
Indeed, in the wake of the interview, which aired in Britain on Monday night, a day after it was shown in the U.S., a war of words and headlines and dire predictions of a looming constitutional crisis erupted here among broadcasters and media commentators.
“Hard to imagine a worse set of headlines for the Royal Family (and therefore in a sense for the UK state),” tweeted Lewis Goodall, an editor for BBC’s flagship current affairs TV program.
Piers Morgan, a British talk show host known for stirring controversy, took aim at the Sussexes, describing Winfrey’s interview as a “disgraceful betrayal of the Queen and the Royal Family … I expect all this vile destructive self-serving nonsense from Meghan Markle – but for Harry to let her take down his family and the Monarchy like this is shameful,” he Tweeted on Sunday night, after viewing the highlights.
Morgan, who previously had a talk show on CNN, stormed off the set of his “Good Morning Britain” talk show on Tuesday as he was questioned by one of his co-presenters about the force of his attacks on the Duchess of Sussex.
Almost half called Meghan and Harry interview ‘inappropriate’
However, the broader impact on the British public’s view of the monarchy is unclear.
A poll released by YouGov, an online research firm, found that as information about the interview trickled out of the U.S. on Sunday only 21% of those surveyed in Britain felt the Sussexes interview with Winfrey was an “appropriate” thing for the couple to do. Almost half – 47% – felt it was “inappropriate.” The rest weren’t sure. A separate YouTube poll, released the same day, found only 17% of those surveyed had a “fair amount” of sympathy for Prince Harry and Markle; 23% had “not very much”; 33% “none at all.”
Graham Smith, the chief executive of Republic, a pressure group that campaigns for the abolition of Britain’s monarchy, said that longer-term polling averages show that about 20% of the British public “want the monarchy gone,” 30% are “really keen in on it” and a “whole lot of people in the middle don’t really care one way or another.”
He said the monarchy is going to find it hard to answer the allegations against it without transparency, which it is never willing to do. He added that the “one person who acts as a firewall and protects the monarchy is the queen, but because she’s not going to be around that much longer (she’s 94)” it may become harder to justify its existence.
“Harry and Meghan aren’t going anywhere. They’ll be continually raising doubts about the royals and Prince Charles doesn’t command the levels of respect the queen does,” Smith said, adding he believes the public will “run out of patience” with Prince Charles.
Carolyn Harris, a royal historian and commentator who teaches at the University of Toronto, said one impact of the revelations from Winfrey’s interview is that future generations of the royal family could face streamlined official duties and titles. She also noted it wasn’t unusual from a historical perspective for Europe’s royal families to face turmoil as one generation of senior family members prepares to give way for the next.
Meghan Markle brought hope to Black Britons
Jen Campbell, who helps organize anti-racism events in southern England, expressed concern that some of the issues raised in the interview may get obscured by personal attacks on Markle, who has borne the brunt of negative commentary.
“I don’t think this will raise the (profile of the) topic of racism, unfortunately,” she said.
“It might do among people of color, but not the people who need to be having that conversation. I think they will be more interested in having a go,” she said.
Still, Effie Grant, a Basingstoke businesswoman and co-founder of Basingstoke Unite Against Racism, praised Prince Harry for confronting his privileged background.
“He is fighting for life, to be happy, for his family. It might on the surface seem rich, coming from a white man, but discrimination has no color,” she said.
Paul Reid, who previously directed the Black Cultural Archives, which works to preserve the history of African and Caribbean people in Britain, said that Britain needs to engage constructively with the monarchy for all its flaws.
“You can’t erase or delete the pageantry of the monarchy or the impression it tries to give, rightly or wrongly, of its greatness. It’s a truth, it’s a reality,” he said.
However, Reid, who now runs an arts agency for emerging Black artists called Disrupt Space, added that over time the monarchy’s “facade has broken down and we have started to see these people for who they are, with their frailties and imperfections.”
He said there was no question that huge numbers of Black Britons were “excited by Meghan’s arrival into the royal family. There was optimism in the air. We were asking ourselves ‘Is this the pivotal moment where it changes?’ And of course what’s happened has completely attacked those ideas and that hope. It’s questioned whether change is possible, or whether it’s fixed, permanent and non-negotiable.”
Contributing: Catriona Aitken, Basingstoke Gazette
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