Editor’s Note: Kehinde Andrews is professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University and the author of the book “The New Age of Empire: How Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World.” The opinions in this article belong to the author. View more opinion on CNN.
When Harry and Meghan walked down the aisle, surrounded by examples of #BlackExcellence, and being serenaded by a gospel choir on May 19, 2018, it was meant to mark a new era in race relations. Even the royal family was being “modernized,” dragged into the 21st century showing just how far we have come. Right wing papers like the Daily Mail even heralded the Markles’ remarkable achievement of going from “cotton slaves to royalty” in just 150 years. The only surprise is how quickly this post-racial fantasy unraveled, culminating in Sunday’s tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey, revealing the harrowing time Markle says she endured as a serving royal.
As if the universe was trying to warn us, May 19 is also Malcolm X’s birthday and I dread to think how fast he was spinning in his grave with all the talk of the wedding symbolising racial progress. Malcolm famously declared the 1963 March on Washington, despite its best intentions and relative success, a “farce,” a production that “Hollywood couldn’t have topped,” so I shudder to think what he would have made of this.
One revelation from the Oprah interview – that the couple were already married – only strengthened the understanding of the event as a spectacle, a made-for-TV special to delude us into believing we were seeing monumental change. But the treatment of Markle, and the bombshells from the interview, are an excellent lesson about racism in the UK and the US in the present day.
At the time of the wedding, I worried that the best we could hope for is that Markle melted smoothly into the royal family to the point that she became indistinguishable. My biggest fear was that the couple would be routinely rolled out as a sign of progress and used to bolster Black and brown people’s connection to the terrible institution of the British monarchy both in Britain and around the world. But Markle has actually become an object lesson in how racism works today, making it clear that Blackness and the monarchy are like oil and water.
Probably the most shocking revelation from the interview was hearing that Markle was so depressed by her treatment she considered suicide whilst pregnant. Unfortunately, this will likely come as no surprise to any Black person who spends their time navigating White institutions. The constant feeling of being out of place, undermined and misunderstood take a daily toll. The term we use in academia is “microaggressions” – the paper cuts of racism that have the cumulative effect of damaging our mental health.
Markle’s treatment in the press was the perfect example of this kind of racism. No one came out with openly racist language, it was all coded with accusation that she was a “bully,” someone was alien to the royal family. The numerous times where she did exactly the same things as her White sister-in-law but got called out for her it in her Black body: textbook undercover racism.
Markle also revealed the callous HR response to her pleas for help she received, when she was told that as she was not technically on the payroll there was nothing the family could do to help. From both personal and professional experience, this bureaucracy of institutional racism is an aspect that of many of us will relate to. Markle went from being the post-racial princess, a symbol of progress, to the poster child for how racism manifests in elite professions. That the royal family allowed all of this to happen and then, according to Markle, said she could not receive help for her mental health issues should tell us all we need to know about the values of that institution.
The couple refer to the family as “the Firm,” but given the monarchy’s history, I’d consider the institution as akin to the Mafia in some ways. A family who procured their wealth through immoral means and are always trying to go legit. An institution that expects a pledge of omerta once you join and will try to silence anyone who steps out of line.
There is perhaps no greater racket than the royals, who serve no concrete role in the life of the nation, draining millions of pounds from taxpayers each year. In the interview, Markle detailed the lengths to which she was restricted from speaking whilst subject to their code; indeed, the reason that the royals are so obsessive with their image is likely because it is the only way they can justify their existence.
In theory the Queen is the head of state, in reality she is a symbol rolled out for public events and to give speeches dictated by the government. The role of the family is to represent the idea of Britain both to the nation and the globe (see the popularity of “The Crown”). In this sense the British monarchy is one of the premiere symbols of White supremacy, a born to rule White elite encrusted with the wealth and jewels stolen from their former colonies. It is baffling that anyone is surprised about the questions raised over the skin color of the couple’s baby, given how central Whiteness is to the image of the monarchy. They are a direct connection to the days of empire, when Britannia ruled the waves and presided over an empire so large the sun never set on it.
Immigration, a growing Black and brown middle class and the emergence of China has helped create a misperception in the West where Whiteness is seen as under threat. Former President Donald Trump’s reign of terror was in large part ushered in due to his promise to “Make America Great Again.” Britain just left the European Union in order to “take back control” and to restore the country to its former glories. The rampant popularity of the monarchy is a classic example of the colonial nostalgia where people cling to symbolic images of Whiteness as a comfort blanket.
The importance of the monarchy to Britain’s ideas of itself was one of the points of optimism from Harry and Meghan’s marriage, that if Blackness could be included in the royal family the same would follow in the nation. Thankfully, the Markle debacle has shown this was always a delusion. The monarchy represents Whiteness because that is what society needs it to do.
The only thing the monarchy can do if the institution is serious about racial progress is to abolish itself. But this supposed crisis is just a reaffirmation of the central role of the family and will only strengthen its hold on the collective psyche. The one silver lining is how the arc of this story has gone from a fairy tale to a cautionary tale for all of those hoping that change will come from our entry into these White institutions.
How to get help: In the US, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The International Association for Suicide Prevention and Befrienders Worldwide also provide contact information for crisis centers around the world.