It was the revelation that made Oprah Winfrey’s jaw drop during an already explosive interview.
There were several “concerns and conversations about how dark his skin might be when he was born,” Meghan, Duchess of Sussex said of an issue raised by an unnamed member of the British royal family before the birth of her son Archie.
“But it was right at the beginning,” her husband Prince Harry later added, “What will the kids look like?”
For some, these are shocking allegations, but for many Britons of color, Meghan’s accusations of racism inside the palace echo a familiar lived experience on the streets of the UK.
Even the angry backlash, by those blindly defending the monarchy, resonate for those people who have spoken out only to be confronted by racism’s evil twin sister – defensiveness.
And many more will relate to the mental health issues that come with being marginalized in a predominantly – or in Meghan’s case completely – White space, the sense of exclusion, the feeling of being unworthy, unwanted and afraid.
Throughout their two-hour TV special, aired in the United States on Sunday night, Meghan and Harry were careful to focus on the “system,” “the firm,” and the “institution,” and never accused any specific individuals. This is perhaps a sign of respect to Prince Harry’s grandmother, the Queen, and his other relatives across the Atlantic, but it also broadens the couple’s struggle and ties it to the global anti-racism movement.
A few months after the couple left England – moving first to Canada then California – the death of George Floyd in Minnesota in May 2020 sparked mass demonstrations in cities around the world, including London, demanding greater equality and accountability for racial injustices both past and present.
In the UK, protesters directed their anger at the country’s elite institutions of power, some such as monarchy which date back to colonialism and beyond, and the systems of class and race they perpetuate in modern-day Britain. In Bristol, southwest England, last June, activists pulled down a statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century slave trader, and dumped it into the harbor, igniting a national conversation on race and history in the UK.
Just days earlier, Meghan voiced her support for the Black Lives Matter movement in a graduation message to her old high school from her home in Los Angeles.
“Now you get to be part of rebuilding. And I know sometimes people say, ‘How many times we need to rebuild?’ Well, you know what? We are going to rebuild, and rebuild, and rebuild until it is rebuilt. Because when the foundation is broken so are we,” the Duchess of Sussex said in the video.
This moment of racial reckoning forced Britons to have the uncomfortable conversations around race and racism that are often considered culturally awkward, if not taboo.
“The British like to think of themselves as quite liberal and the British get quite offended if they are accused of racism,” Diane Abbott, the first black woman elected to the UK’s Parliament, told CNN in an interview last year.
“There is something about Black women that people in this country find particularly triggering,” she added. “I don’t know why, but it’s a combination of racism and misogyny and Meghan came in for that in spades.”
British high school student Aker Okoye went viral a year ago when he called Meghan “beautiful” and embraced her during a surprise visit to his school in east London. Another day, however, he came home with a stack of tabloid newspapers featuring negative headlines about the Duchess, and a list of questions for his parents.
“I felt what does this mean for me as a Black person in Britain,” Okoye, a class president, told CNN. “Me personally, I felt as if I wasn’t accepted because Meghan for me is a representative of people of color and her presence within the UK had made me feel as if I can get to these levels.”
Sections of the UK press have also drawn the ire of the couple and their supporters. Harry has previously accused the media of racist and sexist undertones against his wife in their coverage, a charge which media figures deny.
“It can often be thought in British society if you don’t say insulting words than it’s not racism,” royal historian Kate Williams told CNN. “But the coverage [of Meghan] was very different – what other women in the royal family were celebrated for Meghan was criticized for in the papers.”
Black people are three times more likely than White people to say Black celebrities are treated worse than their White counterparts by the media, according to a CNN poll published in June 2020. Exposing further divisions, two in three Black people polled said the UK has not done enough to address historical racial injustice, twice the proportion of White people who said that.
Outside of the UK, the monarchy relies on the public support of the Commonwealth – a group of 54 nations of mostly former British territories, many of which are in Africa and the Caribbean – to shore up their global brand.
“For a family who wants everyone smiling, doing engagements and being happy, there is a large potential for this interview to be damaging,” Williams explained. “Particularly among young people, residents in the Commonwealth, those from diverse backgrounds.”
Meghan’s entry into the royal family brought diversity and with it the possibility of change, but that institution prides itself on remaining unchanged and steeped in traditions that date back to the British empire and beyond.
Harry told Oprah that many of his family members stick to the motto “this is just how it is,” but for many minorities, ‘how it is’ has not been good or fair.
And for those coming from positions of privilege, unaware of the lived experience of people from other backgrounds, Harry offered up his own journey as a teachable moment.
“My upbringing in the system … which I was brought up in and what I’ve been exposed to … I wasn’t aware of it to start with,” the Duke told Oprah of his own unconscious bias. “But, my god, it doesn’t take very long to suddenly become aware of it … As sad as it is to say it takes living in her [Meghan’s] shoes.” CNN has reached out to the royal family for comment.
There is only one person in the world who knows what it’s like to be a biracial member of the UK royal family – the Duchess of Sussex – the question now is whether the palace and the country will listen to her.
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