Everyone expected it to be bad. Everyone expected it to be damaging. But no one could have expected that Oprah Winfrey's interview with Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, and Prince Harry would be this bad and this damaging.
During the two-hour interview that aired on Sunday, Meghan shared that while she was pregnant with her son, Archie, there were palace conversations and concerns about how dark his skin colour will be. She also stated that once she and Harry took a step back from royal duties in 2019, they were informed that they would not receive a security detail—even as Meghan wrote a letter to the royal family pleading for protection for her son and for Harry. Throughout the session, Harry emphasized dismay toward the lack of support offered to his wife by his own family, even as she was barraged with racism and divisiveness from the press.
And perhaps most disheartening of all, Meghan shared that she was pushed to the brink of suicide, as she thought it would "solve everything for everyone." When she went to the palace's human resources team, she was told: "There is nothing we can do to help you because you are not a paid member of the institution."
There can be no doubt whatsoever: This is racism, seriously and potentially deadly racism, at the very pinnacle of Britain and the Commonwealth. But it didn't have to be this way.
The former Meghan Markle, Britain's first Black princess, offered a chance to heal Britain's brutal and complex relationship with race. That chance was robustly destroyed by the racism of the royal establishment itself.
For much of the Black community in Britain, Meghan Markle's marriage to Prince Harry marked the moment in which it could no longer be denied that there was Black in the Union Jack. To Black Britons who, alongside their forebears, bore the weight of the British Empire for centuries, the marriage signalled that we had finally broken into every single corridor of British society—and in that lay endless potential.
Part of that was the power of royalty itself. Even on the international stage, and across the African diaspora, the British monarchy has long been admired, loved, and respected. My own mother, a Nigerian woman, still has the July 29, 1981, Princess Diana and Prince Charles commemorative plate hanging on her wall in her home in West London. She regularly polishes it with pride. I happened to be in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1997 when Diana died. Britain remembers the uncharacteristic outpouring of grief in the United Kingdom at her death, but over 3,000 miles away I saw grown men and women mourn as if a member of their own family had died.
For Black women in particular, Meghan's arrival at Buckingham Palace was a truly profound moment. The Black women in my family and office wondered aloud: Will a helicopter land in the Peckham or Seven Sisters neighbourhoods of London so Meghan can go buy hair and skin care products? Will she be allowed to go natural, or will royal protocol demand she straighten her hair? Will she be allowed to speak on Black issues? When something is happening in the community, will she be able to be a voice for us?
Some of this was in jest, but the thinking was obvious: Would she be allowed to be herself, a woman of colour? Following Meghan's interview, they now have a resounding answer to their overarching question.
Meghan and Harry's union should have brought the nation closer together and given British soft power an enormous boost—one that highlighted a country confident enough in itself to embrace a Black American woman into the heart of its own power, and to value what she represented. Instead, the opposite has happened. The royal establishment—"The Firm" as Meghan, following Prince Philip's lead, refers to it—went from working to defend Meghan from press hostility, falsehoods, and intrusion, to prohibiting her from defending herself from attacks, to briefing the press against her. And much worse.
The split within the Firm itself resulted first in Meghan and Harry literally fleeing the country, and then in their recent withdrawal from royal life and duties altogether. When they appeared on CBS with Winfrey on Sunday night, the program set the narrative, painting a picture of a young couple trapped, suffocated, and left unprotected by an unchanging establishment. Palace PR had already pre-emptively tried to wrest the narrative back from the televised interview by revealing in the Times that Meghan had allegedly been the subject of two-year-old bullying complaints—and then by claiming they would launch an unprecedented investigation into it.
Any Black person in the workplace knows this dance far too well. It is a common tactic for organizations sensing reputational vulnerability or brand damage due to their own internal racism to pre-emptively strike against the aggrieved ethnic minority.
Labelling the target of racism as aggressive, bullying, intimidating, or incompetent, especially if they are quite clearly none of the above, is commonplace and, unfortunately, quite effective. Like many a dog whistle, it is heard and understood by the right ears. Meghan's representatives responded to the resurfaced complaints last week, labelling them "a calculated smear campaign based on misleading and harmful information."
Meghan and Harry were the perfect union to help expand the monarchy's relevance and extend the reign of the House of Windsor for a long time to come. They may not have been the future king and queen, but they were, without a doubt, the future of the monarchy, with Meghan's political progressiveness, self-empowerment, and fiery intellect at its centre. These very admirable qualities that should have made Meghan an amazing addition to the royal family instead left her dismissed as a "woke schemer with a masterplan."
The palace investigation into Meghan ignores significantly more serious allegations against other members of the royal household—including serious criminal allegations—such as Prince Andrew's troubling connections to the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Given Meghan's standing as the only person of colour in the royal family other than her son, the palace's actions have needlessly assaulted their own credibility and further bolster Meghan and Harry's revelations in Sunday night's interview with Winfrey.
Indeed, Meghan's power on paper and its interpretation by the royal family and British media in practice had become perfect strangers. And it all boiled down principally to the one issue that remains Britain's Achilles' heel: race.
Racism is so baked into British society that attempts to inform and educate people about it or to at least reduce the harm done by racism are often seen as an assault on British society and history itself.
Crass and explicitly vocalized racism is just not the British middle-class way of doing things—subtlety is. And staying true to British subtlety, racism is often addressed (and perpetrated) in a cowardly manner through plausibly deniable proxies such as immigration, anti-"wokeness," victimhood, political correctness, and culture wars, which are very popular subjects for most British newspapers and the government. All these are far too often the velvet glove around the iron fist of racism.
It is a sad irony that Meghan and Harry fled to the United States, as in the U.K. we often gleefully point to the Americans and say we are not as bad as them when it comes to race. Yet in some ways, the numbers show we're actually worse. Examples of this include disparities in coronavirus-related deaths, criminal justice, access to opportunity, and employment.
The seasonally adjusted unemployment rates for white Americans and Black Americans, for example, stand at 5.6 percent and 9.9 percent, respectively. Between white Britons and Black Britons, unemployment stands at 4.5 percent and 13.8 percent, respectively. According to a 2008 Equality and Human Rights Commission report, "there is greater disproportionality in the number of black people in prisons in the UK than there is in the United States," findings that were backed up by a 2017 investigation.
Even British media replicates this blueprint: Roughly 0.2 percent of British journalists are Black, according to a 2016 estimate, despite making up roughly 3 percent of the population as of 2011. (In the United States, 7.19 percent of newsroom staff are Black, compared to 13.4 percent of the population.) This lack of Black people in newsrooms regularly reveals itself in the form of poorly informed or just plain and proudly racist "journalism," which Meghan repeatedly fell victim to.
As Harry mentioned to Winfrey, even the palace itself is scared of the power of Britain's tabloid newspapers. (Britain's tabloids generally aren't pure scandal sheets like many American ones, and they are the most popular form of print media.) One of Britain's most famous journalists, Piers Morgan, former head of a tabloid himself, has consistently used his daily breakfast show on ITV and his column in the Daily Mail to wage a sustained attack on Meghan. Today, even broadsheets like the Telegraph are continuing the war of words on Meghan, attempting to paint her as brash, conniving, and aggressive, and denying their own role in perpetuating racism.
Press bullying and the actions of the palace pushed Meghan and Harry into the arms of Oprah Winfrey—a ratings magnet and the epitome of Black female empowerment—and into a secure home owned by Hollywood mogul Tyler Perry (another epitome of Black empowerment). And the rest is truly history. The entire interview was an enduring national embarrassment for the U.K. Bad as it was, it also offered the chance for a national revelation about how serious a problem racism is in British society. That might give the opportunity of growth, healing, and reconciliation—but it seems unlikely.
The idea of Meghan Markle, a descendent of kidnapped Africans who were shipped to America in the bottoms of slave ships and then enslaved for centuries, somehow becoming part of the British royal family is the stuff Black fairy tales (and racist horror stories) are made of. This marriage of Meghan and Harry had endless symbolic and diplomatic opportunities for the monarchy, for Britain, and for the Commonwealth, yet these opportunities were scuppered.
On Sunday night, the two should have been spreading the good gospel of Britain's greatness. That would have been a PR boost that a Brexit- and coronavirus-burdened country could really do with right now. Yet instead, they were emboldened to speak on why they had to flee Britain's unspeakable and "unsurvivable" darkness.