Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s sit-down with Oprah Winfrey has drawn international attention to allegations of racism against the British royal family. Markle, a biracial woman with African heritage, claimed that members of the family expressed concerns over how dark their son’s skin may be before he was born. While this statement garnered the most scrutiny, Markle also spoke about the racist tabloid coverage she has endured since dating Prince Harry and reports that the royal family forbid her from defending herself.
In response, a statement released on behalf of the Queen stated that Markle’s claims were “concerning” and will be addressed privately amongst the family. Nonetheless, this interview has propelled conversations about the legacy of racism within the royal family into the spotlight.
The Role of the Royal Family
The British Monarchy is over 1000 years old, making it the oldest form of government in the United Kingdom. While the Queen acts as Head of State, the creation and passing of legislation lie in the hands of an elected Parliament. This system is referred to as a constitutional monarchy. As such, the Monarch and their immediate family members are regulated to a symbolic function, representing national identity and pride.
As recently as 2020, the royal family has been scrutinized for failing to condemn racism. Following the death of George Floyd, which sparked international protests demanding an end to anti-Black racism, the family remained silent. While the royal institution does not usually comment on politics, critics argued that the global scale of the protests should have prompted a general statement promoting equality.
Some members of the royal family have brushed off or apologized for racist jokes and offensive costumes, but racism within the British Monarchy is a centuries-long systemic problem. The royal family’s silence on political issues has resulted in their failure to address the role of the Monarchy in the Atlantic slave trade and colonialism, the devastating effects of which still impact Black people around the world.
The history of Britain has long been viewed through rose-coloured glasses, particularly for white Brits who have relied upon the education system’s whitewashed interpretation of events. Today, the manifestation of anti-Black racism partially stems from the UK’s inability to confront its extensive role in the slave trade and global colonialism, which saw the enslavement and trafficking of millions of Africans throughout the Americas and the Caribbean.
The British colonial administration justified slavery as a means of cheap manual labour in order to expand the wealth of the British Empire, under the guise of “civilizing” and “developing” the native populations. This resulted in the enslavement of roughly 3 million Africans by Britain, among the total of more than 12 million Africans trafficked by other colonial powers. The ancestors of Queen Elizabeth II owned many plantations, and have thus enslaved thousands of Africans throughout the Caribbean. Further, many Brits seem to neglect that the British implemented slavery in the United States while the nation was under its colonial rule.
There is also a faulty narrative that Britain’s decision to abolish slavery in 1834 was due to a philosophical conviction that considered slavery immoral, which frames the discourse of Britain as a savior. Yet, evidence points to economic reasons for the decision, which saw wage labour become more profitable than slave labour during the rise of the Industrial Revolution. This is in opposition to a fundamental belief that slavery violates human rights.
Further, the impacts of slavery did not suddenly disappear after 1834. Tax rules under British colonial rule impoverished the native African populations, and the wealth of the settlers never trickled down. Later on, once more colonies across the globe started fighting for and claiming independence in the 1960s, they were still left to reckon with the impacts of colonialism that had left their countries economically and politically unstable. Many African nations now face depleted natural resources after being forced to rely on exporting single cash crops and find it difficult to diversify their economies. Additionally, the “divide and rule” strategy used by the British to minimize uprisings has amplified ethnic and religious conflicts in many countries.
While today the Commonwealth, composed of former British colonies, is supposed to reconstruct the British Empire as an alliance amongst nations, some argue that it still perpetuates colonial power dynamics. An alliance with equal partnerships should incorporate leadership from the former colonies, instead of a unilateral structure headed by an unelected Queen.
The overarching version of history that claims British colonialism was a “civilizing mission” to modernize African nations is a harmful misrepresentation. The purpose of both slavery and colonization was to grow the wealth of the British Empire through the exploitation of African, Indian, and other Indigenous peoples. The whitewashing of this history is rooted in white supremacy and anti-Black racism, in order to paint Britain as a purveyor of culture and values.
Today, the royal family sits on the wealth accrued by centuries of slavery and colonialism. While nations have been calling for reparations from the royal family to return this stolen wealth, UK taxpayers recently paid off the debt to the slave and plantation owners who were promised compensation following the abolishment of slavery. However, these displays of royal riches are but one example of the legacy of the British Empire: economic exploitation by colonial powers went hand in hand with cultural erasure and appropriation. For example, there is an abundance of stolen artefacts that reside in British museums, such as the Benin bronzes from Nigeria. These looted artefacts on display are often decontextualized from their cultural meanings and serve as a modern-day extension of colonialism for entertainment purposes.
Some argue that Meghan’s experience with the royal family reflects the British Empire’s mistreatment of peoples from Africa for centuries. However, communities impacted by colonialism have been involved in the discourse surrounding the British Monarchy for decades, even though for many white Brits, Markle’s interview is their first exposure to claims of racism within the royal family.
Many Brits remain ignorant of the racism that their country has propagated for centuries.
Polls have shown that the British public is more likely than not to be proud of the former British Empire, and one-third claim racism is not a problem or does not exist in the UK. Meanwhile, systemic racism has resulted in the severe underrepresentation of Black people in government and senior management roles, on top of the existing wage gap of 21.7% between white people and ethnic minority groups. Like in the United States, Black people are also overrepresented in prisons.
As such, many progressive Brits saw Markle’s relationship with the royal family as a nod to an inclusive monarchy. Yet, critics worried that including a touch of diversity within the royal family may have absolved them from ever addressing the past. Now that the couple has officially left their royal duties, reportedly due to racism against Markle, the royal family can no longer hide from its colonial past by claiming the monarchy has undergone an inclusive reformation.
In fact, the notion that a “modern royal family” exists obscures the fact that the monarchy still reflects traditional ideas of British identity. For example, Brexit was for many, a symbol of nationalism that is nostalgic of the British Empire, and was built upon political promises that included limiting immigration. This ideal version of Britain and its monarchy is therefore implicitly rooted in whiteness and a yearning to reclaim its power. As such, the belief that the monarchy could simply be “reformed” by welcoming people of colour into the royal family should be questioned. Instead, the monarchy should approach “inclusivity” by dismantling the systems of colonialism they have implemented that have had dire consequences for racialized peoples all over the globe.
Nevertheless, Markle’s experience with the royal family and the public reckoning that followed, have put on full display the failure of Britain to address its role in implementing racist structures throughout the world. Through discussions of what the royal family represents in a global context, some Brits are also highlighting the need for more comprehensive education on the history of the British Empire in schools and museums. While needed, Brits should also be questioning the need to uphold a merely symbolic royal institution that represents harm for millions in former colonies. This will require a massive cultural shift in what it means to be “British,” but is crucial in working to dismantle systemic anti-Black racism.