Not agreeing with the concept of a hereditary monarchy in a country where it’s celebrated is an odd place to be. Stranger still is spending your time defending particular members of the royal family after coverage of them turns hostile. But this is where I’ve found myself this past week.
Part of my job as an academic is to examine how racism functions in the UK. Ever since Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, and Prince Harry announced they were stepping back from their “roles” as senior royals, there’s been a debate in British media about whether the coverage of Markle has been racist. A debate that has — in a sad but predictable turn of irony — reproduced racism while denying it is prevalent.
The royal family is historically a white institution. And so when Markle, a biracial woman, became a member, some heralded it as “progress.” But in late 2016, the same year it was announced she and Prince Harry were dating, the prince put out a statement condemning the “wave of abuse and harassment” Markle had already been subjected to. That included “the racial undertones of comment pieces” and “the outright sexism and racism of social media trolls and web article comments.” Three years later, Markle talked about the difficulty of dealing with tabloid coverage more broadly, saying it had been “hard,” and that adopting “this British sensibility of a stiff upper lip” was difficult.
For example, the press has talked about her “exotic DNA”; described her as “(almost) straight outta Compton”; attacked her for the very things that Kate Middleton, Prince William’s white wife, has been praised for; and compared the couple’s son to a chimpanzee. But in TV studios around the country, commentators seem to have peculiarly missed all of this. The coverage of Markle has been welcoming and warm, they say. And when confronted with the evidence that shows that certainly hasn’t always been the tone of reporting, they ask: Is it really racism, though?
Not all racism is overt. Much of it is subtle, quietly shaping the way people are seen, talked about, and treated. Some, like Piers Morgan, have argued it’s not racist to talk about Markle’s DNA as “exotic,” but this term has colonial roots, long working as a form of othering. Acknowledging this would mean really grappling with the insidious ways racism operates in the UK, undermining the notion that it is fundamentally a “tolerant” and “progressive” country.
In the days following the Sussexes’ announcement that they would be “leaving” the royal family, the racist — not to mention, sexist — attacks continued. One poll suggested a significant proportion of people thought it was Markle’s decision, not one made jointly or by Prince Harry. We don’t know, and might never discover, all the ins and outs of what prompted their departure from their frontline “duties.” But in this telling, Prince Harry’s previous admission that he didn’t want to be a “traditional royal” disappears, and all the power, responsibility, and blame seems to lie with Markle.
This was best encapsulated when one radio host launched into a tirade against her post-announcement. Although he’d never met Markle, he admitted, he thought her “awful, woke, weak, manipulative, spoilt and irritating…I look at her and I think, ‘I don’t think I would like you in real life.’”
Black British rapper Stormzy pinpointed in a characteristically salient way why someone would have this kind of unencumbered hatred for a person they’ve never met and who, for the most part, has done little that can really be considered offensive: “she’s just black.”
So much of the reaction to Markle and the couple’s decision reads as a belief that she should be grateful for what she gets. That women of color — in particular black women — should know their place. Because really, so much of the comment around the Harry and Meghan saga isn’t about them at all. It’s about how poorly racism is understood, and how even beginning to grapple with it is deprioritized and ignored.
This lack of interest in combating, or even challenging, racism has obvious political implications. The UK’s current prime minister, Boris Johnson, has compared Muslim women wearing burqas to letterboxes and described black people as “picanninies” with “watermelon smiles.” Diane Abbott, the UK’s first black woman MP, receives more abuse than any other politician in the UK. And in the wake of the referendum vote on the UK leaving the European Union, there was a spike in hate crimes.
These forms of aggression don’t even get us to the insidious structural racism that produces material inequality, which risks being overlooked in all this talk of the royals. Studies have shown that to get a job interview, people with African- or Asian-sounding surnames have to send in twice as many CVs as those with white British-sounding surnames — even where they have the same qualifications. While homelessness has risen across the UK over the past 10 years, ethnic minorities have been disproportionately impacted. And since the 1980s, unemployment rates among women of color have been consistently higher than for white women.
Still, we debate: Is racism a problem in the UK? The coverage of Meghan Markle and the recent fallout is just another reminder that it certainly is.
Maya Goodfellow is an academic and writer. She holds a PhD from SOAS, University of London, and she is the author of Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats.