The fairy-tale wedding of Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, to Prince Harry represented to many the long-overdue modernization of Britain’s most famous family. Nearly three years later, her allegations of racism within the royal family and the media punched a hole in the spectacle, reflecting an all-too-real home truth for Black people and other minorities living in the country.
The pair spoke of racist coverage in the British press during their bombshell interview with Oprah Winfrey last week, claims that led to the resignation of the head of the UK Society of Editors after he refused to acknowledge the problem.
Meghan’s allegation that one of her in-laws expressed concern over the color of her then-unborn son Archie has met no such reckoning. Instead, the royals have placed themselves in the apex of the culture wars, which have been growing since last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. These saw Prime Minister Boris Johnson deny that the UK was a racist country – ignoring evidence of the lived experience of many Black British people.
British commentators questioned the validity of her claims. “We don’t know exactly what was said, we don’t know how it was said, we don’t know who said it. The only context that we can give to this story is one, frankly, conjured up out of our own fantasies and prejudices,” wrote columnist David Aaronovitch in the center-right British daily, the Times. “We need to push back hard against this. Intention matters, context matters, facts matter. If “feelings” are all that count, then eventually we are, every one of us, potentially lost to someone else’s emotional intensity. And that, not duchesses, is what matters here.”
Last week, Prince William told reporters that the royals were “very much not a racist family,” days after the Palace said that – “while recollections vary” – the serious claims were going to be addressed by the family privately. The Palace has however hired an external law firm to investigate claims that Meghan bullied royal staff.
No normal family
In any normal circumstance “you can draw a line and say this is a private family matter,” said Halima Begum, the head of race equalities think tank the Runnymede Trust, “but the royals are not a normal family.”
Its matriarch, Queen Elizabeth, is the head of state of the UK and 15 other countries in the Commonwealth – an association of 54 countries that were almost all formerly under British rule. The monarchy’s role at the heart of the Commonwealth means the institution represents 2.4 billion people, the majority of whom are not White.
While beloved in the UK and abroad, the monarchy is the most identifiable symbol of Whiteness and imperial nostalgia in British society. “A born to rule White elite encrusted with the wealth and jewels stolen from their former colonies,” wrote Kehinde Andrews, professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University, in a CNN op-ed. “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.”
By skirting over the claims, the royals missed an opportunity to address a profound issue with the sensitivity that was needed, say campaigners. “This is the kind of conversation in modern Britain that we shouldn’t tolerate,” Begum told CNN.
Royal protocol dictates the family sits above politics and should avoid expressing their political views. Race is also apolitical, she said, and a “fundamental human right … so for that reason I think the royal family need to publicly reckon with racism the same way other organizations have done so.”
The monarchy has a role to unite the country when it comes to race. “If they have not spoken about racism before, or their role in empire, now is an opportunity to do so. These conversations (about race) should not break families, nations and monarchies. It should make us stronger,” she said.
Prince Charles acknowledged Britain’s role in the slave trade while at a conference in Ghana in 2018. The royal family has however remained largely silent on the role it played around slavery and colonialism, in spite of their ancestors endorsing and profiting from both enterprises.
In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I provided slave merchant John Hawkins with her own vessel “specifically for the purpose of capturing Africans on the West African coast,” according to an article in the UK’s national archives. Subsequent members of the crown invested heavily in the slave trade.
When it came to colonialism, the East India Company, granted a royal charter by Elizabeth I, acted as an agent of the empire in India and other parts of Asia, where it seized territory, made laws and protected its assets with military force. In India alone, economist Utsa Patnaik calculated that Britain siphoned today’s equivalent of around $44 trillion out of the country between 1765 and 1938 – about 15 times the UK’s 2019 GDP.
“It would obviously have made an enormous difference if India’s huge international earnings had been retained within the country. India would have been far more developed, with much better health and social welfare indicators,” Patnaik told Indian financial daily Live Mint in 2018.
Yet a 2020 survey found nearly a third of British people said the empire was something to be proud of, while 33% said the colonies are now better off for having been part of the empire. Experts say those attitudes are reflective of Britain’s colonial amnesia, which has had knock-on effects among non-White communities in the UK and abroad.
A 2019 study by the University of Oxford found that Black and South Asian job applicants in the UK face similar levels of job discrimination today as they did in the early 1970s. According to the study, applicants with Pakistani and Nigerian names had to send up to 80% more applications than their White counterparts before receiving a call back.
“Colonialism was monumental because it was formative of the rest of the world, and it was, to put it politely, a massive redistribution of wealth and objects, and it was central to the development of ideologies of race, which are still with us today,” Corinne Fowler, a professor of postcolonial literature at the University of Leicester, told CNN.
Fowler said it was important that people do not dismiss racism and discrimination complaints as being based just “on feelings” when in fact there is plenty of evidence showing that Black and Brown people face stark disparities in Britain.
The first step to address these wrongs, say activists and protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement that swept the country last summer, is to provide a fuller and honest picture of Britain’s colonial past. That history, they say, is not reflected in the country’s museums, heritage sites, or school curriculums.
But attempts at an honest look have hit a wall of opposition from some lawmakers and commentators. In a letter to The Telegraph in 2020, a group of more than 60 Conservative lawmakers, called The Common Sense Group, asked the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden to review the funding of conservation charity, the National Trust.
Its alleged crime? Publishing a report last September that acknowledged the links between its properties and colonialism and slavery. The Common Sense Group was particularly distressed that one of the homes cited was Chartwell, the country retreat of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
The former wartime leader, who led Britain’s wartime fight against Nazi Germany, is a huge source of national pride; Johnson even wrote a biography on him. But research has also suggested that his policies at least partly caused a famine that claimed more than 3 million Indian lives.
“History must neither be sanitized nor rewritten to suit “snowflake” preoccupations,” the lawmakers said in their letter in reference to the report, which had noted Churchill’s resistance to the independence of India and that he was prime minister during the 1943 Bengal Famine. “A clique of powerful, privileged liberals must not be allowed to rewrite our history in their image,” they added.
The fracas, which spurred a furious debate in the conservative press about political partiality of academics, led to an investigation into the National Trust by the regulatory body the Charity Commission, which found the conservation group did not breach any charity law. In response, the National Trust’s chief Hilary McGrady said it would “continue to take a wide-ranging and evidence-based approach to history.”
“There is so much to be proud of in our history,” she wrote on the National Trust’s website. “It is surely a sign of confidence, integrity and pride that while we can celebrate and enjoy history we can also explore and acknowledge all aspects of it.”
The Charity Commission’s conclusion did not come before Fowler, who edited the report, became a target for trolls; the University of Leicester professor continues to be a victim of character assassinations in the tabloid press. “I can’t go on walks alone anymore,” she said, due to the amount of death threats she has received in the past few months.
The same is true for other academics and writers exploring imperialism. Journalist Sathnam Sanghera received thousands of abusive tweets after his book, “Empireland,” was published, he told the Guardian last week. Andrews, the professor of Black studies, has seen a spike in online abuse since the release of his book “The New Age of Empire” in early March.
There are risks to challenging the commonly held narrative that key figures like Churchill or the empire was a force for good, Andrews told CNN, likening the response to “hitting the third rail on a subway line.”
“There is a deeply deluded version of history that is necessary to mask the continued racism in the present day, so there is an almost complete inability to come to terms with the past,” he added. “The backlash is a defense mechanism to keep the nation comfortable in its delusions.”
This has all coincided with the ruling Conservative government playing on culture war issues, fanning the flames of polarization in a bid to keep their sizeable new majority of voters on side. Research last year by the think tank UK in a Changing Europe found the Conservative Party could retain power in the next 2024 election by campaigning on socio-cultural issues rather than economic ones.
It has introduced a controversial policing bill, which critics say gives the police and ministers more power to curtail protests, and which makes specific mention of “monuments” – in a clear reference to a public spat over statues of Churchill and a slave trader being damaged during the BLM protests. If passed, defacing a statue could lead to a maximum 10-year term in prison.
The mood is shifting, as are the demographics. A survey found over half of 18 to 24-year olds believed the country is racist, compared to 22% of 55 to 75-year-olds. Various polls in the aftermath of the Winfrey interview showed sympathy for Meghan and Harry was divided across the ages. Those aged 18 to 24 overwhelmingly held a positive opinion of the pair, while a majority of those over 65 disliked them.
“A lot of the younger people simply don’t understand why public institutions and leaders are not being more anti-racist in general,” Begum said, adding that the calls for institutions to reckon with its history, and structural biases, are only getting louder.
And, as we have seen in the past few weeks, the monarchy is not immune. As heirs to the throne, Prince Charles or Prince William won’t have the cover of being from an older generation, Begum said.
“They will need to understand the tenor of the UK – as well as being future heads of Black and Asian led Commonwealth nations – they will need to speak with a more rigorous anti-racism voice,” she added.
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