In an essay published in February of 2013, the British author Hilary Mantel described seeing Prince Charles at a literary award ceremony. Her vantage point allowed her to closely observe him, or rather his expensive suit and his perfect cuffs. The ceremony, Mantel tells us, was “formal and carefully orchestrated.” Eventually, the time came for the prince to hand over the award, which constituted a big check to a young author. When the author took the stage, he was dressed in shirtsleeves. “He no doubt wished to show that he was a free spirit,” but his “chippiness” to the royal establishment, Mantel wrote, stopped at just that. For all his rebelliousness, he had no problem taking money from that very same establishment.
This absence of principled opposition that Mantel noted struck me when considering the hot takes that have been born, are being birthed, and will yet be birthed, on the not-so-startling sit-down interview that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle gave to Oprah Winfrey last weekend. The revelations included an unnamed royal family members’ concern about what the pair’s children would look like (given that Meghan is biracial), and the royal family’s refusal to provide security or even a title to Prince Harry’s children. These slights and exclusions led the couple to take the unprecedented move of stepping back from their official duties and moving to the United States. On Sunday, they delivered the reason why: the British royal family is racist.
Watching an institution such as the British monarchy being taken to task by one of their own is extremely gratifying. The royals, for all their attention to decorum and politeness, have, it appears, very rotten innards. Some portion of those lay in Oprah’s lap following the much-hyped interview. In the days after, it appears that Meghan, who confessed to being extremely isolated, badgered by the British tabloids, and denied medical help despite being suicidal, is quite likely the new Diana.
This narrowness of critique is a pity, given how ancient and entrenched the history of royal racism has been. A short walk to the Grand Vestibule of Windsor Castle, near which the prince and duchess lived, would have revealed quite a bit of the longstanding, centuries-long racism in which the family has reveled. In that hall is some small portion of the loot of Empire, spoils from India and from Benin and various other unfortunate places. She could have seen even more at the Tower of London, where the Crown Jewels include the stolen Koh-i-noor diamond, which Victoria took from India. It is likely not possible to enter any room in Windsor Castle, without encountering something that was snatched from a racially inferior “other”—its taking justified by white and Western entitlement.
Would it be acceptable to ask for something more; perhaps a robust, less self-serving, more thoughtful critique that transcends the pettiness of wanting a title and security detail for a toddler?
But it appears that Meghan knew none of this. Nor for that matter did Harry, who despite having done tours in Afghanistan, and having a top-notch education, seems befuddled that his biracial wife was treated poorly by an institution built on pillage and sustained by theatrics. The twosome, whose pain and isolation is indubitable, seem to have skipped entirely over the racist legacy of the colonizing British Crown which unapologetically enslaved millions of Black and brown people for hundreds of years.
None of those facts appeared to have bothered either Meghan or Harry, or kept them from partaking of their very own big, fat royal wedding. This is expected, I suppose, for nothing hurts more than one’s own child denied. In this particular case, the fact that their son Archie was not given security or a title stung. The seething consequence of it, no doubt measured against the titled and guarded progeny of Prince William and Kate Middleton, yielded an Oprah interview that delivered gut punch after gut punch.
It is difficult, in a world that runs on self-interest, to know whether good deeds must be depreciated for their narrow and self-serving motives. Should the world, and women of color like myself, offer bows and prostrations to the Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle for having the courage to even use the “r” word with the royal family? Would it be acceptable to ask for something more: perhaps a robust, less self-serving, more thoughtful critique that transcends the pettiness of wanting a title and security detail for a toddler? That critique would be less focused on slights and gripes and more on the fundamentally problematic institution that is the British monarchy. Such a critique would recognize, for instance, that institutions based on hereditary lines are inherently exclusionary and inevitably racist. The focus on breeding, the breathy welcome to male children, and all the rest of it, masks the royals’ repugnant belief in the primacy and purity of lineage as the basis for wealth and renown.
Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan Markle still use their titles. Prince Harry remains sixth in line to be King. When he turned thirty, he was given an approximately $10 million inheritance from Princess Diana—and at one time, Prince Charles funded 95 percent of the couple’s expenses. All of this appears, in my eyes, to indicate their halfway measures, wanting to keep the glam titles and a solid chunk of money, while donning the ennobling garment of reform—as if they seek to transform the racist royal family. Meghan Markle might have calculated that the “wronged princess” is a role long finessed by the tearful Diana and that being the official transgressor of the royal family guarantees a kind of fame all its own, which can be converted into pots of money unconstrained by the quibbles of the royals themselves.
Transformation of an institution that is based on the subjugation of racially distinct others, the pillage and plunder of foreign lands, the ravaging of cultures, is not possible. Sincere commitment to the cause of racial justice and equality would require that Harry and Meghan disavow the inherited crowns and their attendant insistence of genetically pure lines of succession. The very idea of royalty, with its inherited veneration, is in itself puerile and dated, a remnant of a world where racism and bigotry were just a part of how things were done. One can only hope that Meghan and Prince Harry find the courage to make their position more meaningful and robust in its opposition to the institution itself. Until then, the two remain grander examples of what Hilary Mantel saw at the literary award ceremony years ago; they are like the man who diffidently refused to dress up for the royals but who did not have the courage to do the much harder thing and actually refuse the award.