Correction: An earlier version of this essay incorrectly stated that Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, are not princesses. Although neither uses that title, they are both princesses. This essay has been updated.
Yomi Adegoke is an award-winning journalist and author. She is co-author of “Slay in Your Lane: The Black Girl Bible.”
For weeks, the world has been regaled by whispers of a supposed cat fight between Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. The details of this so-called feud were unceremoniously unveiled Tuesday in an hour-long, tell-all TLC documentary titled “Kate v. Meghan: Princesses at War?”
The entire program should be viewed with a pinch of salt. But that didn’t stop the airing of this royal “Celebrity Deathmatch” special, which was largely packaged as the English rose versus Windsor’s black sheep.
The rise of rumors chronicling Meghan’s diva-ish demands and feud with her sister-in-law are by no means a coincidence. They are the inevitable culmination of what seems to be a several-months-long smear campaign by pockets of the British press. The tabloids are scraping the bottom of the barrel for any possible dirt on Meghan and in doing so are practically at war with themselves, desperately trying to reconcile Britain’s unquestioning reverence for the royals with the nation’s deep-rooted biases against ethnic minorities.
Racist dog whistles had been employed by the press since the relationship between Meghan Markle and Prince Harry became public. There was the supposed reveal of her mother’s “gang-scarred” home, as if she had hidden her background as part of a ruse to bluff her way into the palace. These only intensified as the nation grappled with the reality of their marriage and Meghan’s pregnancy. Not long after her pregnancy announcement came the story that Meghan had given out marijuana in party bags at her first wedding in Jamaica (“where cannabis was illegal,” as the Daily Mail’s headline reminded). Add in the narrative of the angry black woman bullying her sister-in-law to drug use and a childhood in “the ghetto,” and you have a full house in a game of racist-trope bingo.
Though some of the most obviously racially charged stories started to thin after her marriage to Prince Harry, the personal attacks on Meghan have continued to steadily pile in. She was criticized for being too nice, too pregnant, too Hollywood. Black people in Britain knew what this really meant: These were all for codes for being too black. Some critiques were couched in questions dripping in feigned naivete: One Daily Mail article asked if Meghan’s love of avocados was “fuelling drought and murder.” Another managed to subtly other her by asking if the duchess should be wearing more British designers.
Even her white heritage couldn’t help her. Her estrangement from her father (who gave a string of excruciating interviews to the press that continues to hound her) soon became less about his betrayal and more about her unwillingness to forgive. The black community has long been blamed en masse for the crimes of others — just ask Liam Neeson, who told the Independent in an interview published this week that he once wanted to kill a black person after he found out a friend had been raped — but remarkably, Meghan is held responsible even for the misdeeds of her white family.
Though the British press and public boast that the duchess is a symptom of a much-changed Britain, they deride the change she brings in the same breath. Meghan’s marrying into the royal family has been hailed as a sign of the times, but in reality what is more representative of modern-day Britain has been the media’s response.
Her treatment by the press is appalling but in no way unique. English professional footballer Raheem Sterling is on the receiving end of similar treatment on a near weekly basis, scolded for everything from flying with a budget airline to buying his mother a house. Musician Stormzy is a regular target for the Daily Mail, so much so he called them out by name during a performance at the Brit Awards last year.
Black Britons knew Meghan’s fair skin wouldn’t preclude her from such treatment — her identity as a mixed-raced divorcée makes her a ripe target for racism, sexism, classism and a whole host of other -isms. Her treatment simply reiterates a message we’ve heard all too clearly for most of our lives. We can rise to the top of the ranks as footballers, musicians or even members of the royal family — but hate also rises all to the top. In the eyes of so many, people of color are viewed not as duchesses but as reminders of the former colonial territories so many wish the United Kingdom still held.
At a time when the British public is so insecure about the notion of “British identity” that it opted to demolish life as we know it for Brexit, racists see Meghan as the final nail in the coffin of traditional British values. But more importantly, the duchess is something of a mirror, reflecting the ever-changing face of Britain — and just how callous and bigoted the country continues to be. This reality may come as a surprise to many, but the thousands of black women living in the United Kingdom know it all too well.