At the May 2018 wedding of Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, the British royal family welcomed its first Black member with what looked like earnest, open-armed enthusiasm. Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church and a Black preacher from Chicago, gave a sermon on the uniting power of love over division; a gospel choir sang a stirring rendition of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.”
Kali Nicole Gross, a professor of African American studies at Emory University, remembers just how hopeful it felt for a family and a country with a history of racism to accept Meghan, who has a Black mother and a White father. “For a moment,” Gross said, “it looked like the monarchy was actually poised to maybe serve as an example of how to move forward … on these issues in a progressive way.”
On Sunday evening, any remaining shred of that notion disappeared. Oprah Winfrey’s “tell-all” interview with Harry and Meghan featured explosive claims from the couple about the racial hostility coming from within Britain’s royal family, especially the couple’s allegation that before the couple’s first child was born, the palace held “conversations” about “how dark his skin might be.”
The interview represents a new inflection point in the global racial reckoning of the past year. While uncountable numbers of institutions have been owning up to their own ugly histories with racism, the British monarchy’s confrontation holds particular significance. That Meghan, an actress-turned-duchess whose nuptials were a national celebration, wasn’t immune to racism raises questions about how pervasive those sentiments still are within the royal family. This is a ruling dynasty of a country that traded enslaved Africans for more than two centuries — and the interview revealed the ways that anti-Black attitudes might be lingering.
The timing of the interview is especially symbolic coming just before jury selection in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who faces murder charges in the May 2020 death of George Floyd, an incident that was central to this reckoning.
Some members of the royal family have long faced accusations of racism, with Harry’s grandfather Prince Philip having made remarks that have stunned onlookers. “If you stay here much longer you’ll all be slitty-eyed,” he said to a group of students during a visit to China in 1986, while in 2002 he asked an Aborigine in Australia if they were “still throwing spears.”
Although the 99-year-old duke has come under fire for such comments, Winfrey confirmed Monday that it was neither he nor his wife, Queen Elizabeth II, who raised the question about baby Archie’s skin tone.
Prince Charles, Harry’s father, has also faced criticism over remarks on race. Journalist Anita Sethi accused him of failing to recognize her British heritage because of the color of her skin. “Dear Prince Charles, do you think my brown skin makes me unBritish?” she wrote for the Guardian in 2018, explaining that the Prince of Wales told her that she didn’t “look like” she was from Manchester. Later in a tweet, Sethi called for “greater understanding of immigration, colonialism & the Commonwealth.”
Sethi, whose mother was born in Guyana, revisited her experience on social media Sunday night, writing, “Remembering that time I met a member of the Royal Family.”
In 2017, Princess Michael, who married the Queen’s first cousin, apologized for wearing a “racist” item of jewelry to a lunch where she met Meghan for the first time. The blackamoor brooch, of a Black man wearing a turban, was deemed racially insensitive by critics. The princess was accused in 2004 of insulting Black guests at a restaurant in New York by reportedly telling them to “go back to the colonies,” the Sun reported.
Of course, racist attitudes toward Meghan haven’t been limited to the royal family. The U.K. tabloids have routinely published headlines widely criticized as racist ever since the couple first made their relationship public in 2016. “EXCLUSIVE: Harry’s girl is (almost) Straight Outta Compton: Gang-scarred home of her mother revealed — so will he be dropping by for tea?” the Daily Mail wrote in a November article that analyzed the Crenshaw neighborhood of Los Angeles, and included a photo of her mother’s home along with a recent community crime report.
The paper also began digging into the finances of both of Meghan’s parents and disclosed information about where her aunt lived — also focusing on the neighborhood and its alleged ties to gang violence.
The Sun also published a story under the headline “Harry’s girl on Pornhub.” It later apologized, explaining that the clips published on a porn site had been taken from her role in the cable television legal drama “Suits”: “We would like to make clear that Miss Markle has never been involved in such content.”
Days later, on Nov. 8, 2016, Harry issued a rare but stern statement that called out the press for its racist and sexist treatment of his then-girlfriend. He wrote that he was “worried for her safety” after what he called a “wave of abuse and harassment,” which included “the smear on the front page of a national newspaper; the racial undertones of comment pieces; and the outright sexism and racism of social media trolls.”
Later, Meghan was criticized by the Daily Mail while pregnant. “Why can’t Meghan Markle keep her hands off her bump?” questioned an anonymous Mail on Sunday reporter alongside a compilation of six photographs that studied the expectant mother’s different “holds” and interviewed experts to find out why she kept touching her stomach in public.
The headline propelled some on social media — and BuzzFeed News — to begin pointing out differences in the British coverage of Meghan and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, who is married to Harry’s brother, Prince William. “Not long to go! Kate cradles baby bump,” the Daily Mail wrote, adding that the duchess was “bumping along nicely.” (Kate, it’s worth noting, has also been a target of the tabloids, at one point branded “Waity Katie” for dating a prince who took his time to propose.)
But when Winfrey asked about the treatment of other royals by the media, Meghan said that while other members had been treated rudely, they had not experienced racism, adding that her treatment had been different because of her biracial and American heritage.
"Kate was called Waity Katie, waiting to marry William, while I imagine that was really hard & I do... this is not the same & if a member of his family will comfortably say we've all had to deal with things that are rude. Rude & racist are not the same." —Meghan #OprahMeghanHarry pic.twitter.com/2QWtDh24ef— CBS This Morning (@CBSThisMorning) March 8, 2021
The couple also told Oprah that the British tabloids had published their location in Canada at one point, a breach that sparked particular concern given that the palace had refused to pay for security for their son, Archie Mountbatten-Windsor. Shortly after he was born, the couple’s son was compared to a chimp by a BBC radio host, who later apologized.
For many viewers and fans in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, the revelations were a disappointment but not a surprise. As a Black woman, Gross, the Emory professor, knows how those in positions of power who look like her are villainized. As a historian, she knows that backlash usually follows progress (see: Emancipation followed by Jim Crow) — and that a long legacy of racism doesn’t disappear overnight.
“The fact is, the British monarchy played a foundational role in the transatlantic slave trade,” Gross said. Indeed, Britain bought and sold enslaved people from the 16th century to the early 19th century, and its colonial presence throughout the world lasted well into the 20th century. “These folks basically built their empire off of Black bodies and blood and enslavement. They played a foundational role in setting up anti-Black racism globally.”
In Gross’s estimation, the interview was a testament to why there’s a racial reckoning going on in the first place: It reminded viewers how old a tradition anti-Black racism is and how ubiquitous it still is. Watching Sunday’s grievances get aired, she said, “It occurred to me how naive it probably was, on my part, to have imagined that anything other than this would be the outcome.”