Why Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s allegations of racism within the royal family are not so surprising.
Allegations of racism have had an explosive effect on the royal family as the recent interview with Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, and Prince Harry with Oprah Winfrey points to a larger issue of racism within the British monarchy, both contemporary and historical.
Among the most shocking allegations was made by Meghan who claimed that while she was pregnant with the couple’s first child, Archie, an unnamed member of the family raised concerns “about how dark his skin might be when he’s born.”
While Meghan and Harry’s claims may be surprising to some, for those who know the history of the British Empire, these claims are not so astonishing, as the British monarchy has not always set an example for racial equality and justice.
When the couple began dating, there was a sense of hope, as Meghan presented a symbol of modern inclusivity within the monarchy. These hopes were dashed though, as media coverage was consistently negative and included unfavorable comparisons with her sister-in-law, Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge.
In the interview, Meghan revealed to Winfrey the pressures to perform official duties in the face of mounting criticism. The couple admitted to the lack of support they received from the royal family and explained the toll this took on their mental health, especially that of Meghan.
Her and Harry’s story, although very upsetting to hear, points to a history of structural racism and colonialism within the British monarchy.
Britain’s colonial history.
The British Empire comes with baggage – to say the least.
Great Britain made its first efforts to establish oversea settlements in the 16th century. Driven by commercial ambitions and competition with France, the establishment of colonies was accelerated in the 17th century, resulting in settlements in North America and West Indies.
By the 1660s, Great Britain had made its first permanent settlement on the African continent. Elizabeth I, the Queen’s distant ancestor, was an integral part of the establishment of the British Slave Trade, which by the end of the 1760s, made Britain the foremost European country engaged.
The slave trade was huge for Britain’s colonial economy and soon beaome an “economic necessity.” According to the Abolition Project, Between 1550 and 1780, almost 70% of the government’s income came from colonial taxes and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
With the expansion of British-dominated capitalism by the late 18th century, English settlers became interested in Australia. The British Empire allowed terror and genocidal acts on indigenous Australians in order to expropriate their economic resources and takeover their land. These inhumane crimes continued throughout the 19th century until the population of the indigenous community was practically destroyed and their land was completely occupied and transformed into English colonies.
By the end of the World Wars, the British Empire was dismantled and the Commonwealth emerged in its place. The Commonwealth, currently led by Queen Elizabeth II, is a political association made up of 54 independent countries – almost all of which are former territories of the British Empire.
Since then, a colonial mindset has persisted, as the term “Commonwealth of Nations” dates back to 1884, a peak in the British imperial age.
It is also important to note the institution of monarchy itself as inherently racist, as there have only been and most likely only ever will be, white monarchs. While this could change in the future, the treatment of Meghan and the alleged concerns over her and Harry’s child’s skin color suggests that racism and white privilege are too deeply ingrained.
How Great Britain continues to profit from the slave trade.
In September of 2020, the National Trust released a report highlighting links between wealth, slavery and colonies, in 93 of the properties it manages.
The National Trust states “the wealth of a number of the owners of our places and collections came directly from owning sugar plantations, and the enslaved people who worked them….Parklands, gardens, houses, and luxury objects were paid for by direct links to profits made from slavery and the compensation that was paid out to slave owners after abolition.”
Kensington Palace and Hampton Palace are just two of the properties with connections to King William III – a part-owner of the Royal African Company which held a monopoly of the slave trade. He was given shares of the company by slave trader, Edward Colston, who gained a mass fortune from the slave trade.
In the midst of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, the statue of Colston was torn down and thrown into the Bristol Harbour – the very spot where Colston’s slave ships would have once sailed for Africa.
Royal silence and the erasure of history.
The royal family has yet to directly confront or apologize for Britain’s involvement or benefit from the Slave Trade – not to mention the East India Company, genocide of Australian Aborigines, or involvement in Egypt.
The Queen, however, did make a public apology when she addressed Anglo-Irish relations, making her the first British monarch to visit Ireland since gaining its independence. In an address at Dublin Castle, the Queen spoke of the legacy of the past, the pain it has brought, and the need to remember those who have been affected. The Queen stopped short though when she said that both of the nations could have acted differently.
Prince Phillip too has made many offensive comments; however, they are often dismissed as poor jokes.
As a society, Britain is having and needs to continue to conduct difficult conversations about its colonial, imperial, and racist past. The royal family must make attempts to confront its history and present racism, or else it will be at risk of further falling out of touch with the people it’s supposed to represent.