Everyone expected it to be bad. Everyone expected it to be harmful. But no one could have expected Oprah Winfrey's interview with Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex and Prince Harry to be so bad and so harmful.
During the two-hour interview that aired on Sunday, Meghan shared that while her son Archie was pregnant, there were talks at the palace and concerns about how dark his skin color will be. She also stated that when she and Harry stepped back from their royal duties in 2019, they were informed that they would not be given a security detail – even as Meghan wrote a letter to the royal family asking for protection for her son and asked for Harry. Throughout the session, Harry expressed dismay at the lack of support his own family was offering his wife, despite the fact that she was beset by racism and division in the press.
And perhaps most daunting of all, Meghan shared that she was being pushed to the brink of suicide as she thought it would "solve everything for everyone". When she went to the palace staff team, she was told, "There is nothing we can do to help you because you are not a paid member of the institution."
There can be no doubt: this is racism, serious and possibly deadly racism, at the height of Britain and the Commonwealth. But it didn't have to be like that.
Former Meghan Markle, Britain's first black princess, was the chance to heal Britain's brutal and complex relationship with the race. That opportunity has been severely destroyed by the racism of the royal establishment itself.
For much of the UK black community, Meghan Markle's marriage to Prince Harry was the moment when it became undeniable that there was black in Union Jack. For the Black Brits, who for centuries carried the weight of the British Empire alongside their ancestors, marriage signaled that we had finally broken into every single corridor of British society – and there was endless potential in it.
Part of that was the power of the kings themselves. Even internationally and throughout the African diaspora, the British monarchy had long been admired, loved and respected. My own mother, a Nigerian, still has the memorial plate of Princess Diana and Prince Charles on the wall on July 29, 1981 in their West London home. She regularly polishes it with pride. I was in Lagos, Nigeria in 1997 when Diana died. Britain remembers the unusual mourning in the United Kingdom when she died, but over 3,000 miles away I saw grown men and women mourn as if a member of their own family had died.
For black women in particular, Meghan's arrival at Buckingham Palace was a really profound moment. The black women in my family and my office wondered aloud: will a helicopter land in the London boroughs of Peckham or Seven Sisters so Meghan can buy hair and skin care products? Will she be allowed to go natural or will royal protocol require that she straighten her hair? Will she be allowed to speak on black topics? If something happens in the church, can it be a voice for us?
Some of it was in jest, but the thought was obvious: Would she be allowed to be herself, a woman of color? After Meghan's interview, you now have a clear answer to your overarching question.
The union of Meghan and Harry should have brought the nation closer together and given a huge boost to British soft power – one that highlighted a country confident enough to accept a black American woman into the heart of its own power and appreciate what she represented. Instead, the opposite happened. The royal establishment – "The Firm" as Meghan calls it under the leadership of Prince Philip – started from work to protect Meghan from hostility to the press, falsehood and intrusion, to forbid her from defending herself from attack, and around inform the press against them. And much worse.
The split within the company itself first resulted in Meghan and Harry literally fling the country and then recently retreating from royal life and duties. When they performed with Winfrey on CBS on Sunday night, the program set the narrative and painted a picture of a young couple captured, suffocated and left unprotected by an immutable establishment. Palace PR had already preemptively tried to pull the narrative back from the television interview by revealing in the Times that Meghan had allegedly been the subject of two-year-old bullying complaints – and then claimed they were opening an unprecedented investigation.
Every black person in the workplace knows this dance too well. It is a common tactic for organizations that find reputational vulnerability or brand damage due to their own internal racism to take preventive action against the harmed ethnic minority.
Calling the goal of racism aggressive, bullying, intimidating, or incompetent, especially when clearly not one of the above, is commonplace and, unfortunately, quite effective. Like so many dog whistles, it is heard and understood by the right ears. Meghan officials responded to the resurfaced complaints last week, calling them a "calculated smear campaign based on misleading and harmful information".
Meghan and Harry were the perfect union to expand the relevance of the monarchy and extend the reign of the House of Windsor for a long time. You may not have been the future king and queen, but they were without a doubt the future of the monarchy, centered around Meghan's political progressiveness, self-empowerment, and fiery intellect. These very admirable qualities, which should have made Meghan an astonishing addition to the royal family, instead left her dismissed as a "lively schemer with a master plan".
The palace investigation into Meghan ignores much more serious allegations against other members of the royal household – including grave criminal allegations – such as Prince Andrew's worrying ties to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Given that Meghan is the only black person in the royal family besides her son, the palace's actions have unnecessarily challenged her own credibility and further bolstered Meghan and Harry's revelations in an interview with Winfrey on Sunday night.
Indeed, Meghan's power on paper and its interpretation by the royal family and the British media had become completely alien in practice. And it all boiled down to one problem that remains Britain's Achilles' heel: the race.
Racism is so ingrained in British society that attempts to inform and educate people about it, or at least reduce the damage caused by racism, are often viewed as an attack on British society and history itself.
Blatant and outspoken racism just isn't the way the British middle class does things – subtlety is. And in order to stay true to British subtlety, racism is often cowardly approached (and committed) using plausibly deniable proxies such as immigration, anti-vigilance, sacrifice, political correctness, and culture wars, which are very popular topics for most British newspapers and newspapers the government. All of these are far too often the kid gloves around the iron fist of racism.
It is a sad irony that Meghan and Harry fled to the US, as in the UK we often gleefully point at the Americans and say that we are not as bad at running as they are. In a way, however, the numbers show that we are actually worse off. Examples include differences in coronavirus-related deaths, criminal justice, access to opportunity and employment.
For example, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rates for white and black Americans are 5.6 percent and 9.9 percent, respectively. Between white and black Britons, unemployment is 4.5 percent and 13.8 percent, respectively. According to a 2008 report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, "the number of blacks in prisons in the UK is disproportionately higher than in the United States," a 2017 study confirmed.
Even the British media are repeating this blueprint: According to a 2016 estimate, around 0.2 percent of British journalists are black, even though they made up around 3 percent of the population in 2011. (In the USA 7.19 percent of the staff in the newsroom are black, 13.4 percent of the population.) This shortage of blacks in the newsrooms is regularly shown in the form of a poorly informed or simply and proudly racist "journalism", the Meghan repeatedly fell victim.
As Harry pointed out to Winfrey, even the palace itself is afraid of the might of the British tabloids. (Britain's tabloids are generally not pure scandalous papers like many American ones, and they are the most popular form of print media.) One of Britain's most famous journalists, Piers Morgan, former head of a tabloid, has consistently used his daily breakfast on ITV and his column on the show Daily Mail to lead an ongoing attack on Meghan. Today, even broadsheets like the Telegraph continue the war of words against Meghan, trying to label her as brazen, forgiving and aggressive, and denying her own role in perpetuating racism.
Bullying in the press and the palace's actions pushed Meghan and Harry into the arms of Oprah Winfrey – a judge magnet and epitome of empowerment for black women – and the safe home of Hollywood mogul Tyler Perry (another epitome of black empowerment). And the rest is really history. The entire interview was an ongoing national embarrassment for the UK. It also provided the opportunity for a national disclosure of the seriousness of an issue of racism in British society. That could offer the possibility of growth, healing and reconciliation – but it seems unlikely.
The idea of Meghan Markle, a descendant of kidnapped Africans who were shipped to America on the bottom of slave ships and then enslaved for centuries and somehow become part of the British royal family, is the stuff black fairy tales (and racist horror stories) are made of. This Meghan and Harry marriage had endless symbolic and diplomatic opportunities for the monarchy, for Britain and for the Commonwealth, but those opportunities were missed.
On Sunday evening, the two should have spread the good gospel of Great Britain's greatness. That would have been a PR boost that a country affected by Brexit and coronavirus could really cope with at the moment. Instead, they were encouraged to talk about why they had to flee the unspeakable and "insurmountable" darkness of Britain.