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The monarchy must confront its colonial, racist past

The most explosive element of Sussex’s highly anticipated interview with Oprah Winfrey was the claim that someone in the royal household had “concerns” about how dark-skinned the couple’s son, Archie, might be.

Winfrey later clarified neither the queen nor the duke of Edinburgh were behind the remark. Meghan, however, also suggested their son was denied the title of prince because of his mixed race.

On Tuesday, after the interview was aired, Buckingham Palace released a statement on behalf of the queen expressing her concern about the allegations of racism in the royal family, which she said would be dealt with privately.

The interview points to a larger issue of racism in the British monarchy, both contemporary and historical.

When the couple began dating, some hoped it would usher in a period of royal renewal. Meghan, who has an African-American mother and a white father, was presented as a symbol of the modern, inclusive monarchy. These hopes were gradually dashed with consistently negative media coverage, including unfavourable comparisons with Meghan’s sister-in-law, Kate Middleton, the duchess of Cambridge.

Meghan told Winfrey that the pressure to perform official duties in the face of mounting criticism led to depression and suicidal thoughts. The couple lamented the lack of support they received from the royal family.

It is a tragic story at an individual level but it also points to a history of structural racism in the monarchy. Harry noted that the press attacks on his wife had “colonial undertones”, which he said the royal family refused to address. These are part of a longer history of colonialism and racism in which the Windsors are entangled.

The queen’s distant ancestor, Elizabeth I, was integral to establishing the British slave trade. One of the founders of the trade in the 16th century, Sir John Hawkins, impressed Elizabeth by capturing 300 Africans. His biographer, Harry Kelsey, calls him “Queen Elizabeth’s slave trader” and notes that she contributed her ship, Jesus of Lubeck, to his next voyage in 1564.

In 2018, Prince Charles denounced Britain’s role in the slave trade as an “atrocity”. There have been calls for the queen to also apologise on behalf of the monarchy.

Campaigner Graham Smith, who heads the Republican anti-monarchy pressure group, has led the charge, noting that the current royals “are sitting on a hugely significant amount which was acquired from slavery and empire”.

The British empire contracted after the World Wars and eventually dissolved in the 1960s. Nevertheless, a colonial mindset has persisted. This has been regularly demonstrated by the casual racism of Prince Philip. Visiting Australia in 2002, he asked an Aboriginal Australian if they were “still throwing spears”.

In 1999, he mused that an old-fashioned fuse box must have been “put in by an Indian”. In 1986, he warned British students in China that they would become “slitty-eyed” if they stayed too long. Australia, China and India are just three of dozens of countries touched by British colonisation.

Although the prince’s comments — and many others — are often dismissed as “gaffes” or poor jokes, they tie into a culture war, suggesting colonialism was ultimately a net good and Britain was spreading civilisation throughout the world.

Journalist Peter Tatchell, a campaigner against discrimination and injustice, has argued that the institution of monarchy is itself inherently racist because there have only been, and probably will only ever be, white monarchs.

He notes in a 2020 article for Insider.com: “A non-white person is […] excluded from holding the title of head of state, at least for the foreseeable future. This is institutional racism.”

This could change, of course, but the treatment of Meghan and the alleged concerns about her son’s skin colour suggest the privileging of whiteness is deeply ingrained.

Being seventh in line to the throne, there was never a realistic chance Archie would become king. The notion that his mere proximity to the throne has sparked concerns, and the failure to defend Meghan from racist attacks, again points to a structural issue.

The marriage of Harry and Meghan in 2018 by charismatic African-American Bishop Michael Curry, serenaded by a gospel choir, was a public relations coup for the royals. The Sussexes’ exit from royal life after such a short period, and the reasons, is highly damaging.

The monarchy has remained largely silent on the history of racism in Britain.

After the death of George Floyd in the United States sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, thousands across Britain were quick to show their support and solidarity. In 2020 the English Premier League had the words Black Lives Matter printed

on players’ shirts and opened matches with players taking a symbolic knee.

The royal family said nothing. By protocol, the monarchy does not comment on political issues, but its role is to offer moral leadership. Without explicitly endorsing Black Lives Matter, the Windsors could have contributed to the zeitgeist by making statements condemning all forms of discrimination and racism and visibly championing anti-racism charities.

As a society, Britain is having a difficult national conversation about its imperial past. Statues of slave owners are being torn down and attempts to decolonise the curriculum are gathering pace.

If the royal family is not able to make similar attempts to confront the racism in its past and present, it risks falling ever further out of touch with the people it is supposed to represent. — The Conversation

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Benjamin Jones
Benjamin Jones is a lecturer in history at CQUniversity in Australia

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