Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex’s interview with Oprah Winfrey has shattered any lingering illusions about the British royal family. In “Oprah with Meghan and Harry: A CBS Primetime Special,” the Sussexes discussed at length their decision to step down as senior working members of the royal family, while getting candid about all the abuse Meghan experienced from the British press, as well as the lack of support they received from the prince’s family.
While the British press and tabloids are still pointing their fingers at Meghan, many Black and brown people worldwide aren’t the least bit surprised to hear some of the things the former actress said she endured.
Meghan described a horrendous and very racist conversation that centered “concerns” around the Sussexes’ then-unborn son Archie’s skin-tone. However, it was more shocking to many people of color to learn that Meghan spent weeks on end locked away in her Frogmore Cottage estate without her passport, keys, or a way out. For many of us, the racism that she experienced feels almost expected.
From its origins in the 16th century, the British royal family’s wealth has been built with the blood and on the backs of enslaved Black people. These ancestors were snatched from their native lands to toil away for Queen Elizabeth I and, later, King Charles II, a founder of the slave-trading company, Royal African Company (RAC). Today, the Commonwealth of nations, which consists of 19 African and 12 Caribbean countries, are nations that the U.K. first pillaged for their riches. Britain continues to profit from these countries, offering no true reparations for slavery, exploration, or colonization while many of these nations’ citizens continue to suffer.
Perhaps in her naivety, Meghan, a biracial woman from Los Angeles, assumed that her approximation to whiteness would serve as a buffer of representation between the royals and the Commonwealth. What she did not anticipate and what surely became a wake-up call for Prince Harry was that Meghan’s light skin would only offer her a ticket into royal life. However, her Black blood would keep her locked in a cage to be thrust into the spotlight whenever it served the royal family’s purpose. A Sarah Baartman for the 21st century, Meghan became a sacrificial offering for the ravenous British press and tabloids. Simultaneously, “white royals” like Prince Andrew, who has been accused of sexually abusing a minor, continued to stuff their skeletons back into the closet.
“My regret is believing them when they said I would be protected. I believed that,” Meghan said to Oprah. “And I regret believing that because I think had I really seen that that wasn’t happening, I would have been able to do more. But I think I wasn’t supposed to see it. I wasn’t supposed to know.”
As much as Meghan and Harry’s Oprah interview explored the duchess’ experience as a mixed-race outsider in the royal fold, perhaps a more interesting take is to analyze Prince Harry’s racial awakening. So often, as we’ve watched over the past few days, white people appear stunned when racism is presented as plainly as Meghan described it. Though there are bigots like Piers Morgan who love to pretend racism doesn’t exist so they can cling on to their love for white supremacy, others are forced to confront their prejudices and racist interactions. As “liberal” as many white people across the globe claim to be, they tend to ignore racism because it is not a part of the fabric of their daily experiences. Even when they are confronted with it, many of them play the victim.
Since his childhood, especially following Princess Diana’s death, Prince Harry appeared to feel some discomfort in his royal role. The flashing cameras as he walked behind his mother’s coffin at age 12 undoubtedly had a lasting impact on his psyche. As a teen and into his twenties, Prince Harry appeared to feel at ease and carefree in front of the public eye, but he often stepped over the line, openly rebelling. There are the stories that we know well: the Nazi Halloween costume, the naked pool game, the choice to see combat during his decade-long tenure in the Royal Army, and the bit of marijuana he was caught smoking. There were also signs of friction with the press and with his family. These stories often lingered below the surface. The prince’s cell phone was hacked by the tabloids when he was in his teens, a gross invasion of privacy. There was the ever-evolving and complex relationships with Prince Charles, who was technically his boss, and Prince William, whose path toward the throne left the prince feeling increasingly like the spare to the heir.
Joe Pugliese / CBS
Yet, Prince Harry’s whiteness, privilege, and royal life allowed his ignorance to the reality of racism to fester. “I was trapped, but I didn’t know I was trapped,” he said in the interview. That all changed when he met Meghan.
The Sussexes have described meeting each other as an intense connection where they bonded over their love of philanthropy. For Harry, meeting Meghan, a woman who’d lived life on her own terms long before she ever knew the intricacies of the British royal family, served as a wake-up call for the prince. She showed him the path toward a different kind of life in more ways than he may have anticipated.
Prince Harry has had his run-ins regarding race and racism, first with the Nazi costume, and then with an alleged racial slur when he was in the Army. He has also said he’s done the work to understand his whiteness, privilege, and how that relates to people of color. Yet, he was not educated enough to know that he could not shield Meghan from the trolling, sexism, racism, misogynoir, and overall character assassination that would come thundering toward her from the people of his home country and from his within his own family.
“Sad as it is to say it, it takes living in her shoes, in this instance, for a day or those first eight days to see where it was gonna go and how far they were gonna take it,” Harry said. “And get away with it and be so blatant about it — that’s the bit that shocked me.”
Tabloids have been a part of the prince’s life from the beginning, but this was something Harry had never experienced before. “What was different for me was the race element. Now it wasn’t just about her, but it was about what she represents,” he said. “It wasn’t just affecting my wife; it was affecting so many other people, as well.”
The horrifically casual conversation about his unborn child’s hue, watching his wife’s mental health deteriorate, and feeling helpless under the weight of it all, are only the tip of the iceberg for Prince Harry. He has very candidly explained that he would not have had this racial awakening without Meghan. “Without question, she saved me,” he said. Though he’s spoken out in the past, urging his family to confront their colonial past, he cannot seem to grasp the racist foundation upon which the countries like the U.K. and the U.S. were built. Instead, the prince is still pointing his fingers solely at the bigotry of the British tabloids.
In the interview with Oprah, Prince Harry described a conversation he had with a friend in January 2020, shortly after announcing Megxit. The friend told him frankly, “The U.K. is bigoted.” Unfortunately, after everything, the prince is still in staunch disagreement. “I completely disagree,” he said. “The U.K. press is bigoted, specifically the tabloids […] unfortunately, if the source of information is inherently corrupt or racist or biased, then that filters out to the rest of society.”
Living in a new country with its own horrific past and present ties to racism, as well as the impending birth of a daughter, who may very well identify as a woman of color, it seems that the prince is only at the beginning of his great racial enlightenment. Yet, as much more work as Prince Harry has to do, he’s still well ahead of his family members. Prince William, the future Crowned King, has since insisted that the British royal family is “very much not a racist family.” One token of wisdom that all white people can glean from this is that you don’t get to decide if you’re racist or not. What you can do is listen and begin doing the work.