In the aftermath of Meghan and Harry’s Oprah interview, two of Britain’s most historically racist institutions — the Monarchy and the UK Press — attempted to downplay their transgressions.
In what was destined — and very much intended — to be a pop cultural sensation, Oprah Winfrey’s interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, aka Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, caused quite the stir amongst the British media and public.
Most notably, it sparked widespread denial about whether the British monarchy — a medieval institution of Anglo-European primogeniture, rich off the blood of repression and colonialism — and the UK press — an information distribution cartel, majority owned by right-wing billionaires and run predominantly by privileged white male Oxbridge graduates — have a problem with racism and bigotry.
In the inevitable media fallout that followed, one particular question plagued the airwaves: who was the alleged racist royal who worried about baby Archie’s skin colour?
Surely it couldn’t have been the Queen or a future King of England? Such an idea is of course unthinkable to the legions of loyal sycophants who rushed to defend the Crown. An English monarch, so noble and righteous, couldn’t possibly be a racist or a bigot. Indeed, it must have been a lesser royal, some scoundrel of lower rank — Prince Andrew, perhaps?
Remarkably, it took the palace — or rather, the palace’s PR team — an entire two days to churn out a massive 61-word statement, in which they passionately declared:
The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. Whilst some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately.
In other words, the palace didn’t want to talk about its alleged racism, especially not in public. Moreover, the empty souls who composed the statement clearly intended to shed doubt on any claims of racism with their sly phrase ‘recollections may vary’, which basically translates as: ‘we reserve the right to deny everything’.
As equality campaigners pointed out, this was a ‘crucial opportunity’ for the palace to publicly acknowledge and condemn racism’, something that would’ve been extremely helpful in the fight against ‘racism across the country and in the Commonwealth at large’. But instead, the palace chose silence.
Elsewhere amongst the fallout, the press, another of Britain’s truly noble and righteous institutions, couldn’t possibly be guilty of racism or bigotry, could it? At least, this was the view of the distinguished board of the Society of Editors. In a statement released the day after the interview, they asserted, without a hint of irony:
The UK media is not bigoted and will not be swayed from its vital role holding the rich and powerful to account following the attack on the press by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
Of course, they were responding to Harry and Meghan’s charge that the UK press — particularly the tabloids — have for a number of years reported on Meghan in a racist manner, a charge highlighted back in 2019 when a cross-party coalition of 70 female MPs signed a letter condemning the ‘Colonial Undertones’ in the media coverage of her.
What madness was this? Here were two of Britain’s most historically racist institutions denying, along with many of their supporters throughout the media, that they are anything of the sort. In the days that followed, even Prince William — future King of England — felt the need to publicly assure us that: ‘We’re very much not a racist family’.
But at least the decent white folk over at the Society of Editors demonstrated some reflection, albeit reluctantly. Following a backlash from journalists — specifically over 200 journalists of colour — and a number of dissenting editors regarding their original statement, they published a mea culpa, conceding that:
Our statement on Meghan and Harry […] did not reflect what we all know: that there is a lot of work to be done in the [press] to improve diversity and inclusion. We will reflect on the reaction our statement prompted and work towards being part of the solution.
This was followed by the resignation of the society’s executive director, Ian Murray, who re-emphasised that the board had ‘not intended to gloss over the fact the [press] in the UK does have work to do on inclusivity and diversity’.
Notice the crafty phrasing here, which acknowledged a lack of ‘diversity and inclusion’ in the press without accepting specific charges of racism and bigotry. This is, of course, classic PR spin that enables institutions to conveniently brush over their actual racism and portray the problem as simply a ‘lack of representation’.
The reality is, of course, much more complex, and as race and sociology scholars have long pointed out, the focus should not be on greater representation (which often serves to reinforce racial hierarchies), but on the histories, assumptions, micro-practices, social relations and power dynamics of people and practices within institutions.
Naturally, such introspection is something that neither the press nor the palace wants to do, as we have seen time and again from their responses to similar claims of racism. Indeed, despite the vast body of evidence to the contrary, both institutions remain, at best, ambivalent or, at worst, in denial about their racism.
But should this really surprise us? To anybody remotely familiar with the UK press — its history, its operational practices and its social makeup — the claims of racism made by Meghan and Harry are, unfortunately, unsurprising.
Likewise, as Priyamvada Gopal, professor of postcolonial studies at the University of Cambridge, so brilliantly pointed out in the aftermath: ‘it is unclear why the possibility that there might be racism within a uniformly white and conservative family came as quite such a news flash’.
This is a family, she continued, that has not ‘made any kind of engagement with [its connection to] Empire or race, still less its own whiteness’. Personal racism aside, the monarchy is an institution ‘deeply tied up to both Empire and white supremacy’. Believing otherwise, Gopal added, ‘relies on a historical amnesia’.
Until both the palace and the press fully reckon with their histories of racism, the issue will continue to plague them for a long time to come.