A month(ish) of the royal family trying to prove they’re not racist
On 9th April, after this article was originally written, Prince Philip died at the age of 99. It’s caused an outpouring of support on a human level. But until issues are addressed, it remains unlikely that many will be persuaded the institution is not racist.
Having been bombarded with RIP content for the past week or so, you may have forgotten that little more than a month ago the Duke and Duchess of Sussex sat down for an explosive interview with Oprah Winfrey.
“Were you silent… or were you silenced?” has been echoing around our brains ever since the interview’s trailer first dropped. Some have even tried to place the blame for a very old man’s death on it.
While the revelations from the interview absolutely did not cause Prince Philip’s death, they did catalyse a number of other events. Piers Morgan stormed off Good Morning Britain, claiming that it was, in fact, he who had been silenced (national newspaper columns and interviews with Tucker Carlson apparently don’t count). Racism within the British media once again came under scrutiny, prompting a resignation from the Society of Editors’ chief after a botched statement on the matter. And news channels across the globe debated the burning question that everyone was asking following the interview: is the British royal family racist?
To be clear, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle did not once accuse any members of the royal family of being racist during their two-hour interview with Oprah Winfrey. But a few details did slip out that sound, at best, problematic and, at worst, well, yes, racist.
The most shocking allegation was that an unnamed member of the royal family had concerns over how dark their son, Archie’s, skin colour would be before he was born. Other issues raised didn’t necessarily point to overtly racist behaviour from “the firm” – the nickname given to the institution of and around the royal family – but rather a disregard for Markle’s wellbeing as she faced targeted and racialised news coverage from the British press. In the interview, Markle admitted that the torrent of negative news stories in the media had at one point left her suicidal. When she asked for help, Markle alleges that she was told that “there’s nothing we can do to protect you, because you’re not a paid employee of the institution”.
The thing is, there were apparently things that the palace were willing to do to protect other family members, ones who had potentially done far worse things than eat avocado toast for breakfast. As Markle told Oprah: “They were willing to lie to protect other members of the family, but they weren’t willing to tell the truth to protect me and my husband.” Remember those signs at Black Lives Matter protests last summer that read “Silence is violence”? The allocation of empathy within the royal family seems to be based on a pretty dubious set of morals.
Not to worry, though. The global side-eye that the Windsors had become the apple of was nothing they couldn’t photo-op their way out of. As speculation grew as to which royal had raised the topic of Archie’s skin colour, less than 24 hours after the interview aired in the UK Prince Charles found himself as many Black people as possible to be photographed next to by visiting a pop-up vaccine centre in North London. While there, he reportedly laughed off questions about the Oprah interview and went on to praise Black-majority churches for the role they’ve played in the vaccine rollout. Later that evening, the palace released an official statement on the interview that said, “The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately.” It was a comparatively tame response, considering the fact that, a week earlier, they had promised to launch a full investigation into accusations of bullying charged against Markle as promo ramped up for the Oprah tell-all.
Next, it was the turn of Prince William to get out and tell the world, “We’re very much not a racist family.” This is the sentence he attempted to assure a reporter with when he and the Duchess of Cambridge visited a school in Stratford, East London on the 11th March. It was probably just a coincidence that the headteacher, who gave them a tour of the school, happened to be a Black woman, right? Cynicism aside, Prince William will probably go on to wish that he had kept his lips sealed that morning. Rebuking allegations of racism with outright denial, when much of the royal family’s wealth and power was attained through the intrinsically racist British Empire, makes our future king look either woefully undereducated on his own family’s history or simply indifferent to the impact racism has on people of colour worldwide – including his sister-in-law.
In its throwaway disregard for the level of nuance that’s required when discussing race, “We are very much not a racist family” is perhaps the second-most deceptively damning statement to come from Team Anyone But Meghan since the interview. In first place? A senior ex-aide’s statement to The Express’ royal correspondent, Richard Palmer, in which they said, “It’s despicable that she’s playing the race card.” As Afua Hirsch notes, the term “race card” was originally used to describe how politicians “weaponised fears about Black people to gain votes” throughout the 1960s. These days, it’s used to shut down and silence concerns about racism, attempting to delegitimise the accuser by trivialising their stance. In any case, whenever this so-called “race card” is deployed, you can be sure that a black person won’t be in possession of the winning hand. It’s extremely telling that a former senior royal aide felt this was an appropriate response to give to a reporter.
On the 20th March, The Telegraph ran an interview with Seyi Obakin, the chief executive of homelessness charity Centrepoint and friend to Prince William of 12 years. As a Black man, Obakin’s insistence that Prince William is definitely not racist was no doubt intended to put the conversation to bed. “I have never seen a hint of racism. Never. I have worked with him in close proximity for years,” he said. That may indeed be true, but to many, the timing and framing of Obakin’s interview made it appear as nothing more than an elaborate iteration of the “I have black friends” defence that people often try to use to exonerate themselves from accusations of racism.
Versions of this statement are often used to excuse everything from racial slurs to blackface. On the global stage, deposed president Donald Trump has cosied up to figures such as Kanye West, while repeatedly offending people of colour and refusing to denounce white supremacists. As John Eligon writes in The New York Times, the “Black friend” defence relies on “the belief that proximity to blackness immunises white people from having attitudes that are rooted in racism or doing racist things”. The Telegraph interview took the concept one step further by inviting said Black friend to testify that Prince William is actually a very lovely person. This way, any scepticism can be dismissed as discrediting a Black person’s story, which, if you twist it the right way, actually makes its critics racist. It’s worth noting that Obakin’s glowing report of Prince William has not received the same level of scrutiny as Markle’s claims by major commentators.
The cherry on top of the “very much not racist” sundae came the following day, when it was reported that the royal family were considering appointing a diversity tsar as part of a plan to modernise the monarchy. “The work to do this has been underway for some time now and comes with the full support of the family,” said a royal source. “We are listening and learning, to get this right.” The appointment of senior figures to assess diversity within organisations has been a go-to move for businesses accused of racism over the past year. It’s a nice way of addressing the problem without disrupting the status quo too much, particularly as these roles often only result in suggestions for improvement, which the organisation can then decide to either take on board or disregard. And, if the team behind the government’s race commission are anything to go by, the people hired for these roles don’t necessarily have to be experts on the subject of race. A royal diversity tsar may seem like a step in the right direction, but if they’re going to appoint someone who will happily file a report that claims the monarchy has no issues with institutional racism, then it will only take us several steps back.
All of these attempts at positive publicity from the palace are a sticking plaster for a wound that, in reality, requires complex surgery. Historical context is important here. It is not enough to say that the royal family is not racist, when their ancestor, Elizabeth I, played a pivotal role in establishing the British slave trade. It is not enough to be pictured next to Black people when the Queen remains the head of the Commonwealth, an association of 54 nations, almost all of which were previously territories of the British Empire. And it is not enough to provide one positive testimony from a Black person when living members of the royal family have made offensive remarks during public appearances in the past and, to this day, continue to benefit from the monarchy’s unsavoury history. The late Prince Philip once greeted the President of Nigeria with, “You look like you’re ready for bed”, in response to his traditional dress. Princess Michael of Kent managed to wear a Blackamoor brooch to meet Meghan Markle for lunch. The world’s largest diamond, the Koh-i-Noor, remains mounted in the Queen’s crown, despite repeated calls for it to be returned to India, where it was acquired from the 10-year-old ruler Maharaja Duleep Singh in 1849 by Queen Victoria, along with his kingdom.
Until these issues are adequately addressed by the monarchy, it’s unlikely that many people, particularly those of colour, will be persuaded that the institution isn’t racist. Far from quelling concerns about royal racism since the Oprah interview, the ferocity of the palace’s “we’re not racist, promise” PR campaign has only raised more questions and fuelled speculation as to who might have made the comment about Archie’s skin tone. It also proves that when Markle was told that nothing could be done to protect her from negative, often racist, press coverage, she was being lied to.
Neither silent nor silenced, it’s now abundantly clear that the royal family wishes to protect itself. Once again, defending accusations of racism has taken priority over protecting those who are experiencing it. Whoever bags the role of the royal’s diversity tsar should be prepared for a lot of paperwork.