The British Monarchy Can Never Outrun Its Violent, Racist Past
It was wrong to hope that Meghan Markle could ‘assimilate’ into the royal family
I didn’t watch Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s televised 2018 wedding. I couldn’t for the life of me understand the public obsession over the event, especially for anyone old enough to remember how the press literally hounded Princess Diana to her death. I didn’t have to tune in live to see what their marriage was up against: relentless savaging by the British press and the complicity of the royal family. In hindsight, I should have predicted a ratings behemoth of an interview with Oprah Winfrey (who was a guest at the royal wedding) would have been somewhere in the mix.
Events like the royal wedding are always skillfully executed pieces of imperialist propaganda. The men in the royal family wear military dress uniforms. It is a reminder that the wealth and opulence on display were appropriated at the point of a gun. It was amassed over centuries and involved the brutal colonization of one-third of the world. The dynasty was built upon the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of Africans and their descendants. I am descended from those enslaved Africans. My parents were colonial subjects. Queen Elizabeth II is still the head of state of Jamaica, my home, and Jamaica is part of the Commonwealth of Nations, which is made up nearly entirely of Great Britain’s former colonies. The yoke of British oppression lingers globally. Colonialism never really ended — it changed clothes and lowered its voice a bit.
At her wedding, Markle requested that her veil be embroidered with the national flowers of the Commonwealth nations. In their interview with Oprah, which aired on CBS Sunday night, both she and Prince Harry confirmed they saw her racialized identity as an asset to the Crown in its dealings with its former colonies in the Commonwealth, which are largely made up of people of color. (In an interesting alignment of circumstances, a few hours prior to the airing of the Oprah interview, the Queen gave her Commonwealth Day message.) Markle has a degree in international relations and interned at the United Nations. She’s not naive. It’s not as if she’s unable to grasp the symbolism of putting those flowers on her veil and how ugly some would find it, particularly when juxtaposed next to an empire’s prince clothed in military dress. Markle helped present the legacy of colonialism not as merely benign but romantic. Markle isn’t white, but the incident is reminiscent of how white female innocence is often used as a “civilizing” cover for white violence.
Colonialism never really ended — it changed clothes and lowered its voice a bit.
The British press’s unfair and bizarrely strained comparisons between Markle and Kate Middleton are, in part, about ferociously enforcing the exclusionary requirements for women chosen to embody British innocence. The weaponization of this innocence and its denial to others also happens interpersonally to present Black women as aggressors. The accusation that Markle’s work ethic and unfamiliarity with palace protocol constituted “bullying” palace staff is a pretty textbook execution of the strategy. Other tactics were deployed in tabloid attacks against Markle, where in the run-up to her wedding, she was accused of making Middleton cry over the flower girl dresses. Markle claims the reverse happened, telling Oprah that Middleton sent flowers and a note of apology. Perhaps Markle thought being willing to take on a version of Middleton’s role (almost-but-not-quite white female innocence) and focusing on the Commonwealth might protect her and win her some allies. It didn’t, predictably. If the club turned away the daughter of an earl in Diana Spencer, there was no way it was initiating a part-Black American actress.
We’re watching the collapse of an assimilationist fantasy. That’s what some Black people were cheering while watching the royal wedding: the prospect of one of us having ascended to what we have been propagandized to believe is the highest of heights. It isn’t, though. That family, who stole not only our birthrights but our very ancestors, are our enemies. Why do so many people seem to covet a seat at a table they should want to flip and set ablaze?
The attacks against Markle aren’t just about her. They are warnings to anyone else trying to infiltrate certain circles. There is a racial and social hierarchy that people of power are absolutely committed to defending, and the savage attacks on Markle are to that end. At the top of that hierarchy is the British monarchy, which exists to rule people who did not choose them. That right to rule has been passed down by blood for over 1,000 years. Violence (including emotional and psychological) has always arisen over who should carry the royal bloodline and create or become the heir to the throne.
There is a vitally important lesson here: Trying to assimilate into a racist, violent institution is dangerous business.
Is it really so shocking, as Markle revealed and Prince Harry confirmed, that members of the royal family were “concerned” about how dark their son Archie’s skin might be? Knowing the depraved, racist brutality that drove colonialism, is it so surprising that the first person with Black lineage to be born into the royal family was not bestowed the customary titles and was denied the usual security protections even as a campaign of hate was being waged against his Black mother in the British tabloids? Markle learned the hard way that the British empire exports racism and violence to maintain its power. This manifests itself in nasty ways for the family she married into.
Markle has become a symbol, a kind of effigy that some are seeking to burn and others are trying to protect. Markle confessed to Oprah that she had been naive about what awaited her, particularly her belief that the royal family, her husband’s family, would protect her. There is a vitally important lesson here: Trying to assimilate into a racist, violent institution is dangerous business. “Representation” of the sort Markle sought to embody in her dealings with the Commonwealth often comes down to a person’s racialized identity being used as a shield for ongoing transgressions against the people they’re representing. Providing this valuable service is no guarantee of appreciation or protection.
What the British royal family and their confederates in the media are doing to Markle is violent and should be recognized as such. Markle revealed to Oprah that the strain she was under led her to thoughts of suicide. When she went to the royal family for help, she was rebuffed. Denying an expectant mother experiencing suicidal ideation access to the help she needed is about as violent as things can get without their becoming physical. The same goes for denying parents the peace of mind of knowing their child, who had already been the target of racial abuse, would be safe.
It’s too soon to say whether or not this rift in the royal family and the ensuing public furor will undermine the British monarchy, but it is a sign of a changing landscape. These are uncertain times, and the royal family provides a sense of continuity that many Britons cling to. The unhinged quality of some of the attacks on Markle may stem, in part, from this psychic need. She was the embodiment of the change occurring; if she had to be obliterated to maintain the status quo, so be it.