In Oprah Winfrey’s much-awaited interview with Harry and Meghan, Duke and Duchess of Sussex, the couple detailed their unfavorable treatment by the British monarchy and tabloid press. That experience ultimately influenced their decision to relinquish official duties from the British royal family. Responses via live tweeting from people of color around the world were of course funny and meme-worthy, but also intense and nuanced. They revealed layered reflections on race, power and the enduring legacy of colonialism.
Many dismissed the entire interview as “rich people’s business” and claimed not to be invested. To them, Meghan and Harry’s plight seemed a luxury. Others hailed Meghan’s royal marriage as an American celebrity fairytale – one certainly enhanced by her biracial identity and simultaneous proximity to whiteness – while recognizing that fairytale as crown sympathizers’ source of disdain for her. Meanwhile, viewers like me from former British colonies were quite familiar with the British monarchy’s systemic passive-aggression. As former subjects of the crown, we know all too well the damage they’ve done.
Rejection of Meghan by the royal establishment and its public supporters is rooted in the pillage of resources and psychological conditioning of people in the global south. It is the latest in the British empire’s history of denial, gaslighting and control doled out on foreign lands for centuries. Meghan’s interactions with the institution recall the disenfranchisement of British subjects from the Caribbean, west Africa and south Asia who moved to England after the second world war only to be met with chilled air and closed doors. The colorism of questioning the potential darkness of her son Archie’s skin is the legacy of racism that flourished during the slave trade and plantation slavery, twinned bounties reaped by the British empire. Moreover, the participation of people from these same former colonies in attacking Meghan and Harry – often with racist and sexist undertones – in attempts to defend Buckingham Palace is evidence of the dissonance created under the so-called civilizing mission of colonialism.
We learn over and over in history that the monarchy cannot accommodate personhood; there is no identity outside conquest
Had Meghan and Archie been embraced and given the requisite titles and security, we might never have noticed the couple, some way down the line of succession. Had Meghan been accepted, what we would have instead is a whitewashed multicultural narrative of racial progress, complete with a reformed and philanthropic Harry who, lest we forget, had his youthful flirtation with Nazi costumes. Despite his profuse apology and growth since then, that incident keyed us into the long arm of xenophobia in the spaces he occupies.
Meghan’s lament seems to lie not just in her exclusion, but also in her oblivion to the “rules of the game”. That Queen Elizabeth was kind to her, even as the establishment aggressively limited her freedom, reminds us that for oppressed Black people who have survived colonialism in the Commonwealth (a term Meghan repeats almost fondly), sentiment is not currency. There is no niceness in the project of custom, no space for common humanity.
Who are we, then, to imagine a royal family devoid of this clinical prejudice? We learn over and over in history that the monarchy cannot accommodate personhood; there is no identity outside conquest. None of us, the presumed conquered and their descendants, have value to palace occupants except relationally to the jewel of the crown. To Harry’s marginal credit, he understood this custom. Even Harry’s assertion that he and other family members were trapped within this tradition revealed how the crown has institutionalized the posture of suffering as penance for its plunder. The couple’s exit for the benefit of Meghan’s safety, survival and sanity was an acknowledgment that such reform is impossible.
But for many of us around the world, some still colonized, the insidious work of empire lives on in the draconian education systems, the artifacts stored in British museums, the poverty in communities, the denial of our ability to profit financially from our own resources, and the reparations we demand but which the crown has always met with silence.
Schuyler Esprit is from the island of Dominica and is a writer and educator. She is a scholar of Caribbean literary and cultural studies and postcolonial theory. She is also the founder of the digital humanities non-profit Create Caribbean Research Institute. She currently works at the University of the West Indies Open Campus as a research officer