By Kezia Dickson
On March 7th, 2020, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex conducted an interview with Oprah Winfrey that shocked the world. Prior to this interview, members of the royal family rarely ever shared information relating to their personal lives. The last family member to speak out against the royal family was the late Princess of Wales, Diana in her 1995 interview with Martin Bashir. Princess Diana’s interview highlighted some of the deep troubles within the family, and Oprah’s interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex 25 years later was no different.
The British monarchy has seen 61 monarchs over 1200 years. As many countries have rid themselves of their monarchs and transitioned to democratic republics, the United Kingdom remains one of only 44 countries out of the 195 countries in the world that has a monarch as a head of state. For an institution such as the monarchy, its longevity is greatly dependent on how it adapts to the changing political, social, and cultural landscape. If the royal family is unable to adapt, they risk increasing public opinion that calls for their abolishment.
The interview contained shocking details about the interactions that Meghan Markle (Duchess of Sussex) had with members of the royal family. Some of these shocking accusations involved Archie Mountbatten Windsor, the son of Meghan and Harry. At one point, Meghan stated that there were “concerns and conversations about how dark his [Archie’s] skin might be when he’s born” amongst other members of the royal family. In fact, Meghan further states, “they were saying they didn’t want him to be a prince or princess, which would be different from protocol, and that he wasn’t going to receive security.” Meghan goes on to claim that she was very confused by the situation and didn’t understand why “the first member of color in this family isn’t being titled the same way as other grandchildren would be.” Meghan therefore suggests that Archie’s skin color could be a reason why the royal family was considering changing the protocol under the George V convention. Under the George V convention, grandchildren of the reigning monarch assume royal titles. Archie is not Queen Elizabeth’s grandchild, but the Queen’s great-grandchild. Therefore, with Queen Elizabeth as the reigning monarch he is not given a title. Prince William’s children are an exception because Prince William is the first child of Prince Charles, the future monarch, and his child receives titles. However, once Prince Charles becomes a monarch, Archie would then receive the title as prince. According to Meghan, people within the family were considering changing the rules of the convention to potentially inhibit Archie’s ability to receive the title of prince.
The crown’s relationship with race is rather complicated. The crown is tied to a history of colonialism and racial prejudice. The institution itself is deeply white and the entrance of Meghan into this institution added a dash of color to what people often saw as a sea of whiteness. For a lot of British people of color, Meghan’s entrance into the monarchy represented a new age for a monarchy that never confronted its racial history. However, some people fear that instead of welcoming Meghan to usher the crown into a new age, the royal family has destroyed her and missed their biggest opportunity. They missed an opportunity for social progress where they could have changed their image from an institution grounded in racism from colonialism to one that opens its doors to people of color.
As Amanda Gorman, the famous black poet that performed at President Biden’s inauguration, remarked on Twitter, “Meghan was the Crown’s greatest opportunity for change, regeneration, and reconciliation in a new era. They didn’t just maltreat her light– they missed out on it.” Meghan is not only a woman of color, but a former actress, a divorcee, and an American. These are factors that a decade ago would have disqualified her from being a suitable match for Prince Harry. She challenged a lot of the traditional norms practiced and upheld by the crown. In the interview, Meghan mentions that she felt “unprotected” and was often “prohibited from defending herself.” She also mentions that “the firm” (“the firm”–an informal title for the British royal family and its associated institutions, including the courtiers, staff and working royals that keep the business of the monarchy functioning) was willing to protect other members of the royal family at her expense. Meghan’s feelings resonated with people of color who have often had difficulty navigating predominately white spaces.
The royal family has a problem. According to a YouGov poll taken on March 11th, a day after the explosive interview, the royal family member with the greatest public support is Queen Elizabeth with a 80% favorability rating. Once Queen Elizabeth dies, Prince Charles will ascend the throne, but ever since the fallout from his marriage to Princess Diana, he has maintained historically low approval ratings. As of now, his favorability rating stands at 49% and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwell, at 39% favorability. The crown is also dealing with the controversy surrounding Prince Andrew and his connections to Jeffery Epistein. This is a controversy that the crown has yet to publicly address.
Furthermore, after the interview, Brits were split on generational lines in regard to the Monarchy’s treatment of Harry and Meghan. According to a YouGov poll conducted after the interview, 61% of people aged 16 to 29 believe that Harry and Meghan were treated unfairly while only 13% of individuals in this age group believe that they were treated fairly. The majority of people aged 25 to 49 polled said that they were treated unfairly (40%) while 23% said unfairly. However, of those 50 and over, only 20% believe that Meghan and Harry were treated unfairly.
The younger generation represents the future of the country. And as it stands now, a majority of the younger generation stands with Meghan and Harry. Even further, polling has found that a greater majority of the younger generation is more in favor of republicanism than any other generation. Republicanism would mean the shift from having the Queen as the head of state to voters having the choice to elect a president. Members of the royal family would become private citizens since the institution would fail to exist under republicanism. This generation has been the most vocal on issues surrounding race and has been more active in demanding change from institutions that are archaic. And yet, when the interview ended, Buckingham Palace released a statement that did not tackle the issue of race. The statement instead read, “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.” The response by Buckingham Palace is a part of a common pattern of the crown in which they refuse to engage in controversial but necessary discourse in public. The younger generation has not been afraid to engage in such discourse publicly. In the summer of 2020, individuals of this generation lead massive protests across Hyde Park calling for the end of systematic racism and discrimiantion by the Metropolitan Police.
Sunday night’s interview pulled back the curtain to controversies behind the palace gates. For the crown to ensure its longevity, it must be ready to confront issues surrounding its contentious history and be prepared to have difficult conversations. Meghan presented an opportunity for the royal family to have this discourse in a positive manner and open the doors of what individuals described as a purely white institution to individuals of color. With the UK very much divided, the next couple of steps that crown makes will determine its legacy and its future.