This edition of the newsletter has a 10 minute read time and has one item: Notes on how the controversy surrounding racism in the British royal family — which has resulted in Buckingham Palace pledging to appoint a “diversity czar” — reveals how broken the modern conversation about antiracism is.
This week we learned that the British royal family is appointing a “diversity czar,” engaged in a “listen and learn” exercise, and apparently looking to include LGBTQ+ and disability representation in the wake of Meghan Markle’s interview with Oprah in which she described experiencing racism at Buckingham Palace.
It’s a stunning statement — how exactly does a pre-modern institution that does business through the bloodlines of a handful of white people pursue diversity? — and it’s inspired me to reflect on how this whole saga is brimming with clues about how broken many mainstream liberal conversations about antiracism are today.
A quick primer for those who (wisely) don’t keep up with royal family gossip. Earlier in March, Markle and her husband Prince Harry sat down with Oprah for the first media sit-down since stepping away from their official duties as senior members of the British royal family in 2020, and revealed a number of details about their thinking and their lives: Markle said that she had hoped that she could serve as a role model for people in Britain’s former colonies; that the demands of the new role and the vicious racism of the British tabloid press pushed her to the point of suicidal ideation; that “the Firm” (an informal title for the British royal family and its associated institutions and staff) declined to offer her support even as she turned to them in crisis; that an unnamed royal expressed "concerns" that their son might end up with dark skin; and that the Firm’s indifference to the couple’s suffering played a crucial role in their decision to step away from their official capacities.
The revelations were deemed bombshells by the anglophone press and exploded on social media on both sides of the Atlantic. Markle was upheld by many liberals as an example of the difficulties of achieving racial progress, and many expressed the idea that if royal status can’t protect Markle from enduring racism, then what can? Her decision with Harry to step away from the royal family was described by some cultural critics as a “radical” act of reclaiming her freedom. An essay in Elle described how Markle’s experience revealed “a chokehold on the reins of systemic change.” Michelle Obama weighed in on her struggles, and Donald Trump trollishly encouraged her to run for president. Since then, Prince William — the brother of Harry — has fired back that “we’re very much not a racist family” and Buckingham Palace is apparently going to be involved in some kind of diversity effort.
I’ve found nearly every stage of this saga to be bewildering, from Markle’s notion of making the monarchy “inclusive,” to Buckingham’s pledge to Pivot to Diversity. To be clear, it should go without saying that the British tabloid press is indeed vile and racist, and that being told your child’s complexion is cause for concern is disgusting. And I felt real sympathy for Markle as she described the isolation that cause her to spiral into depression; there is no question she should’ve been provided with mental health support.
But I don’t get what exactly the public championing Markle was expecting, or what is to be gained by viewing her experience as a test of racial progress. By choosing to marry Harry and agreeing to take on senior royal duties, Markle chose to enter one of the greatest and most savage engines of white supremacy the world has ever seen — its colonial ventures are a foundational reason that every day in societies across the world, many non-white people express concerns about the dark complexion of their very own children. The British monarchy is, as some scholars term it, “the heart of whiteness”: an institution which has overseen the most populous empire the world has ever seen, helped fuel the invasion of some 90 percent of the world’s nations, commissioned some of the most barbaric modes of exploitation known to humanity, and carries on with work today that papers over its imperial history. The power of the British monarchy exists in a symbiotic relationship with the British press, and that press coverage must operate in a racist register precisely because it is premised on the value of traditionalism and exclusion.
Does the British monarchy furnish meaningful terrain for antiracism, or is it more akin to trying to ask the Proud Boys to show more respect to the people of color in their ranks?
Markle’s journey into and out of the royal family does not seem to shed light on the quest for Black liberation as much as it does how liberal recognitionist activism too often looks for change in the wrong places.
How was this not expected? Racism is a feature, not a bug, of the monarchy.
When Markle revealed that there were conversations about the skin tone of her child — the moment of the interview where Oprah’s jaw literally dropped — I was neither shocked nor surprised. As I mentioned before, it’s widely known that colorism is one of the signature legacies of British colonialism.1 In Pakistan, where my parents hail from, to this day skin lightening products are common and it’s still perfectly normal for even fairly progressive people to conflate fairness with beauty and casually disparage family members for looking darker-skinned.
These hang-ups on skin tone are underpinned by a history of colonial extraction, racist exploitation, and violence which were overseen by the British monarchy. Suyin Haynes has a useful summary at TIME about the continuity between the monarchy’s involvement in empire and its modern day manifestation:
Historians say that today’s monarchy and the public image of the Royal Family largely originates from the way Queen Victoria projected an image of her family. Her reign was also an Imperial one; by the end of her time on the throne in 1901, the British Empire spanned about 20% of the Earth’s surface, and almost 25% of the world’s population was under the rule of the “Queen Empress.” The earliest royal tours of the Empire took place during Victoria’s reign, as her sons were sent to visit the nations of the Empire to “build a rapport between the monarchy and the ordinary people across the Empire,” according to historian Priya Atwal, who is based at the University of Oxford and is the author of Royals and Rebels: The Rise and Fall of the Sikh Empire. Such trips to countries of the Commonwealth have continued to the present day, including the Australia and Africa trips that Harry and Meghan referenced in the interview with Oprah.
Markle chose to be part of this ongoing project, and she has described her work with Harry in Commonwealth countries (former colonies of the empire) as among the most important part of their duties. That raises serious questions. Their work there as cultural ambassadors and philanthropists is outwardly benign, but it also served the function of normalizing and buttressing economic arrangements steeped in the blood of empire. Consider how The Guardian’s Afua Hirsch explains how the Commonwealth can function as “Empire 2.0.”:
Take Britain’s relationship with the African continent, for example. At present, British companies control more than $1 trillion worth of Africa’s key resources: gold, diamonds, gas and oil, and an area of land roughly to four times the size of the UK.
All countries use diplomacy to lobby in their own interests – there is nothing wrong with that. In Britain’s case, the Commonwealth has served very nicely to advocate its particular shopping list: liberalised, extractor-friendly regimes, low corporate tax rates, and a creative system of tax havens predominantly located in – you guessed it – other Commonwealth countries. As a result, Africa loses £30bn more each year than it receives in aid, loans and remittances.
In the Caribbean 14 nations – including a good number of Commonwealth members – are attempting to sue the British government for reparations for four centuries of slavery, and Britain is using jurisdiction issues arising from the Commonwealth to block the claim.
There’s also no evidence that Harry represented a particularly inoffensive incarnation of the power structure he was born into. He deployed to Afghanistan twice to take part in the war there well after it had transformed into a neoconservative nation-building project. While based in a country which his nation has invaded several times since the 19th century, Harry reported killing insurgents using the army's most sophisticated attack helicopter.
Caitlin Flanagan’s sharply written essay in The Atlantic has a good run-down of the absurdity of Markle — a Northwestern grad who studied international relations and did work with the UN outside of her acting career; a person with access to the Internet — claiming to be ignorant of some of her future husband’s background:
She told Oprah that she had never even Googled her future husband’s name—a remark that united the viewing world in hilarity, time zone by time zone. It was an assertion that strained credulity, but it was necessary to her contention that she’d had no idea that the Windsors had not, as we now say, “done the work” when it came to exploring their own racial biases. Had she herself done some work by punching her beloved’s name into a search engine, she would have understood that she was not marrying the most racially conscious person on the planet. She would have seen pictures of him dressed as a Nazi at a costume party (his great-granduncle—briefly Edward VIII—had palled around with Adolf Hitler) and a videotape of him introducing a fellow cadet as “our little Paki friend.” The Palace said that “Prince Harry used the term without any malice and as a nickname about a highly popular member of his platoon.” But the palace had no good explanation for why Harry introduced another cadet in the video by saying, “It’s Dan the Man. Fuck me, you look like a raghead.”
I’d say given Markle’s manifest intelligence, the argument for her being a willing participant in this mess is far stronger than her being a dupe.
Markle’s theory of change is politically bankrupt
I was surprised to hear Markle’s thinking about her role in the royal family and why it was socially valuable. The exchange from the interview is worth quoting at length:
Markle: Look the Commonwealth is a huge part of the monarchy …. it wasn’t until Harry and I were together that we started to travel through the Commonwealth, I would say 60 or 70 percent of which is people of color. And growing up as a little girl of color, I know how important representation is, I know how you want to see someone who looks like you in certain positions.
Oprah Winfrey: Obviously.
Markle: Even Archie [her son], we read these books, and now there’s one line that goes, “If you can see it, you can be it.” He goes, “you can be it!” And I think about that so often especially in the context of these young girls, even grown women and men who, when I would meet them in our time in the Commonwealth, how much it meant to them to be able to see someone who looks like them in this position. [Footage of Markle and Harry interacting with what appear to be dancers in an African village plays in the background.] And I could never understand how it wouldn’t be seen as an added benefit and a reflection of the world today. At all times, but especially right now, to go, “How inclusive it is that you can see someone who looks like you in this family, much less one who’s born into it.”
I found these comments to be remarkable, because they present a kind of caricature of what many in Black leftist traditions have critiqued as the “Black faces in high places” paradigm for change. We’re not talking about the political class or corporate America but the idea of infiltrating genetic dynasties as a model for making the world freer and more hospitable.
Markle’s crystallized for me the way that the use of “representation” often involves a sleight of hand by conflating two meanings of the word — representation as depiction, and representation as acting on behalf of someone. The implicit thinking here seems to be if you kinda sorta share skin tone with someone, you’re authorized to act as a voice on their behalf. As I’ve written before, mistaking appearance alone for meaningful diversity undermines the value of the concept. And this scenario helps lay bare why — the gulf in power between Markle and the people she’s discussing, and the immunity that monarchs have to popular input, foreclose the possibility of acting as a meaningful representative.
Markle hints at the idea that her identity as a biracial woman empowers to speak on behalf of the constituency of all non-white populations in Britain’s former colonies, even though she’s a princess in a monarchy involved in the business of doing photo-ops and giveaways which make exploitative postcolonial power relations look beneficent. “Here you have one of the greatest assets to the commonwealth that the family could’ve ever wished for,” Harry said of his wife during the interview.
When a fetish for diversity optics is divorced from any analysis of material power, institutional context, or geographical relations, it can lead to people saying things that don’t make a lot of sense. Consider also Markle’s suggestion that she could serve as inspiration for others through her position. But if there were any scenario that should prompt one to see the limitations of the “if you can see it you can be it” paradigm for reversing racial disparities, it would be this one. Markle believes that her story — a glamorous LA-born, private school-educated, light-skinned, millionaire actress, set up on a date by a friend with one of the most famous members of the most famous monarchy in the world, who then achieves royal status through marriage, showcases the prospect of an “inclusive” world for girls in rural Kenya? And her use of “especially right now” implies that she saw her marriage and tour of former colonies as of a piece with the antiracist cultural shift spurred by 2020 Black Lives Matter protests? Weird!
In accordance with this logic of representational work unmoored from material analysis, Markle and Harry have launched a “media content company” named Archewelle — presumably named after their son, Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor — to “elevate voices that maybe aren't being heard” and have signed lucrative deals with Spotify and Netflix. In the meantime, Markle explained to Oprah during the interview that she and Harry are seeking to “live authentically” and are “just getting back to the basics” by doing things like rescuing chickens to live on their new $15 million estate in Santa Barbara.
“Life is about story-telling right? About the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we’re told, what we buy into,” Markle told Oprah.
What kind of story is Markle trying to get people to buy into?
How would you modernize a monarchy?
Ultimately my overarching concern here isn’t gossip about the goings on of the 1 percent but how the public is envisioning arenas for social change. It would seem to me that it should be self-evident that the headline “Royal family consider diversity tsar under modernization plans” is oxymoronic, parodic. Surely it’s an Onion headline!
How is the diversity effort going to work? Forcing royalty to marry people of color? Making sure the head butler serving the royal family is not a white person?
(Yes this is a real photo of Prince William and Kate Middleton.)
There is of course merit to the argument that symbolic inclusion matters. Role models matter, culture influences political possibility, and diversity in leadership has the potential to reshape an organization. Few sensible people deny that point, and I certainly don’t. But we’ve tilted so far in the direction of leaning on symbolism that it’s safe to say a lot of people have lost the plot: the actual distribution of power. Settling constantly for metaphors for change is beginning making fools of all of us.
If one is serious about egalitarianism, don’t angle to give the monarchy a make-over — abolish it. And if one is serious about antiracism, then one must get involved in the work of building popular power to put an end to the history, institutions and material exploitation that breathe life into racism every day.
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This isn’t to say that there aren’t other reasons for it’s existence, such as class associations with complexion tied to indoor versus outdoor labor.