Okay, so there’s this photo from Prince William and Kate Middleton’s royal tour of the Caribbean, right? And it’s… well, there’s no gentle way of saying this, so: it’s terrible. The photo shows Kate smiling and reaching toward a crowd of Jamaican children. They’re on opposite sides of a chain-link fence, the children’s small hands reaching through the gaps, the duchess’ fingertips barely grazing them.
It’s a powerful image, though I imagine not in the way the royals would hope. Instead of reading as a Princess Diana-style gesture of genuine affection, Kate looked stiff—and frankly like she was trying to keep her distance from the crowd of locals. The fence reads as a visual metaphor for colonization. Worse, since the image is close-cropped, it looks like the children are caged. (In fact, another photo, this time shot through the fence, really gives this impression. It looks like a picture of a refugee camp or a detention centre for migrant children.) And then there’s a stark contrast between Kate’s gold bracelet and the crowd’s perceived poverty.
There are plenty of other photos from this event that tell a different story, and Kate wasn't the only one to greet people through a fence, but this is the shot that went viral because it feels like a fitting representation of Will and Kate’s Caribbean tour as a whole. But here’s the worst part: this wasn’t a paparazzi photo that captured an unscripted moment. It was an official photo taken during a highly choreographed event (a soccer match with Jamaican-born Manchester City player Raheem Sterling) and then released to the public. On purpose!!! Someone should have known better—but no one did, which makes it clear the Firm has yet to adjust to recent shifts in public opinion. Honestly, they may not even be able to.
I obviously don’t know what Kate Middleton thinks about Black people in her heart of hearts, nor am I arguing that this photo reveals some kind of intrinsic disgust. (Though obviously, someone feels something about Black people.) What I am talking about is optics and the fact that, while Will and Kate’s marriage ushered in a new era of affection for the monarchy that lasted about a decade, times have changed and the royal family’s PR team haven't been able to adapt. It’s irresponsible, if not downright incompetent, to approve and release these photos because they are such powerful references to the issues we've seen come up over and over when talking about the royals—and not just on this tour. Those issues being racism, colonialism and the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade, of course.
I do wonder what the hell palace organisers were thinking with some of yesterday's photo moments. The planning and recon that goes into every step of these engagements is next level, so how did no one think to avoid certain imagery? This is why diversity on a team matters.— Omid Scobie (@scobie) March 23, 2022
Before we move on, some backstory on royal tours: These official state visits have been a thing for centuries. In 1860, Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales, carried out the first royal tour of Canada, and in 1875, he went on a lengthy tour of India. Since then, subsequent monarchs have taken up the tradition as a way to strengthen political ties and feed into their own mystique. (It’s the same concept as celebrity meet and greets—you gotta give your fans something to hold on to.) But while some tours are visits to allied nations, like Denmark or the U.S., and are about maintaining diplomatic relations, others are to Commonwealth countries, most of which are former British colonies—and that's where things get a bit more complicated.
In modern times, the monarchy uses tours of former colonies to wow their one-time subjects with pomp and circumstance in a not-very subtle bid to maintain, or revive, support for the institution. (On the host country’s side, it’s a chance to draw attention to important issues, like climate or education, and to showcase their country as a tourist destination, which is why they usually agree to pick up the tab.) William and Kate’s early tours capitalized on global interest in their relationship and were instrumental in ushering in that new era of interest in the royal family, both in the U.K. and abroad. When Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles visited Canada in 2014, it was widely understood as a strategy to improve his popularity in preparation for his ascension to the throne. And while Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s 2018 tour of Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga officially focused on “environmental and conservation efforts, youth leadership and the recovery and rehabilitation of servicemen and women [through the] Invictus Games,” according to the Metro, it was also a chance to show Australians a new, cool and modern royal family. (It was very successful, btw.)
Yes, Jamaica protests almost every royal tour. The difference now is the protest is happening in the context of the racism a Black person faced in the royal family. If Harry went there today, he wouldn't be protested bc Black people now see him as an ally.— This Day in Meghan Markle (@RetroMeghan) March 22, 2022
By contrast, William and Kate's current tour is happening under very different circumstances: first, they're visiting a poorer nation with fewer healthcare resources during a pandemic—not a great look. The stakes are also higher. This tour has been characterized as a ‘charm offensive’ meant to convince Belize, Jamaica and the Bahamas, all constitutional monarchies, not to become republics, as Barbados recently did. (Guyana, Dominica and Trinidad and Tobago all became republics in the 70s.) Which means the Cambridges are literally visiting Britain’s former colonies to convince them to keep Queen Elizabeth as their head of state because they see their rapidly dwindling influence and relevancy, and they're terrified. I don't know about anyone else, but as a Trini, that's not a very compelling reason to me. They're also embarking on this tour after a) 2020’s so-called ‘racial reckoning,’ which, while relatively short-lived, did at least make conversations about race and power mainstream, b) explicit, COVID-inspired conversations about Western exploitation in the Caribbean and c) a mega scandal about the way the royal family treated Meghan Markle, which is perhaps the most salient factor. Clearly, more than any other modern royal tour, this is an extremely transparent attempt to repair the monarchy’s reputation and protect its power and influence.
The couple started in Belize, where they were supposed to kick things off with a visit to Akte‘il Ha cacao farm in Indian Creek, a village in the country’s Toledo district, until residents there protested, and it was cancelled. According to the Guardian, there is an existing dispute between Toledo residents and the conservation organization Flora and Fauna International, one of Prince William’s patronages. Also, the “landing site of William and Kate’s helicopter—a local football pitch—caused further issues with residents, who claim they had not been consulted about it. The local broadcaster Channel 7 described the tensions between the citizens and the state as about the ‘meaning of consent in the context of communal land rights, rights to lands that were expunged in the colonial period by the British.’”
Next stop: Jamaica, where opposition to the visit was even stronger. Both of the island’s major political parties have long expressed interest in cutting ties with the monarchy, though there wasn’t much political will to begin that process, which starts with organizing a referendum. But ahead of William and Kate’s visit, that changed. First, a coalition of Jamaican academics, activists, businesspeople and politicians calling themselves Advocates Network released an open letter calling on the royals to apologize for their role in the transatlantic slave trade and pay reparations.
“We see no reason to celebrate 70 years of the ascension of your grandmother to the British throne because her leadership, and that of her predecessors, have perpetuated the greatest human rights tragedy in the history of humankind,” the letter reads. “Her ascension to the throne, in February 1952, took place 14 years after the 1938 labour uprisings against inhumane working/living conditions and treatment of workers; painful legacies of plantation slavery, which persist today. During her 70 years on the throne, your grandmother has done nothing to redress and atone for the suffering of our ancestors that took place during her reign and/or during the entire period of British trafficking of Africans, enslavement, indentureship and colonialization… You, who may one day lead the British Monarchy, are direct beneficiaries of the wealth accumulated by the Royal family over centuries, including that stemming from the trafficking and enslavement of Africans.” (Emphasis mine.)
Then, Good Morning Britain host Noel Phillips revealed he’d heard rumblings that the island’s government planned to begin the process of removing Queen Elizabeth as its head of state as soon as William and Kate left the island, something Jamaica’s Prime Minister, Andrew Holness, then told them to their faces.
Obviously, inept PR isn’t the only reason this tour has been more controversial than others. But it’s an important factor, especially considering how it fits into their wider strategy. And yes, I’m talking about the Oprah interview. The edition of Friday Things I published immediately following Meghan and Harry’s sit-down with the daytime talk show queen was all about how I once thought Will and Kate would be the modernizing force the monarchy needed, only to realize they were as entrenched, and invested in, the institution as the older royals are.
“I’m not exaggerating when I say the monarchy opted to experience this scandal,” I wrote at the time. “They set Meghan up to fail. They told the couple they couldn’t help them manage racist press coverage while simultaneously working to quash rumours about William’s infidelity. (Or, they potentially threw the Sussexes under the bus to distract from those rumours, according to one wild conspiracy theory that… doesn’t feel that wild anymore?) Horrifyingly, they ignored Harry and Meghan’s increasingly urgent concerns about her mental health. And on a really basic level, they also bungled the PR response to the news Harry and Meghan would be doing the Oprah interview in the first place.”
I’d argue that more than a year later, nothing much has changed. They either don’t understand or don’t care how the images they are disseminating could be construed. (And isn’t that like, brand management 101?) Nor do they seem inclined to make the type of statement the moment, and so many global citizens, are demanding. At a dinner hosted by Jamaica’s Governor General, he said, “I strongly agree with my father, the Prince of Wales, who said in Barbados last year that the appalling atrocity of slavery forever stains our history. I want to express my profound sorrow. Slavery was abhorrent, and it should never have happened. While the pain runs deep, Jamaica continues to forge its future with determination, courage and fortitude."
Aside from the sheer audacity—no, the caucasity of a scion of the British empire, a major driver of the transatlantic slave trade, saying "it never should have happened," you’ll notice there was no apology there, nor was there any commitment to make amends, ideally through reparations. And as Jamaican MP and UN Development Programme goodwill ambassador Lisa Hanna pointed out in an op-ed for the Guardian this week, “condemning slavery with no action, as both Prince Charles and Prince William did, is not particularly bold, nor does it show courage.” She also pointed out that the CARICOM Reparations Commission has already outlined a 10-point action plan that would offer the royals a framework for what action could look like, which makes William’s words feel all the more superficial.
This tour was an opportunity to try and show the monarchy can modernise—hold themselves accountable where appropriate, be eager to listen and learn, mindful, open to change. Instead, even the media royalists are today writing how out of touch parts of the trip have come across.— Omid Scobie (@scobie) March 25, 2022
And maybe ‘superficial’ is exactly the right word to use here. Last summer, my first Club Friday Q&A was with Cele Otnes, the head of the Department of Business Administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an expert on marketing and consumer behaviour, who has extensively studied the royal family as a global consumer brand. When we talked about the Cambridges, and especially how they seemed to have a whole new approach on social media (possibly courtesy of Harry and Meghan’s former social media manager), she said she saw signs that the family, and especially William and Kate, were trying to pivot. “I think in response to the criticisms that Harry and Meghan made in the Oprah interview about racism in the family and the lack of compassion, [William and Kate’s] Instagram strategy now is to position the young royals as ambassadors of social justice,” she said. “I believe that their marketing folks told William and Kate, ‘You are being positioned as aloof and not connected to what's going on in the world.’ It seems what they are being told is they have to project warmth.”
But superficial tweaks, like a new IG aesthetic and making sure they smile more, just aren’t enough. The royal family isn't a political entity, it's a business that's refusing to keep up with the times. It's like they're Sears, who kept putting out a catalogue instead of investing in e-commerce because that's what they'd always done, only in this case, we're talking about an institution with a long, long history of shaping public opinion, which makes the incompetence here all the more staggering. In 2022, brands are accustomed to the idea that they have to at least appear to genuinely engage with progressive ideas to remain profitable. Unfortunately, based on the Cambridges’ farewell IG post to Jamaica, the royal family still hasn’t learned that lesson.
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