The Future of the Monarchy Looks Just Like Its Past (AKA, Racist)

It has become clear that Will and Kate aren't going to modernize anything

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Stacy Lee Kong

Mar 12 2021

11 mins read

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Remember when we thought a royal wedding could drag the British monarchy—a 1,200-year-old institution built on colonization that perpetrated and profited from the transatlantic slave trade—into the future?

 

When Prince Harry and Meghan Markle married in May 2018, the Wall Street Journal argued that “the union between Britain’s most popular royal and a divorced, mixed-race Hollywood star herald[ed] a seismic shift in the royal family’s once-stodgy reputation” and characterized their relationship as “a giant step in the modernization of the British monarchy, as its younger members increasingly take center stage and recast the family as a less tradition-bound clan.”

 

Many Black Brits agreed. Earlier this week, British-Nigerian historian and author David Olusoga wrote in the Guardian that, just like the opening ceremony at the London Olympics in 2012, Harry and Meghan’s wedding “was a moment in which Britain projected to the world an image of itself as a confident, modern country; one that was effortlessly global and at ease with its multiculturalism, with its ancient institutions adapting to changing times.”

 

But I’m not actually talking about that royal wedding.

 

Before Harry and Meghan, I thought *William and Kate* were going to be modernizing forces

 

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I’m talking about Prince William and Kate Middleton’s 2011 ceremony. It didn’t have the same focus on race, obviously, but it marked a shift in public perception of the royals in North America, and probably the rest of the world. Canadian media covered the wedding extensively and continued writing about the newly appointed Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and increasingly Prince Harry, afterwards. And in doing so, it allowed the trio to not only step into public roles, but also into people’s good graces.

While the Queen, Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles were not particularly relevant to younger generations—who may not be able to separate them from their poor treatment of Princess Diana—the brothers became “the public figures offering some hope for the future,” as journalist and broadcaster Jenni Russell argued in the New York Times in 2017. “The effect has been galvanizing, especially among the young. People who never cared much about the monarchy have been deeply impressed by the princes’ thoughtfulness, humor, openness and concern for others.” (There are numbers to back that up; Russell cited a 2017 YouGov poll that put William, Kate and Harry’s respective approval ratings in the 70s, while Charles’ was 36.)

 

They took on mental health as a cause, in direct opposition to the long-standing family policy of remaining tight-lipped about “controversial” topics so as not to undermine the “magic of the monarchy.” (Why yes, I am absolutely still thinking about the irony of this choice considering how little William and Kate seemed to care about Meghan’s mental health.) And when the queen changed the rules of succession in late 2011, guaranteeing that if William and Kate’s first child were a girl, she would be able to ascend to the throne, I assumed it was because they’d pushed for it. All signs pointed to these young royals as modernizing forces for the institution.

 

But by Harry and Meghan’s wedding, I felt doubtful. Rumours of tension between the two couples—like the tabloid story that Meghan made Kate cry over flower girl dresses—seemed designed to show how well Kate fit in, and how poorly Meghan did. And of course, now we know that the opposite happened, and that neither the palace nor Kate (or Will) were willing to speak out in Meghan's defense. Following this week’s bombshell Oprah interview, it’s abundantly clear: William and Kate aren’t going to modernize anything. In fact, they’re as dedicated to upholding the status quo as the rest of the royals.

 

And about that status quo…

 

And it’s not just Will and Kate, obviously. In addition to the existence of Princess Michael of Kent, which frankly would be more than enough evidence, the institution is also, you know, built on racism, a fact modern royals have largely ignored. Queen Elizabeth has never acknowledged, much less apologized for, the role the British crown played in endorsing, encouraging and accelerating slavery. In fact, she’s never even publicly confirmed that she knows slavery existed! (Though Prince Charles has at least done that.) And she’s certainly never recognized the long-lasting impacts of British colonization, including generational trauma, political and economic instability and exhaustion of natural resources.

This silence extends to contemporary events, too. As Black Lives Matter protests erupted throughout the U.K. during the summer of 2020, the royal family didn’t acknowledge the movement, much less show public support. This doesn’t really come as a surprise—an explicit comment may have been interpreted as “political” and the family strives to remain politically neutral. But as Business Insider points out, “they could have shown their support through engaging with anti-racism charities or by making a statement in favor of equality—something that wouldn't have required specifically naming BLM.” They… did not. And I think by now it’s clear that when institutions are silent on injustice, especially when they’re historically racist themselves, it’s not neutrality. It’s complicity.

We also know now that Harry and particularly Meghan, the first (or maybe second) racialized person to ever join the royal family, didn’t receive private support, either. The monarchy didn’t protect them—or even seem to understand how dire the situation was—when Meghan was the subject of racist attacks by the U.K. press and public. (Interestingly, William did feel compelled to speak out against racism in sports earlier this year, though.) And of course, there was the bombshell reveal that one of the royals, though we’re not sure who, was worried the couple’s future children would look Black. According to Meghan, there were "concerns and conversations [about] how dark [Archie’s] skin might be when he's born."

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"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," she went on to say. "To go, how inclusive is that that you can see someone who looks like you in this family, much less someone who’s born into it?"

 

The Royal Family chose this scandal

 

I mean… I can understand why that might happen. Meghan is, as Refinery29’s Kathleen Newman-Bremang described her, “the most palatable kind of Black woman.” I’m pretty sure her beauty and proximity to whiteness were the only reasons she was allowed to join the royal family in the first place; this was never going to be an institution that changed for her. In fact, it probably wouldn’t change for anyone—and you can tell by looking at its PR strategy.

I’m not exaggerating when I say the monarchy opted to experience this scandal. 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.

 

Sure, none of the royals made any public statements, but remember on March 2, days before the interview was scheduled to air, when the Times of London reported that Meghan had faced a bullying complaint in 2018, when the couple were living at Kensington Palace? The details were fuzzy—she allegedly bullied people, made them cry and undermined their confidence, but there wasn’t a lot of clarity on what that actually meant. What was clear was that palace aides cooperated with the Times of London for this story, and the palace then released a statement saying they’d be investigating Meghan. To me, that says they not only approved of the aides’ actions, but potentially encouraged them to go to the press as a way to shift the narrative. If that was their strategy, it was painfully obvious.   

Then, in the days after the interview, after an anemic public statement from the Queen, Charles and William were (separately) photographed with Black people. I can understand if that seems like a coincidence, but I promise, it’s not. Royal appearances are meticulously orchestrated, and make no mistake, the Black people they’re suddenly walking alongside are props meant to visually undermine Harry and Meghan’s allegations of racism. Like the bullying story, it’s transparent and clumsy—and not at all effective in 2021.

 

William and Kate are as culpable as the other members of “the Firm”

 

Which brings us back to William and Kate.

As senior members of the royal family, a group that’s nicknamed the Firm, they’re part of the discussions happening at Buckingham Palace right now. This is their chance to shape the PR strategy—and they are. On Thursday, Prince William spoke to the press to deny Harry and Meghan’s allegations of racism, something royal experts say is unprecedented. But his statements left a lot to be desired.

 

According to Omid Scobie, the royal editor at Harper’s Bazaar and co-author of Finding Freedom, a biography about Harry and Meghan’s married lives, William and Kate were “carrying out a morning engagement” at a London school when they were asked by reporters whether the royal family was racist. William’s response was, “We are very much not a racist family.”

 

And okay, I know he was obviously not going to say, "Yes, we sure are!" But this was a chance to acknowledge that systemic racism exists and to say something about how knowing Meghan has helped the family understand that racism is insidious and incredibly damaging. Instead, he shut down any chance of conversation—not to mention learning—on his, and by extension the monarchy’s, part. So sure, it wasn’t a surprising response. But it was a telling one.

 

PS, modernization shouldn’t even be the goal

 

Especially when you consider who his future subjects actually are, and what they think of the institution. A YouGov snap poll earlier this week found that, after the interview aired, 22% of Brits had more sympathy for Harry and Meghan than for the royal family. But if you look at 18- to 24-year-olds, it was a completely different story—nearly 50% of that group were more sympathetic toward the couple. And it’ll be interesting to see how the rest of the Commonwealth, which includes majority racialized nations in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Oceania, react to a monarchy that is seemingly incapable of grappling with race, and by extension its own history of colonization and exploitation.

In short, the jokes that it took a biracial American to bring down the monarchy may be true. Which is... fine? I don’t think there’s a question of whether the monarchy “deserves” to exist or serves a purpose. (It does not). But it’s wild to me that, throughout this news cycle, the royal family has not just showed how pointless it is as an institution, they've also demonstrated that the Firm is actually inept at and worse, uninterested in, negotiating our current social and political climate.

 

When the royal family had a chance to embrace true progress, they all—even William and Kate—turned their backs. And to me, that means if this is a death knell for their institution, they more than deserve it.

 

And Did You Hear About…

 

Armie Hammer’s salacious family history.

 

The Weeknd’s announcement that he’ll no longer be submitting music to the GRAMMYs for consideration.

 

The uproar over incoming Teen Vogue EIC Alexi McCammond, who posted racist and homophobic tweets as a teenager, and Conde Nast’s seeming inability to handle this controversy. 

 

GQ’s excellent profile of Steven Yuen. (Also, the photo shoot?! 😍)

 

The McKinsey report that says a lack of diversity costs Hollywood $10 billion dollars a year. That’s billion with a b, y’all.

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