A right, racist, royal mess

Even Prince Harry's marriage to Meghan Markle can't throw off the royal family's ongoing racism.

By now, it can hardly have escaped anyone’s notice that the future royal bride, Meghan Markle, is black and Jewish. This, according to a number of voices on the internet, is excellent news. The British monarchy is progressive! It’s inclusive! It has overcome its racist roots!

Or has it? What are the implications of a woman of colour marrying into a system which has, for the past half-millennium, racialised, exploited, and dispossessed people of colour? A system which continues to benefit from that exploitation?

There has always been a close nexus between imperialism and monarchy. Imperial expansionism and exploitation elevated a monarch’s domestic profile, bringing enticing benefits such as jewels and sugar and tea to royal family and subjects alike. When, during the Enlightenment, it started to become difficult to justify the subjugation of fellow human beings, European imperialists devised a handy new concept: race.

A dehumanising system of classification in which lighter skin was valued over dark—a justification for the exploitation of people of colour. Monarchs resumed their colonialist subjugation with glee, accumulating glory, status, and wealth over colonised bodies. During the 18th century, Britain and other European powers colonised the Americas, South Asia, and Australia. At the height of race theory and eugenics in the late 19th century, European imperialism resurged in the ‘Scramble for Africa’, which saw the continent snatched up by invading European powers.

It is easy to dismiss imperialism as a distant past. To do so, however, ignores that the British Empire, by most accounts, only met its end in 1997—a mere 21 years ago—with the transfer of Hong Kong, the last British colony, to China. The reign of Elizabeth II witnessed the decolonisation of most of the British Empire. And yet, the Crown continues to hold overseas possessions, like Gibraltar or the Falkland Islands, and occupy Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Prince Harry, Markle’s fiancé, served in the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan. These are recent, contemporary facts. The legacy of imperialism has barely begun to heal.

Despite Queen Elizabeth being in prime position to engage in postcolonial discourse, she has been silent about her complicity in imperialism. There have been no apologies. No reparations. No renunciation of an imperial past whose consequences continue to unfold today. Formerly colonised nations, and particularly the Indigenous groups within them, still face poverty due to British exploitation and dispossession. Class and ethnic divisions continue to plague Southeast Asia, arising out of the British practice of artificially elevating some groups’ status over others’. Homophobia within ethnic communities, introduced to colonies by invaders, continues to injure LGBT+ individuals. And then there’s the most pernicious legacy of the lot—one in which individual royals are still complicit: racism.

Racism, which questions people of colour for failing to “integrate” into white society just as it punishes those who succeed. Racism, which commodifies and perverts ethnic culture for white consumption. Racism, which dragged Markle’s ancestors from their homes, shipped them as cargo across the Atlantic , forced them to churn out sugar—which, in turn, was shipped into the fine china tea cups of her fiancé’s royal forebears.

The royal family perpetuates that same racism today. Philip, Elizabeth’s consort, is infamous—yet strangely tolerated—for his little “gaffes”. His boorish comments, to the nostalgic whitewash of middle England, are a slice of transgressive humour. To a Kenyan woman who gave him a gift: “You are a woman, aren’t you?” To an Indigenous Australian: “Still throwing spears?” Little slips of the racist tongue which belie his conceptualisation of reality: his sense of white, bourgeois European superiority in an otherwise primitive world.

Last year, a royal named Princess Michael controversially wore a blackamoor brooch in the presence of Markle. Blackamoor art emerged in response to Europeans encountering black Africans, and generally depicted Africans in subservient poses. This style objectified and exoticised Africans, and is considered inappropriately racist today. But it is no surprise that this came from a woman who, in 2004, sought to prove her innocence against a charge of racism by discussing her love of “adorable” Africans and asserting that she had “pretended” once to be “a half-caste African”. Moreover, her own father had been an SS officer during the Second World War, one of the élite who administered the concentration camps.

Prince Harry’s statement calling for an end to racist reporting and threats against his fiancée is well-intentioned but similarly ironic. Perhaps he should first consider his own position and imperialist privilege, and how he and his family continue to sustain the racist legacy of imperialism. He can lead the example by apologising to the former colonies and making genuine overtures of penitence. We in Australia expect contemporary politicians, who inherit from afar systems of oppression, to apologise and move towards reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. We should expect even more from a man whose own ancestors are responsible for the continuing dispossession billions of people.

If the British monarchy hopes that their readiness to adopt Markle into their bevy would absolve them of their racist, imperialist legacies, they are wrong. Markle’s race alone does not make the marriage “progressive”. She is one woman. Racism is a system. But perhaps by acknowledging this—by trying to make amends—the institution into which she is marrying can take a step towards dismantling that system

That is, if they are not too proud to admit they’re wrong.