For me the most revelatory moment in the much anticipated Oprah Winfrey interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle did not come from anything Markle or Harry said. It was the expression on Oprah’s face when Markle revealed that there had been conversations and concerns with unnamed family members about how dark their baby’s skin colour might be.
“About how dark your baby is going to be?” asked Oprah.
“Potentially, and what that would mean or look like.”
“They were concerned that if he were too brown, that that would be a problem?” Oprah asked.
“I wasn’t able to follow up with why but that—if that’s the assumption you are making, I think that feels like a pretty safe one.”
Of course, such a conversation about worryingly dark babies would not feel that exceptional in many Indian households, but that’s another issue. Indians who are happy to think “she’s beautiful even though she’s dark” is a compliment have no real business being aghast by royal bias.
Prince Harry was not comfortable sharing who had those conversations but the casual racism of the starchy royals was never particularly secret. Prince Philip, for example, once told a group of British students in China that if they stayed there much longer, they would be “slitty-eyed”. He referred to an old-fashioned fuse box in a factory as “it looks as if it was put in by an Indian”. At the time these were all indulgently reported as lighthearted “gaffes” rather than racist stereotyping. Philip himself once told a meeting of the General Dental Council that “Dontopedalogy is the science of opening your mouth and putting your foot in it, a science which I have practised for a good many years”, thereby giving himself a jolly-old-chap pass. Royal editor (yes, such a thing exists) Chris Ship told the Good Morning Britain television programme that the brown-phobic royals were in fact not the Queen or the Duke of Edinburgh, which Oprah has confirmed. The outrage seems to be, how dare Harry and Meghan air dirty laundry, not because the laundry isn’t dirty, but because his grandfather is in hospital. But then is it ever a good time to talk about racism in the family?
While Harry’s marriage to mixed-race Meghan Markle was seen as a sign of the tradition-bound royal family gingerly stepping into a more modern world, let’s not forget the family history. In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I publicly supported Captain John Hawkins, who exchanged 300 Africans for hides, ginger and sugar. The current queen has never acknowledged the history of racism the British empire was founded upon. She cannot because the illusion of a rainbow commonwealth would shatter promptly. So they soldier on instead, with glassy smiles and kid gloves, as if the past was another country. Mixing of races for the royals is okay at a Commonwealth summit, one they get to preside over, but it stops at the palace door.
As the story of Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, her Hindustani munshi, showed, their friendship led to a crisis in the royal court. Victoria’s friendship with her personal attendant and gillie John Brown had also raised eyebrows but this was worse—Abdul, as the film about them put it, was a “brown John Brown”. In the Stephen Frears’ film version, Victoria is shown as the racially “woke” one, a way for the British audience to feel good about itself. Writing in The Washington Post, Bilal Qureshi says that by laying on the saccharine and wallowing in court gossip, the film avoids talking about the political structure that allowed Victoria to control Abdul, to have him grovel at her feet like a puppy, more plushie than man. “Imagine a film about slavery in America that shows the ways a whimsical, poetic slave could enliven massuh’s melancholia without addressing the structural reason for the said condition,” writes Qureshi. Meghan Markle is no Abdul Karim. She has no interest in grovelling at the feet of the royal institution. That must rankle, as would the fact that they chose to give an American television host the big scoop.
It also goes to show that while out-and-out racism is easy enough to condemn these days, implicit bias is much harder to combat and it slowly piles up, reinforcing the message that the brown person exists because of the generosity of the woke white person. Even Oprah herself, like everyone else, has her unconscious biases. For instance, when she visited an Indian family in a slum for Oprah’s Next Chapter: India on TLC, she asked the children how they could live in such a “tiny” room—as if they had any choice in the matter—and marvelled that they used a bucket for bathing instead of a shower. And she was amazed some Indians still eat with their hands, a remark that sounds straight out of the Prince Philip guide to small talk.
A series like The Crown, daring as it has been in pushing the envelope when it comes to the royals, ultimately never really questioned the basic premise of why the royals exist and what purpose they serve in a changing world. And what is a commoner anyway and why in this day and age should anyone be applauded for marrying one? It’s ultimately pointless to be aghast at Markle’s allegations because the appeal of the royals lies in the fact that they do not change. That’s what people find reassuring about them and they have turned their resistance to change into a show of character strength rather than obduracy.
But the greater takeaway from the interview is that we are all still way too enthralled with the idea of royalty, that it remains weirdly relevant not just in Britain but in America and India (look at all the former royals who still run for office as maharaja and maharani). We are not immune to the allure of the British royal family even seven decades after independence. When Prince William and Kate Middleton visited India, everyone fell over themselves for royal crumbs. That the visit of the queen’s grandchildren was front page news in 21st century India, with headlines like “‘WillKat’ Wows Humble And High”, was a little nauseating. That tradition and casual racist stereotypes are not mutually exclusive is something we all know. It is not limited to the British royals. Former US president George Bush once referred to his grandchildren, whose mother is Mexican-born, as the “little brown ones”. His campaign chairman hurriedly said Bush was “extremely proud of the fact that his grandchildren are 50 per cent Hispanic”, which in itself is odd. Just as being 50% Hispanic should not be a problem, it should not be touted as an achievement either. Roy Barrera, Jr, an Hispanic Republican, said Bush’s remarks were really about “sincere affection” and that he and his German wife refer to their own children “lovingly” as “half-breeds”. The problem always is who gets to make the “lighthearted” gaffes. When British television presenter Piers Morgan railed against the Harry-Meghan “trash-athon”, his guest Trisha Goddard, who is black, simply said: “I am sorry, Piers—you don’t get to call out what is or isn’t racism against black people. I will leave you to call out all the other stuff you want, but leave the racism stuff to us, eh?”
In all the debates about whether the royals are racist or whether Harry and Meghan are whiners who want to have their cake and eat it too, one forgets that it’s possible for both to be true.
What is truly astonishing is that it took, as writer Craig Stone put it, “watching a billionaire question two millionaires on how hard it’s been leaving billionaires, to continue being millionaires”, to understand the home truth that racism still exists. But unlike most victims of racism, past or present, at least the royal couple have a multimillion-dollar mansion to take refuge in.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.