Fury and denial as Harry and Meghan prompt new race debate in UK

Queen Elizabeth vows to address racism claims

By: AFP      Published: 10:30 AM, 10 Mar, 2021
Fury and denial as Harry and Meghan prompt new race debate in UK
File photo.

Prince Harry has come a long way in educating himself about race since his youthful days, when he used an offensive slur against a fellow army cadet from Pakistan and dressed up as a Nazi soldier at a party.

In an explosive interview with Oprah Winfrey, Queen Elizabeth II's grandson explained that his mixed-race wife Meghan had helped him on his journey of awareness, and he wanted his family, the media and Britain at large to educate themselves too.

"I've spent many years doing the work and doing my own learning," the 36-year-old said, noting his privileged background meant "I wasn't aware of" racial issues on the whole.

"But my God, it doesn't take very long to suddenly become aware of it," Harry said, reflecting years on from his early 20s, when the details emerged of the fancy-dress party and his calling the fellow cadet a "Paki". 

The interview has certainly sparked new debate about race in Britain, but there is little common ground between white commentators and black voices following Harry's assertion that racism was a "large part" of the reason why he and Meghan quit the UK for North America.

"America has a long and profoundly tragic history when it comes to racism. But they acknowledge it and they know it," Lola Adesioye, a British commentator on race based in New York, told AFP.

"I still feel that the UK has a sort of delusion about its racial standing, and the idea that racism is not a really a thing in the UK, 'that's an American problem', and that the UK is much more integrated," she said.

"So when you hear someone like Meghan Markle who's clearly a modern woman talking about some of the racial issues that she confronted in the royal family... people asking about what colour will your son be, is something that is very hard for people in America to get their heads around." 

- TV tantrum -

Buckingham Palace said the queen took the claims of racism "very seriously" and they would be addressed by the family privately, even if "some recollections may vary".

Historian David Olusoga, author of the book "Black and British: A Forgotten History", said the allegations should force a reckoning for both the royal family and the UK.

"Yet rather than use this moment to embark upon an honest national conversation about race and racism there will, I fear, be further demonisation of Meghan and Harry," he wrote in The Guardian newspaper Tuesday.

"Trapped in denial -- about everyday racism, structural racism, slavery and empire -- there are parts of British society that appear incapable not just of change but even of its necessary precursor: honest self-reflection."

Journalist Piers Morgan -- one figurehead of the anti-Meghan, "anti-woke" camp -- stormed out of his own TV studio Tuesday as a black presenter dissected the racial tinge to UK press coverage of Meghan before and after her 2018 wedding to Harry.

Morgan returned later for a painful interview with Meghan's estranged father Thomas Markle, who said the couple's claims that an unidentified royal wanted to know the likely skin tone of their unborn son were "bullshit".

There is deep divide between those who believe Meghan's remarks on race and self-harm, and others who view her as a publicity-seeking Hollywood export who by her own admission failed to learn anything about her future role before the wedding.

The debate is all the fiercer coming after nearly a year of Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the death of George Floyd as he was held by US police.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is refusing to get involved, other than to laud the queen's "unifying role" for Britain and the 54-nation Commonwealth she heads, most of whose 2.4 billion people are not white.

But his government set out its stall in new policing legislation introduced Tuesday that would raise the maximum penalty for criminal damage of a memorial from three months to 10 years.

That followed the government's stated intention to prosecute BLM protesters in Britain who last year toppled a statue of a 17th century slave merchant and defaced another of Winston Churchill.

Politicians from Johnson's ruling Conservative party have also railed against organisations such as the BBC and National Trust, which manages more than 500 stately homes, for seeking to educate the public more about Britain's colonial and slaving past.

- Press 'not racist' -

Those supporting Meghan can produce many examples of double standards, including side-by-side comparisons of newspaper headlines on coverage of Meghan and her white sister-in-law Kate.

One notorious jibe came in 2016, soon after the couple started dating. "Harry's girl is (almost) straight outta Compton," the Daily Mail wrote of the Los Angeles native, describing her upbringing close to a district known for its gang violence.

Prince Harry told Winfrey that the UK press, especially tabloid newspapers, were "bigoted".

That sparked an angry denial from the Society of Editors, a guild of senior British newspaper journalists, some of whose members have faced lawsuits from the royal couple.

The UK media has a responsibility to hold people to account, it said. "If sometimes the questions asked are awkward and embarrassing, then so be it, but the press is most certainly not racist." 

That prompted bafflement on social media from many journalists, noting the bigotry they themselves had witnessed in newsrooms and the lack of racial diversity in UK media as a whole.

Marcus Ryder, a professor in media diversity at Birmingham City University, said the editors' claim was "utterly bizarre".

"To say the press is not racist is like saying society is not racist," he told AFP, adding: "The idea that race doesn’t play a part in (Meghan's) coverage is naive."

-Queen reacts-

Queen Elizabeth II on Tuesday responded to explosive racism claims from grandson Prince Harry and his wife Meghan, voicing deep concern and sympathising with their troubles with royal life.

"The whole family is saddened to learn the full extent of how challenging the last few years have been for Harry and Meghan," she said in a statement.

"The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately."

Buckingham Palace has come under mounting pressure to respond to the claims made in an Oprah Winfrey interview first broadcast on Sunday, which triggered a crisis unseen since the 1990s.

It set off a whirl of speculation about the identity of the senior royal who asked how dark their child's skin would be before he was born.

Meghan, whose mother is black and father is white, also spoke about how she had suicidal thoughts but failed to receive any support during her time in the royal family.

The explosive racism claim has reportedly left the palace in turmoil and scrambling how best to address it.

Prince Charles, Harry's father and the heir to the throne, earlier ignored a question about what he made of the interview during a public appearance.

A YouGov poll of 4,656 people after the interview aired on British television on Monday indicated almost a third (32 percent) felt the couple was unfairly treated, the same proportion as those who thought the opposite.

- 'Blowing up his family' -

Harry and Meghan's claims have brought global attention on one of Britain's most prominent families.

Attempts have been made to draw in Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has himself been accused of racism.

But he refused to comment, even as political calls mounted for a full inquiry and the White House and former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton spoke out.

The crisis engulfing the royals has for many brought back memories of the very public collapse of the marriage of Harry's parents.

His mother, princess Diana, collaborated with the author Andrew Morton in a revealing 1992 biography and gave a bombshell BBC television interview in 1995.

In it, she said both she and Prince Charles had been unfaithful, that he was unfit to be king, and that she struggled with self-harm and bulimia.

Meghan's estranged father Thomas Markle has defended the royals, saying he hoped the skin tone comment was "just a dumb question".

"It could just be that simple, it could be somebody asked a stupid question, rather than being a total racist," he told Britain's ITV.

- Millions of views -

Over 17 million viewers watched Winfrey's two-hour interview with Harry and Meghan on US broadcaster CBS on Sunday night.

More than 11 million people then tuned in to watch it in full on Britain's ITV, the channel said.

The couple quit royal life last year and now live in California with their young son, Archie, and are expecting their second child, a daughter, this summer.

Harry, 36, has admitted his mother's 1997 death in a high-speed car crash as she tried to flee paparazzi photographers affected his mental health and his view of the media.

He and Meghan, 39, have accused newspapers of racial stereotyping, particularly set against coverage of Harry's sister-in-law, Kate, who is white.

- Global impact? -

Their comments about the strictures of royal life and claims of unwavering attitudes have wider implications for the monarchy itself and its role in the 21st century.

Breakfast TV presenter Piers Morgan, who accused Meghan of fabricating the claims, quit his show Tuesday, after more than 41,000 complaints about his comments to the regulator.

Neither the queen nor husband Prince Philip made the racist comment, Winfrey told CBS.

But it could still be damaging as the monarch is head of the Commonwealth, an organisation comprising 54 mainly former British colonies, many of them in Africa.

Mass immigration has transformed Britain under Elizabeth II's reign, with a rising number of people defining themselves as British-Asian, black-British or of mixed race.

And while press and commentators have expressed shock and outrage over claims of racism in the royal family, one woman who identified as mixed-race told AFP in south London's Brixton she was "not actually surprised".

"I'm happy the truth was told and I think it was a long time coming," the woman, who gave her name as Rroutes, said.

Another Brixton local said Meghan's comments highlighted unresolved issues with racism in Britain and the broader western world. 

"Seeing Trump, seeing Brexit, just seeing everything that was maybe what people think was beneath the surface but it has always been there and now it is being exposed," David Perry said.

Harry himself used a racist slur against a former military colleague and was once pictured wearing a Nazi soldier's uniform at a fancy-dress party.

But he has said meeting Meghan had made him confront the issue, and he is now championing projects to tackle racism.