In May 2018, Prince Harry, sixth in line to the British throne, married the American actress Meghan Markle, whose mother is African American and whose father is white, much to the delight of commentators eager to witness the modernization of a 1,000-year-old, historically white institution. It was widely assumed that Prince Harry and his wife Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, would serve as goodwill ambassadors to the Commonwealth nations, many of which are comprised of majority populations of color, and help to usher the British royal family into the 21st century. Gesturing toward her anticipated future role in "the Firm,” Meghan’s bridal veil featured embroidered flora representative of each of the 53 British Commonwealth countries.
The prospect of a more inclusive, modernized monarchy embodied by the union of Prince Harry and Meghan was short lived, however. Eight months after welcoming their first child, Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor, the Sussexes announced in January 2020 that they were "stepping back” as senior royals. They intended to divide their time between the UK and North America and attain financial independence. The couple did not delve into the specifics behind this sudden break with the Firm. But it is no secret that Meghan, a woman of African ancestry, has faced persistent racist and sexist attacks from the British media and online.
The press has speculated that her "rich and exotic DNA” would thicken the Windsors’ "watery, thin blue blood”; described Meghan as "(almost) straight outta Compton”; discussed how her family "went from cotton slaves to royalty”; and compared her newborn son to a chimpanzee. The underlying message of this media coverage – which is often couched in satire, a longstanding vehicle for spreading racist ideologies – is that Meghan, the daughter of a Black woman descended from enslaved Africans, will taint the British monarchy.
One might assume the Sussexes’ wealth and status would insulate them from offensive comments, or that the royal family has offered emotional support and protection as Meghan weathered mounting racist attacks. But Oprah Winfrey’s explosive interview with Prince Harry and Meghan dispels that notion.
According to the couple, not only did the Firm fail to correct the damaging tabloid narrative around Meghan, during her first pregnancy unnamed members of the royal family voiced concerns to Prince Harry about how dark their unborn child’s skin might be. Following speculation that Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, initiated these conversations due to his well-known history of offhanded racist remarks, Oprah issued a follow-up statement clarifying that the discussions about the baby’s skin color did not involve Prince Harry’s grandparents.
But prior to Archie’s birth, Queen Elizabeth II chose not to amend the 1917 Letters patent issued by King George V, stipulating that for great-grandchildren of a sovereign, only "the eldest living son of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales” (currently Prince George) would be considered a prince. In contrast to her treatment of Prince William’s children, all of whom are titled as a result of a 2012 royal directive, the queen has left Archie, the first child of color born into the British royal family during an era when the UN has categorized white supremacist hate groups as a growing "transnational threat,” to wait to receive a title and the enhanced royal security protection it affords until his grandfather, Prince Charles, becomes king.
The details revealed in Oprah’s interview with the Sussexes underscore the long and unacknowledged history of colonial slavery, white privilege, and racism in Britain, particularly within the royal family.
The current queen’s distant ancestors launched England into the trans-Atlantic slave trade and are responsible for the enslavement and death of millions of African captives. In 1672, Charles II chartered the Royal African Company with the intention of supplying enslaved Africans to England’s Caribbean and North American plantation colonies. His younger brother, James, Duke of York, was the Company’s honorary governor and its largest shareholder. The Royal African Company represented the culmination of over a century of small-scale slave trading initiatives endorsed by the English monarchy, beginning with Elizabeth I’s support of John Hawkins’ slaving expeditions in the 1560s to deliver African captives to Spanish America.
The Stuart and Hanoverian monarchs promoted and profited personally from the expansion of African slave trading and colonial slavery, and oversaw the development of a vast, exploitative empire that strengthened mainland Britain and the royal family at the expense of marginalized peoples across Europe, the Americas, Asia, Africa, and Oceania.
While the legacies of slavery and imperialism run deep in Britain, the full extent of the afterlife of the British Empire and its continued negative impact on Black Britons remains little understood by white Britons. Nearly a third of British citizens think the British Empire is "something to be proud of” and that racism no longer exists in Britain. As the historian Maya Jasanoff notes, "Scratch almost any institution with roots in Britain’s era of global dominance and you’ll draw imperial blood.” And none more so than the British monarchy.
Yet, even as the Black Lives Matter movement and grassroots protests have swept across Britain, Elizabeth II has never publicly acknowledged that the royal family has directly benefited from centuries of colonialism, slavery, and racial violence and exploitation. The British monarchy has not issued a statement condemning racism in all its forms or apologizing for its historical role in enslaving millions of Africans and people of African descent.
Royal protocol dictates that the British monarchy avoid expressing political opinions. But the addition of Meghan Markle to the royal family offered a readymade opportunity for the institution to embrace change and signal a willingness to make amends for past sins. As a young, mixed-race royal couple, the Sussexes were uniquely positioned to assist the British monarchy to strengthen ties with the Commonwealth nations and offer moral leadership as Britain reckons with its brutal imperial past. Protecting Meghan from the press, extending a title to her and Prince Harry’s children, and beefing up the Sussexes’ security detail would have offered guidance to a nation still in denial about its racist history and the very real dangers of white supremacy.
Historical amnesia about slavery and the coerced contributions of marginalized peoples to the birth of modern Britain has consequences. In July 2020, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex called for Britain to confront its colonial past and the persistence of institutional racism. With the Sussexes now out of the picture, perhaps permanently, this much-needed reckoning is increasingly unlikely to come from within the royal family. Once again, the British monarchy demonstrates that it is not only out of touch with the current generation but still quietly embracing white supremacy.