This essay, on the debate about Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, racism and the monarchy, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on children and happiness.) It was published on 25 August 2019, under the headline ‘Sure, defend Meghan Markle from racists, but let’s not bow to the monarchy’.
Take a feudal relic. Add a splash of glamour. A pinch of wokeness. And a dash of hypocrisy. Stir in a lashing of racism. Squeeze out the last dregs of nuance. And dump it all into the ferment of social media and tabloid gossip. What do you get? A surreal debate about Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, the royal family, racism and wokeness that seems to have turned more heads than one of the duchess’s £60,000 outfits.
The latest episode in the soap opera began when the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and their three-month-old son, Archie, took a private jet to fly to the south of France to holiday in Elton John’s villa. Cue outrage about the hypocrisy of a couple who make much of their environmental credentials. And counter-outrage from those who insist that the criticism is unwarranted and cover for bigotry.
John himself sprang to the couple’s defence, as did a host of celebrity friends. ‘Dear England and English press’, tweeted actress Jameela Jamil, ‘just say you hate her because she’s black, and him for marrying a black woman and be done with it God dammit.’ Jamil is featured in the latest edition of British Vogue – guest-edited by the duchess.
It’s not the first time that a royal has been turned into a soap opera. What makes the duchess different, though, is that she’s black. Much of the discussion of her blackness has been of the ‘nudge nudge, wink wink’ type, from the Daily Mail’s ‘Harry’s girl is (almost) straight outta Compton‘ story to Rachel Johnson’s description of the duchess’s ‘exotic DNA’. And then there have been the straightforward racist trolls on Facebook and Twitter, 4chan and Gab.
But while some of the criticism has been racist, we should not exaggerate the extent of it. According to one study, for instance, most of the abuse on Twitter has been driven by just 20 accounts.
Nor is there any truth to the claim that ‘England hates Prince Harry for marrying a black woman’. According to the 2011 census, 2.3 million Britons, including a million white people, are either married to, or living with, someone of a different ethnicity. On this, as on many other social issues, the Sussexes are following, not leading, public attitudes.
The real impact of Meghan Markle has been less on reactionaries and racists than on liberals and progressives, many of whom have seemingly forgotten (or, at least, conveniently set aside their understanding) that there is nothing progressive about a monarchical system, whoever may be part of it. From the moment it was announced that Harry and Meghan were to wed, there has been a stream of claims that a black royal will transform race relations in Britain and that the couple’s social liberalism will turn the royals into ‘potential allies’ in progressive struggles.
There is a certain irony in so many being so alive to every nuance of white privilege but seemingly so blind to the privilege that flaunts itself through the hereditary monarchy. Making inherited privilege more ‘diverse’ is hardly a step forward in the battle against racial inequality (or, indeed, against climate change).
Perhaps nothing divides opinion more than the royal couple’s supposed ‘wokeness’ – their support for causes from environmentalism to disability rights. For many liberals, it’s a ‘beacon of hope’. For reactionaries from Nigel Farage to Piers Morgan, it’s the corruption of a noble institution.
Historically, to be ‘woke’ meant to be alive to injustices; the term has its roots in both black and working-class struggles. In recent years, the phrase has come to the fore in black struggles against police brutality in the US.
Today, though, to be woke is not simply to be aware of injustices, but to make a show of being aware. It’s become one of those terms, like ‘political correctness’, that has been squeezed dry of meaning but possesses, for proponents and critics alike, great posturing value, allowing people to signal their place on the cultural map. In this, it’s the perfect tool for today’s monarchy. After all, no one needs to posture more than those who seek to ‘modernise’ an inherently obsolete system.
Every day we are reminded that we live in an age in which many take pride in not being able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Surely, though, it’s not too much to ask that we be hostile to racism without bending our knee to inherited privilege?
The image is one of the official photographs released for Harry and Meghan’s engagement in 2017. Credit: Alex Lubomirski/Kensington Palace