Pandaemonium

RACISM, MONARCHY AND PRIVILEGE

Meghan and Harry official engagement photo

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?

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The image is one of the official photographs released for Harry and Meghan’s engagement in 2017. Credit:  Alex Lubomirski/Kensington Palace

4 comments

  1. damon

    Firstly, is it right for people not born in the U.K. (like myself and Kenan) to be slagging off the British monarchy so vociferously? I’m pretty sure that part of the reason I’ve never had any time for the Royal family is because my family came from Ireland.
    Just like I generally don’t make my criticisms of religious practice and belief too publicly, I tend to think that if the Brits like their royalty – for cultural and historical reasons – then they should be allowed to follow and celebrate it without being ridiculed for that. Apart from supporting the monarchy, I feel very English and British.

    Then there’s the question of being exotic. Half the world likes to see itself as exotic, or makes an attempt at being exotic. Isn’t most old fashioned folk culture exotic? That would include the Irish with their Celtic music and dancing. Wasn’t the Notting Hill Carnival yesterday an expression of exoticism?
    And nearly a million white people will have gone to it too, trying to rub up against some of that “exotic” culture.
    Are Rastas exotic? A couple of women in my family probably think so, as they have had relationships with two of them. Even women wearing makeup could be a sign of trying to make yourself exotic looking. As is the craze of white people wanting to get sun tans (maybe). Everything is exotic. Even Jameela Jamil played up on her exotic (to Americans) mix of her Asian looks and posh English accent to get her role in her American TV show.
    So I’d cut Boris Johnson’s sister some slack for what she said …… and even Compton is exotic to us Brits.
    We didn’t invent the stereotype of the West Coast street rappers, with their hip hop music and drive-by shootings.
    The people themselves invented that image …. along with our own Stormzy and his Grime music friends.
    It is exotic. That’s the whole reason why a hundred thousand white people turned out to see him at Glastonbury. It’s a wilfully invented fictitious exotic stereotype.

    • damon

      Then there’s the word “racism” being used in the Guardian again. That word is so overused by the other columnists every week, that I think it’s almost become worthless as a word on its own.
      People are complaining that the Duchess of Sussex is getting so much criticism because she’s black (and fellow Guardian columnist Ayesha Hazarika has also joined in with that charge) – then poor old BCC radio presenter Danny Baker gets the sack because he forgot to factor in her blackness when he did a tweet about the royal family and a monkey. Probably because he doesn’t always have a person’s race at the forefront of his mind when he comments about them. And she doesn’t even look very black either. It’s easy to forget.

      But even the use of “the R word” more generally. It’s fallen into disrepute in my opinion. It’s far too general and “catch all”. In fact, you have to be “woke” at all times, never to fall foul of the accusation.
      Just look at a tweet Jameela Jamil made just after the one Kenan linked to above.

      “Hey Matt, I’m English and I don’t think I’m personally a racist. I just register that I come from a historically racist country that still harbors an overwhelming hatred and discrimination towards black/brown people. If you’re not at all racist, then you needn’t feel defensive.”
      https://mobile.twitter.com/jameelajamil/status/1165320567114760192

      She throws out a really wide accusation of racism against the British people, and then just clarifies, that if you’re not, then don’t worry as it doesn’t apply to you personally. How condescending.
      Also – if Britain is so historically racist, then why on earth would it have opened up the country to such large scale immigration? And if immigration was genuinely so unpopular, then you might say that it went against the public will to force it like that.

      But here’s a test. Just something I saw from Channel 4 News the other day. About a group of British Somali teens, whose parents had sent them back to Somalia for a while, just to show them the culture they came from, as many Somali parents in the U.K. worry about their children going off the rails back at home.
      It’s a youtube, and I read through many of the racist comments under the video. Several people seemed to think that the Somali youths should just stay where they are and not go back to England. Because they come across as so horrible. The only thing I can think of in their defence is that they are very young. But you can not get around “the fact” that they are indeed rather challenging in their ways and demeanour.
      At the beginning of the video, one of them says that most of their Somali friends are in the same situation, with getting into trouble with the law and being on the margins of British society.
      My point is – just talking about white people’s racism all the time is not actually fair.
      These young Somalis, who live next door and around lots of white people, would make anyone harbour a few “non woke” thoughts. It’s hard not to.

    • ’Firstly, is it right for people not born in the U.K. (like myself and Kenan) to be slagging off the British monarchy so vociferously?’

      Yes. (Perhaps you can draw up a list of all the issues that Britons ‘not born in the UK’ should not address, or ‘slag off vociferously’?)

      ’Just like I generally don’t make my criticisms of religious practice and belief too publicly’

      Well, I’m quite happy to criticise religion too. (Incidentally, you seem very happy in your comments across numerous posts to criticise publicly and vociferously what you deem to be ‘black culture’ and the ‘left’. So, again, perhaps you can draw up a list of issues that are fair game and ones that are not.)

      ’I tend to think that if the Brits like their royalty – for cultural and historical reasons – then they should be allowed to follow and celebrate it without being ridiculed for that.’

      Why? And for how many generations does one have to be in Britain before one is allowed to ridicule it?

      ‘Everything is exotic’

      In which case nothing is.

      ’Are Rastas exotic? A couple of women in my family probably think so, as they have had relationships with two of them.’

      Are you really saying that women in your family only have relationships with people they find ‘exotic’? Really?

      ’Wasn’t the Notting Hill Carnival yesterday an expression of exoticism? And nearly a million white people will have gone to it too, trying to rub up against some of that “exotic” culture.’

      Or maybe they just wanted to have a good time.

      ‘our own Stormzy and his Grime music friends.It is exotic. That’s the whole reason why a hundred thousand white people turned out to see him at Glastonbury. ‘

      See answer above. And grime, as it happens, is produced by both black and white artists, and appeals to black and white audiences. Your categorization of blackness as ‘exotic’ – and that’s really what you’re expressing here – is at best distasteful, at worst racist. It harks back to the worst of 70s Britain.

  2. yandoodan

    Charges of political hypocrisy are tricky. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a filthy stinking rich self-described Socialist, is frequently accused of hypocrisy for pushing others to sacrifice for global warming while scooting around in his private jet. This criticism is justified, at least when he was an ordinary filthy, stinking rich Socialist (and not a presidential candidate). He could have easily traveled first class; as that seat was going to make the journey with or without him, that would have had no climate impact. On the other hand, if Harry and Megan flew commercial their lives would be in danger; since they had no choice, they are not hypocrites.

    There is an in-between state. For instance, former Vice-President Joe Biden has been accused of political hypocrisy for organizing his personal business as an S-corporation instead of a sole proprietorship, saving him great stacks of money on Federal taxes. But even stipulating that there is no other reason to go the S-corporation route (which, btw, is untrue), even if the only benefit was lower taxes, it still wouldn’t be hypocrisy. Even if you think a law should be repealed, is it hypocrisy to use it, legally and in line with its purposes? Or does non-hypocrisy require you to leave money on the table?

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