@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood
Royal Family: Racism Isn’t Binary
Updated: Mar 15, 2021
Meghan and Prince Harry at their 2018 wedding (Photo by Steve Parsons / AFP/Getty Images)
The Duchess of Sussex said that there were conversations about the possible skin tone of their unborn child. She did not say that her new family was racist.
Yet, immediately after Meghan and Prince Harry’s tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey on Sunday, the media asked: Is the Royal Family racist?
Somehow, this leap seems to be acceptable to people who have made up their minds either way. Say something deemed unacceptable, and you are branded a racist. Apparently, racism is binary. You either are, or you are not. This is simplistic but an easy way to keep count for your side. It demeans the words of the Duchess.
What is my bias in this story?
I am a citizen of Belize, formerly British Honduras, which gained independence in 1991. Belize is a peaceful democracy in Central America (“banana republic” slights reveal the ignorance of the speaker). My mother (whose middle name was “Elizabeth” for the Queen) and father (whose name was Clive and had siblings with other Victorian names, Bernard, Olivia Daphne and Dorla) emigrated from there to New York City, where they met and I was born and raised. So, I am a Black American. And I am a British subject, having pledged my loyalty to the Queen with my left hand on a Bible (after the solicitor, a family friend, asked whether I objected to the Bible and preferred not to use it. Everyone is asked this out of respect for personal beliefs.)
I left the United States 26 years ago and lived 14 years in England and Wales. When I moved to Britain from Sicily, I, naively, thought that it would be an easy transition because I would not have to struggle with the language. Instead, I struggled with the language and other cultural aspects of the country. Of all the places I have lived, I found Britain to be the most difficult to understand and navigate. I was fortunate in that I married into a welcoming Welsh family who helped me. If the cultural nuances among most British are intricate, those for the Royal Family must be many times more. It is easy for me to imagine Meghan contemplating suicide, a stranger in a strange land.
It is difficult for me to think of two cultures more different than the United States and Britain. The two countries have such radically different histories, cultures and personalities. In the United Kingdom, for example, generally, people do not say what they mean. There is a way of speaking – and silences – that the British perform as an almost unconscious dance. This may seem hypocritical to Americans, who, generally, speak their minds, which the British may find rude and off-putting.
Americans and the British often do not understand each other. When U.S. President Barack Obama visited England five years ago before the Brexit referendum and said a few words about the benefit of staying in the European Union, he made a cultural blunder by speaking bluntly. He warned that the U.K. would be at the “back of the queue” in any trade deal with the U.S. if the country left the EU.
The response was visceral: How dare he tell us what to do? If anything, Obama coaxed more votes to leave the EU, which Britain has done.
Now, what did Meghan say in the Oprah interview?
“(There were) also concerns and conversations about how dark his skin might be when he is born. . . . There were several conversations . . . with Harry and what that would mean and look like.”
So, “the concerns” reveal a stark difference between the U.S. and Britain. In the States, it’s the one-drop rule. If you have one drop of Black blood, you are Black. Your skin tone does not make a difference . . . unless you are passing for white. Meghan is often described as “biracial” in the British press. Which Black American is not biracial?
Americans carry a legacy of blood, hate and shame on bowed shoulders. Our race problem is a familial one. Not true in Britain. In my time there, no stranger looked at me as though he, she or they wished me dead because of my skin color. I am not demeaning problems that Blacks face in Britain. I am simply saying that British problems stem from a different history.
The royal relative made comments that were insensitive, and they may not have realized it. I had conversations with relatives about why I found Golliwogs, which were black caricature dolls, to be offensive. Golliwogs had very dark, often jet black skin, large white-rimmed eyes, red or white clown lips, and wild, frizzy hair. In 1873, an American author created the Golliwog, which was based on a Black minstrel doll of hers. During the first half of the 20th century, the Golliwog doll was a popular cuddly toy in Europe and some, therefore, had sentimental feelings about it.
What did the royal relative fear?
“Is the Royal Family a racist family?” a reporter shouted out to the Duke of Cambridge on Thursday, noted by a CNN reporter as “not protocol” to shout or question a Royal at an engagement.
“We are very much not a racist family,” said Prince William, in a conversational voice as he walked away from the site.
It is such a blanket question. Of course, he answered it in this way. Yet, who doesn’t have a relative at Thanksgiving dinner with political beliefs that you find difficult to digest with your macaroni and cheese?
On Tuesday, Queen Elizabeth issued a statement:
“The whole family is saddened to learn the full extent of how challenging the last few years have been for Harry and Meghan. 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.
“Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much-loved family members.”
The Queen’s statement is loaded. She expresses sadness and acknowledges Harry and Meghan’s pain. “Concerning” is quite a strong word in this cultural context to describe the raised issues. “While some recollections may vary” is a way for the relative and the family to save face. However, it does not matter because the issues are being taken “very seriously” and will be taken up by the family. And, lastly, the Queen promises continued love.
Meghan and Harry were heard. Perhaps, despite the media’s approach, there will be some changes in the family. Because of the role that the Royal Family plays on the world stage, it is vital that this family gets it right, which means accepting people, whatever their skin tone.