Mid-June and the world is on fire. The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked the race blaze that has consumed the world. His life ebbed away for 8 minutes and 46 seconds on the tarmac of Middle America, a white police officer’s knee on his neck. Video of the killing went online, went viral, and created a new civil rights movement: in white, all creeds and colors have marched together.
Commentators on what is being termed ‘The Culture War' are not hard to find. The zeitgeist is a Tower of Babel deafening with dissonance. Twitter, Facebook, Fox News, and CNN blur into one as everyone has their say. Opinions, as they say, are like assholes. Everybody has one.
In amongst this cacophony, one voice stood out. Not because of its bombast, or its hyperbole, but because it came from the heart. It belonged to Meghan Markle, the former TV star turned royal bride and princess, who to many, is the cause of the biggest scandal to hit the British Royal family this century.
Earlier this year Meghan and her husband, Prince Harry, turned their backs on the UK, and the life of privilege Harry was born into, citing harassment, intrusion — and racism — as reasons for the acrimonious split.
In June, as fires raged in U.S. cities, Meghan released a heartfelt message to the graduating class of her former high school, Immaculate Heart in L.A., and said George Floyd’s “life mattered.”
Appearing on a video call from her home in Los Angeles, Meghan told young students: “I wasn’t sure what I could say to you. I wanted to say the right thing and I was really nervous that it would get picked apart. And I realized the only wrong thing to say is to say nothing.”
Meghan’s nervousness is understandable. Her bruising brush with the British media, notorious for its build-‘em-up-knock-‘em-down mentality, is perceived to have been tainted with the same underlying, inherent racism that protesters in cities around the world are fighting to expose.
Meghan was born into a world where mixed marriages like her parents, Doria Ragland and Thomas Markle, were still regarded as unconstitutional. They attracted plenty of attention, suspicion, and casual racism.
She has spoken about the challenges she faced as a student studying English at the elite Northwestern University in Chicago where she was one of only a handful of non-white students. In an article she wrote for Elle she recalled how one student sneered at her when she revealed her parents were divorced and implied that it was the result of their mixed-race marriage.
“To this day I still don’t fully understand what she meant by that, but I understood the implications and I drew back. I was scared to open this Pandora’s box of discrimination, so I sat stifled, swallowing my voice.”
On another occasion, Meghan was with her mom leaving a concert in a car when someone called Doria the N-word.
Meghan wrote of the incident: “My skin rushed with heat as I looked at my mom. Her eyes welled with hateful tears, I could only breathe out a whisper of words, so hushed they were barely audible: ‘It’s okay Mommy.’ I was trying to temper the rage-filled air permeating our small silver Volvo. Los Angeles had been plagued with the racialist charged Rodney King and Reginald Denny cases just years before, when riots flooded our streets, filling the sky with ash that flaked down like apocalyptic snow; I shared my mom’s heartache, but I wanted us to be safe. We drove home in deafening silence, her chocolate knuckles pale from gripping the wheel so tightly.”
Meghan’s studies at university explored colorism and it was there, she says, that she could finally put a name ‘to feeling too light in the black community, too mixed in the white community’. In castings, she was labeled as ‘ethnically ambiguous.'
When Meghan — fully woke to the issues around race and racism — first arrived in the U.K., with the glare of the media upon her, it is worth remembering that in the main the U.K. public loved her. Newspapers and media in Great Britain fawned over her. After all, Prince Harry has a special place in the hearts of U.K. citizens. His past travails have never been held against him, indeed they have bolstered the affection and made Harry seem the more approachable and relatable of Princess Diana’s sons. So, when he finally found love with a beautiful and glamorous Hollywood star, the public was enthralled — and so were the newspapers.
Meghan was a refreshing addition to the royal family and press reporting was enthusiastic.
However, Harry had always blamed the media for his mother’s death, particularly tabloid newspapers and magazines. He was protective of his new love and tried to shield her from the glare of publicity. Meghan was warned by her friends that the press was ferocious.
Undoubtedly this rubbed editors in their ivory towers up the wrong way.
The complex relationship between the British public and the Monarchy is based on a mutual understanding that to some degree the public owns the Monarchy. There is an expectation that the Royals play the game. Senior royals receive public money and are expected to sing for their supper.
But Harry wasn’t so sure. In the eyes of many, he reneged in this agreement by hitting out and the media and shielding from the public gaze. The sniping began. The U.K.’s love affair with the couple soured. The notorious U.K. media — led by the Daily Mail and fueled by leaks from insiders and Meghan’s own family — began to run unflattering stories.
But there was a darker specter to all this. Some commentators speculated that one of the driving forces behind this change in direction was racism. They highlighted the fact that, in general, Meghan was receiving different treatment from Kate. Harry also believed Meghan was a victim of racism. In late 2016 he issued a statement condemning what he called the media’s “wave of abuse and harassment." He highlighted “the racial undertones of comment pieces” and the “outright sexism and racism of social media trolls and web article comments."
Academic Maya Goodfellow, who holds a Ph.D. from the London School of Oriental and African Studies, concluded that media coverage of Meghan was undeniably racist. Writing for VOX, she deduced: “The Royal family is historically a white institution, so when Markle, a biracial woman, became a member, some heralded it as ‘progress.'"
She continued: “The press talked about her ‘exotic DNA’, described her ‘(almost) straight Outta Compton’, attacked her for the very things Kate Middleton has been praised for, and compared the couple’s son to a Chimpanzee.”
Written before the death of George Floyd, Goodfellow explained how many in the U.K. media denied racism. When confronted with the aforementioned examples, they tended to ask: “But is it really racism?”
White society, on the whole, has been ignorant of the factors at play behind the insidious, underlying racism that the Black Lives Matter movement is striving to highlight. Piers Morgan, the white breakfast television presenter and former CNN primetime host, for example, could not see a problem with describing Meghan’s DNA as ‘exotic’. But as Goodfellow pointed out, the term ‘exotic’ has colonial roots, ‘long working as a form of othering.'
“Acknowledging this would mean really grappling with the insidious ways racism operated in the UK, undermining the notion that it is fundamentally a ‘tolerant’ and ‘progressive’ country,” she wrote.
In my view, there is little doubt that racism in the British media was — in some part — a driving force behind Meghan and Harry’s decision to step back and eventually leave the country.
Now, with the fire lit, Meghan burns with a desire to be part of the narrative.
Recent reports reveal that both Meghan and Harry plan to focus their energies on the BLM movement as well as supporting communities affected by the coronavirus crisis. According to reports, the couple has conducted video calls with community leaders about how they can help the Black Lives Matter movement.
Their charitable foundation, Archewell, is scheduled to launch next year and has ambitious plans “organizing and conducting support groups for persons in need”, including “emotional counseling” and “coordinating social, personal care, and psychological services."
Meghan has long voiced a desire to use her profile and voice to highlight injustice. Racial prejudice is one of the issues she will undoubtedly shout loudest about in the coming years.