A legacy worth leaving

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‘Attacking the Queen is like attacking our grandmother’, one social media user said as I scrolled through the pandemonium surrounding Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s interview with Oprah. Another user echoed my thoughts, writing, ‘imagine comparing your nan to someone who doesn’t even know you exist.’

Oprah Winfrey interviews Prince Harry and Meghan Markle (Handout/Getty Images)

While I agreed, I couldn’t help but think, ‘not me. Queen Elizabeth knows I exist, because I’ve met her.’ I gave flowers to the Queen in 2000 in Launceston, Tasmania. It was a stressful affair that at one point I refused to go through with. When it did come down to giving the bouquet of flowers to the Queen, I was relieved to pass on my burden. She was a little surprised and said thank you. Her wide-eyed expression was something I can only put down to seeing a black face in the sea of so many white. From that point onwards I had a ‘special’ connection to the British Monarchy. For a fleeting moment in time, the Queen knew I existed.

And this fondness was founded on more than a single moment. I was born in a Commonwealth country, Kenya and moved to another, Australia. I have family that settled in the UK. My first ever overseas trip from Australia was to London to visit them. British rule and influence have followed me across the world, putting a very real spin on ‘the empire the sun never sets on’.

And yet I never had to confront the idea that the British monarchy — and the British Empire at large — was built on racist principles and benefitted from racist practices. Not until it came from the mouth of one of the Royal family’s favourite iconoclasts, Meghan Markle.

I must admit, prior to Meghan’s interview with Oprah, I didn’t think too highly of her. I believed a part of what the British tabloids were publishing about her: that rather than motivated by love, she had some kind ulterior motive in marrying Harry and that she was calculated.

Still, despite any reservations I had about Meghan, I was overjoyed by the prospect of a Black royal. I was in London during the historic union of Meghan and Harry, and I felt the undeniable sense that British Monarchy were becoming ‘modern’, progressive and inclusive; that the oldest and most distinguished institution in Britain was proudly marching in lock-step with its multicultural pluralist subjects in welcoming faces of other colours into the world’s most photographed family.

I was wrong.

 

'An institution with a colonial legacy that has brutalised, displaced and devastated the lives of black people globally is, drumroll, racist?'

 

The revelations and claims made by Meghan and Harry not only painted a damning picture of living within the confines of the Royal family, but pointed to a larger issue of systemic racism running in the background of public and palace life.

‘I just didn’t want to be alive anymore’, Meghan said, when explaining the pressure to perform public duties while facing relentless media criticism. Meghan arguably knew what she was getting herself into; as though being constantly buffeted by the often merciless British tabloids was merely a part of a job she knowingly signed up for.

Yet she was not prepared for an onslaught of racism on social media and in the pages of tabloids. Meghan revealed that Royal family members knew press coverage of her was ‘disproportionally terrible’, and yet did little to alleviate her suffering.

Meghan described the media as ‘inciting so much racism’ in the way the tabloids continuously drew attention to Meghan’s race. One Daily Mail UK article, titled ‘Harry's girl is (almost) straight outta Compton: Gang-scarred home of her mother revealed — so will he be dropping by for tea?’ The publication intentionally chose to play on the stereotype of Black people living in ‘unsafe’ neighbourhoods to cause controversy around Meghan’s race. In 2016, Prince Harry released a statement condemning ‘the racial undertones of comment pieces’ aimed at his then fiancée.

Harry addressed this in the 2021 interview, admitting that ‘colonial undertones’ existed in the media’s treatment of his wife. This negative coverage seemed to exist in sharp contrast to that of William and Kate.

And it wasn’t just the media’s behaviour that was (perhaps predictably) lacking. Meghan felt that the wider Royal family left them out of a circle of protection from the media that benefitted other members, that they were ‘willing to lie to protect other members of the family, but they weren’t willing to tell the truth to protect me and my husband.’

The bombshell moment of the interview came when the Duchess shocked Oprah and the rest of world when she said there were ‘concerns and conversations about how dark [Archie’s] skin might be when he was born.’ Megan clarified this was discussed in the context of what that would possibly mean for the monarchy.

The couple clarified that neither the Queen nor Prince Philip were behind the comments.

And when asked whether he believed the British Monarch to be racist, Prince William told reporters, ‘We are very much not a racist family’ as he walked alongside Duchess Kate Middleton and behind them what looked like a strategically placed black woman.

The statement did nothing for me. Coming off the back of the Black Lives Matter movement and the world’s attempt to have a sophisticated discussion about racism and how it disproportionally affects the lives of Black people globally — this felt like an anti-climax at best.

An institution with a colonial legacy that has brutalised, displaced and devastated the lives of black people globally is, drumroll, racist? The impacts of this history are ongoing. As Afua Hirsch, author of Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging explains in The New York Times, ‘The legacy of Britain’s history of empire — a global construct based on a doctrine of white supremacy — its pioneering role in the slave trade and ideologies of racism that enabled it, and policies of recruiting people from the Caribbean and Africa for low-paid work and then discriminating against them in education and housing, is with us today’.

Colonialism and racism are like a sick double act. The history of the land we live on, Australia, is indicative of this. British colonisation wiped out the First Nations population and reduced it by 90 per cent. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people only received the right to vote in 1962, all the while this country saw fit to remove Indigenous children from their homes in an attempt to prevent the continuation of Indigenous culture and language. Yet, there has been no apology from the British Monarchy to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We know they are capable of it, Queen Elizabeth apologised to the Maori people of Aotearoa New Zealand.

I’d be more surprised if the British Monarchy wasn’t racist.

Even after all my years of living in the British Commonwealth, I hadn’t been forced to consider this before, like I have now. Perhaps it was the PR machine of the monarchy at play. Or maybe that the reluctance on the part of the royals to publicly address a history of institutional racism and systemic inequality in health, education, and housing, hadn’t seemed as starkly unacceptable as it does now.

That’s why Meghan Markle’s strength in fronting the world and speaking so honestly about her experience felt like I had been woken from my own passiveness. How could I for a moment forget the hypocrisy of the Royal family in relation to race issues?

The Queen’s response to the interview was expectedly conciliatory, but still lacking. ‘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.’

When society is affected by an insidious disease like racism, the only way to get rid of it is to identify it when we see it. To argue about whether it exists or not or whether ‘recollections may vary’ is distracting.

If I had anything to say to the Queen, who knew I existed for a brief moment, I’d tell her to speak now while the world is having this conversation. It’s a legacy worth leaving, Lizzy.

 

 

Najma Sambul is a Somali-Australian writer. She writes both non fiction and fiction, but is adamant fiction writing still has a future. She has a number of unpublished short stories and a half completed comedy screenplay on her laptop. She remains optimistic about their future.

Main image: Oprah Winfrey interviews Prince Harry and Meghan Markle (Handout/Getty Images) 

Topic tags: Najma Sambul, Megan Markle, Royal Family, Oprah, Prince Harry, racism, colonialism

 

 

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Existing comments

This is an incredible piece of writing, Najma. I think considering the queen takes her duty to her people so seriously, it is the right time for her to actually think about all her people and the impact of empire.
Kellie Warner | 18 March 2021


Najma jumps to conclusions based on dubious interpretations of history. For example she should study the Royal Navy's West Africa squadron's efforts to abolish the slave trade. "Between 1808 and 1860 the West Africa Squadron captured 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans. It is considered the most costly international moral action in modern history." [West Africa Squadron, Wikipedia]. She, also, does not consider the effects Meghan Markle and Harry are trying to achieve. Her public relations company has been running her campaign. Also she is bi-racial and needs to be very careful as racism can be expressed by people of every race. A good maxim is to ask who benefits from their actions.
John Castor | 18 March 2021


If you believe what she said, that would be a problem. You need to look at other previous clips and compare how she was treated. Actress Megan Suites
Nola Randall | 18 March 2021


"I was overjoyed by the prospect of a Black royal" Could this be considered racism from another angle? Who can forget the overwhelming acceptance and joy people felt when Prince Harry announced his engagement. If the Royal family were racist, why was there a Gospel choir and a black preacher at the wedding. Remember the crowds at their wedding and cheering as Harry and Meghan rode in a carriage around the streets of Windsor. As many have said, before any birth there is natural curiosity about the appearance of the baby and who this new member of the family will look like.
Jane | 18 March 2021


I understand Whoopi Goldberg asked the same question on American prime time television weeks before. Nobody seem to be accusing her of racism.
mary ellen | 18 March 2021


Hmmm, I wonder how many other 94 year olds would be similarly challenged to conduct an intra-familiar witch-hunt without some inflection of elder abuse from on-lookers; the rapier-witted press only too eager to wring an outrageous story and then feign dissatisfaction with the only public Royal response possible from HRH. Pretty clearly, Meghan has made the allegation and chose to make it public but elected not to "tell all"; Harry has offered some feeble protections by interjection of "but not granny and or grandpa" behind the comments. Consider the hierarchy of hearsay; the Queen might not have heard what was said or by whom, Harry knows who didn't say it but Meghan is the primary witness and complainant - but for some reason like-minded authors don't pursue Meghan to be wholly honest. "Recollections may vary" just might be the world's nicest way of saying what utter crap; perhaps that's Lizzy's legacy... personally, We are amused. Anyway, it's your choice to be offended and bay for blood; oust the racist if they can be found but if the palace investigation falls short you know who to demand the answer from. Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, c/o Canada.
ray | 18 March 2021


‘Her wide-eyed expression was something I can only put down to seeing a black face in the sea of so many white.’ A small Japanese girl in a kimono would have done the trick too. Or a pair of Siamese twins.
roy chen yee | 19 March 2021


We can list the institutions the British brought here: the Westminster system, the Common Law. We may treat Britain itself in any way we please. We may remove the Union Jack from our flag if it seems useful to do so, and the Queen from our political life. (David Malouf, 'Made in England' Quarterly Essay). Another reference point for me in regards to the Queen is Alan Bennett's slim volume "The Uncommon Reader": a masterpiece of comic brevity. And a good reference point for viewing the impact of empire is from the biblical story of Joseph in Egypt. My hope is for the Queen to be instrumental in mending relations with Harry and Meghan. And instrumental in mending relations with all who have been hurt by empire.
Pam | 19 March 2021


There is no doubt that the First British Empire and the fortunes of many of the still extant great British aristocratic families were built on the backs of black slaves in the sugar plantations of the West Indies. Britain did, through the efforts of such saintly figures as William Wilberforce, eventually abolish the Slave Trade. This was not done without considerable compensation being paid to the slave owners. Some plantations in the West Indies are still owned by descendants of the original 17th Century planters, such as the Drax plantation in Barbados. The traditional British attitude towards race is hypocritical. Take for instance John Masters swansong to the Raj, 'Bhowani Junction'. In it he denigrates members of the mixed race Anglo-Indian community. Ironically, towards the end of his life, he found out that he should really have been classified as Anglo-Indian. Many scions of the Raj were in the same boat. Modern Brits, such as Billy Connolly, Rupert Penry-Jones and the Duchess of Cornwall, make no bones about having Anglo-Indian ancestry. Allan Sealy, the contemporary Indian author, of Anglo-Indian descent himself, said, on reading 'Bhowani Junction', that he realized this was not the truth and this inspired him to a different course as a writer. Meghan and Harry are just part of the great reassessment of Empire. It needs to continue with very clear eyes.
Edward Fido | 19 March 2021


There are times, Ms Sambul, where I think Afua Hirsch seems to put herself forward a bit like the Black British version of Dafyd 'the only gay in the village' of Little Britain fame. She is not the only Black British voice. They are many and varied, thank God! All of us who grew up where the fag end of the British Empire gradually burnt down, and it is still flickering and sputtering as far as I can see, were effected by it. One Thomas Fido was amongst the early English planters in Barbados in the 17th Century. As far as I can gauge, he was not in my direct line, but a member of a collateral branch. This discovery still shakes me. Thank God Australia is realizing the terrible things done to ATSI people in the early days. Some Colonial Governors, such as Gipps and La Trobe, acted against the perpetrators of these actions. We, collectively, seem to be on a genuine path to proper national reconciliation. We need to be, otherwise I fear for our collective future. God Save Australia (Queen optional)! If we end up with a political system like Ireland's, where they have elected three superb women Presidents, I shall be more than happy.
Edward Fido | 20 March 2021


Pam and Edward respond gently and insightfully to Najma, who speaks with epistemic privilege on what it means to be born and live with a dark skin in a world in which whiteness confers privilege. Those who oppose her are largely unaware of this or seek to excuse it. Setting aside the ameliorative effects of equal opportunity, there are cultural and historical factors that impact on unequal outcomes and which, for people of good will on both sides, raise troubling and all too easily contested questions of affinity and exclusion. Among Anglo-Indians, from whom I spring, George Orwell cited instances of colour-consciousness, which in a postcolonial world are dramatically out of place. The lessons of Harry & Meghan are many, but should also be seen through other lenses. Meghan looks white and occupies a place on a visual hierarchy far higher than many black and white persons poorer than her. Thus, not all questions of privilege are determined by skin-colour but also of class and gender. Given the crippling constraints expected of the monarchy in recent years, an additional problem here is that of inherited status and privilege. Please God, what chance amidst this mess of love and forgiveness triumphing?
Michael Furtado | 20 March 2021


Your post here is acute and insightful, Michael. I think both Meghan and Harry have deep psychological wounds. Both 'Suits' and the gilded, privileged world of the Royal Family are not the world most of us live in. I hope the two of them stick with each other and sort themselves out. Oprah's world, where she acts as a sort of Psychotherapist-in-Chief on TV, is also a fantasy realm. We need a dose of reality, not what passes for 'reality TV'.
Edward Fido | 21 March 2021


When a woman complains of suffocation by her in-laws, is she not implicitly asking her husband why he didn’t stand up for her? There’s a world of difference between Meghan and Diana. Diana was a childcare worker without the buffer of self-assurance which prominent career success which produces wealth gives to one. She also had a husband unenthusiastic about her, in love with another woman, and jealous of her greater rapprochement with the public. Harry is a modern husband, enthusiastic about his wife, and was, at the relevant times, a senior royal. To make the ‘poor me’ argument stick, senior royals must have to be eunuchs under the spell of their couturiers.
roy chen yee | 21 March 2021


You are quite correct in your assessment of the character of the current Prince of Wales, Roy. Princess Dianna had some spunk and divorced him as a bad loss. Harry seems to be becoming a bit more realistic than his father and attempting to have a real marriage, rather than a hollow shell of one. I fear Prince Charles' sense of entitlement and lack of grounding in reality will have consequences for the survival of the Monarchy when he ascends the throne. Britain is not as it was in the heyday of Empire. Its 'coloured' colonial ex-subjects have come back home to the mother country and are full citizens and participants in national life, as they should be. South Asian Brits are prominent in the Cabinet. Afro-Caribbean Brits are prominent in just about all facets of British life, not just music and sport, their supposed traditional 'places'. Possibly these are signs for us in Australia? Sadiq Khan; Rishi Sunak; Priti Patel and Sonita Alleyne are no mere tokens but signs of change, real change. Penny Wong and Ken Wyatt are still isolated 'islands in the stream' but we are moving in the right direction. God Save Australia!
Edward Fido | 22 March 2021


I appreciate your post, Edward. However, 'Dishy Rishi' and 'Pretty Priti' stand out as privileged islands in a sea of race-neutral, upper-class British privilege, were you to control for party affiliation. The same generally applies to prominent South Asians in the US, who are, nearly all of them, wealthy Republicans. This misreading isn't called 'false consciousness' for nothing! A truer picture of institutionalised injustice would emerge from combining and applying the interstices of colour, class and gender to your analysis, surely? After all, the disproportionately poorest scgment of society in the UK's largest cities is still Black.
Michael Furtado | 25 March 2021


Michael Furtado: 'Dishy Rishi’ Well, in his defence, Dishy was smart to marry a very lucky woman. On the other hand, Kevin Rudd was only lucky to marry a very smart one.
roy chen yee | 26 March 2021


Oh, you clever, naughty punster, you! Rudd is gifted too in several respects, not the least of which is his ability to converse in Mandarin: not a quality geared to endear him to an invariably tongue-tied and in parts xenophobic Australian electorate. I once saw him brave an assortment of questions put to him by some exceedingly bright All Hallows' girls and he came out of it with flying colours. Of course, his tragedy was to be ousted by mediocrity, the worst aspect of which was that he couldn't say THAT, as the leader of a party abjectly committed at the time to egalitarianism rather than to fairness, probity and personal integrity! And then there was the climate change promise that he couldn't fulfill. How are you with the Mandarin and climate change, Roy?
Michael Furtado | 27 March 2021


The legacy that should be left is that the Monarchy is (albeit, for the moment, faintly) a reminder of the Judeo-Christian God as an element of the constitutional system. This fracas is occurring because neither the Markles nor the Battenbergs (especially that waste-of-space, Andrew) seem to be conscious that the gravity of the House of Windsor is not because it is The Firm but because it is The Link. Ms. Markle might be excused from knowing this, as St. Paul excuses new believers from being fed ‘meat’ instead of ‘milk’, but the same cannot be true of Mr. Markle, or the Battenbergs who seemed to have failed to raise him with that consciousness.
roy chen yee | 04 April 2021


I find it very disturbing to watch 3 very previelaged human beings sit in the garden of a property worth more than $3 million dollars, gossiping about family members and lamenting about trivialities. Grow up, l say. Look at the real world, and apologize for your lack of finess and emotional intelligence. Ophra should interview a homeless, a single mother with 3 starving children and an unemployed American, if she wants to be Real and taken seriously. Money? So they say, is the root of all evil today. 3 people living the privilege life of 3 Wealthy White People. Skin colour is not the issue here. Pride, hardness of heart is and way too much money.
AO | 12 April 2021


AO: 3 privileged human beings. To be fair, two of them had to work quite hard to get to where they are. And, being women, they would have had, for their lines of work, the added burden of appearance to contend with.
roy chen yee | 19 April 2021


Sorry, roy chen yee, gender is of no account here, just greed. Every human has a right to a dignified lifestyle. Humans are not 'the work they do', and regardless of their gender. The greedy and proud always make a profit from the humble. In one way or another. Hollywood? Disneyland? The Queen in America? Guess who? It's physiological 'plastic' in a 'plastic' coke bottle. Mark 12:41-44. Open your eyes.
AO | 04 May 2021


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