Harry and Meghan Critiques Royal Racism — But Does It Go Far Enough?

Photo: Kristin Callahan/Shutterstock.
In Netflix’s long-awaited documentary, Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex give viewers a glimpse into not only their love story — but also into their perspective of the events that led to them making the painful decision to  leave their duties as members of the Royal Family and move from the U.K. to California, which caused them to be stripped of their HRH duties. (They still have their titles – for now)
In March 2021, Meghan Markle, a biracial woman with a Black mother and white father, opened up to Oprah Winfrey about the racism she received not only from the rabid British press but also from her in-laws, the British Royal Family.  Although they acknowledged the micro-aggressions and specific incidents of racism, the Sussexes have previously refrained from deeper critiques of the racist and imperialist nature of the British Royal Family — and therefore Harry’s own family, including his late grandmother Queen Elizabeth II. And in Harry and Meghan, they still don’t go deeper themselves. Meghan even expresses seeming regret that her discussion of depression in the Oprah interview had been “completely eclipsed by the conversation surrounding race.” However, Harry and Meghan does recruit prominent Black U.K.intellectuals (namely historian David Olusoga and journalist Afua Hirsch) to indirectly make the strongest statements against the monarchy racist and imperialist nature that we’ve seen from senior royals in recent memory — or perhaps ever. 
For Black viewers  in the U.K, the documentary’s discussion of slavery — including noting that the British Empire is built on the money from slave labor and that Queen Elizabeth I funded the first commercial slave trading voyages — was a welcome change from the usual avoidance and denial from members of the Royal Family. The documentary also explores the racism of Brexit and the hate crime that led to the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993.
“I thought it was good that they acknowledged and made the connection between the U.K.’s involvement in the slave trade and empire, and the current [racial] climate of the UK,” Ashanti Wheeler-Artwell, a Black woman from the U.K., tells Unbothered. “David Olusoga hit the nail on the head when he said when the U.K. talks of its empire, it will only briefly focus on its involvement in the abolition of slavery and then present the empire as something to be celebrated."
Harry and Meghan also expands its discussion to touch on the British empire’s colonization of other nations, and the continuation of that colonization into the more genteel Commonwealth — a group a formerly colonized nations that are still under varying degrees of control by the British Empire, while maintaining “independence —  which Hirsch calls “Empire 2.0.” In the documentary series, Hirsch dismantles the idea that the Commonwealth is just a group of “friends… countries with shared values” by pointing out that the very existence of the Commonwealth is “incredibly painful for the very many millions of British people who have a very different memory of empire in their personal background.” As Olusoga stresses that Queen Elizabeth was passionate about maintaining the Commonwealth, images of the late monarch flit about the screen. 

Despite the documentary saying the U.K. never acknowledges the horrors of its Empire or colonization, the documentary itself skipped over the horrors of empire and colonization, particularly British involvement in slavery.

Ashanti Wheeler-Artwell
Another surprising moment was the documentary acknowledging renewed calls to remove Queen Elizabeth II from Head of State, including Barbados’s historic decision to leave the Commonwealth. However, Harry doesn’t express pride or happiness; he merely takes that moment to point out that they squandered a chance to use Meghan to keep Black and brown countries in the Commonwealth. “Anyone inside that system have already missed an enormous opportunity with my wife and how far that would go globally,” he said. 
Though the Netflix documentary is shockingly direct for a production co-signed and created by a royal, what it leaves out is Queen Elizabeth’s full knowledge that maintaining the Commonwealth was an attempt to hold onto imperial power, not just an innocent interest in different cultures. “Elizabeth Windsor’s most astute move as monarch was to invest much time and effort in the maintenance of the Commonwealth, a continuation of colonial ties in the wake of decolonization,” Yasmin Dualeh, PhD candidate in U.S. History at the University of Cambridge writing about Harry and Meghan’s portrayal of racism and colonialism for academic publications, reminds Unbothered. “The monarchy continued to advocate for its relevance under the guise of presiding over a family of nations. It was this aspect of the institution that Meghan, as a symbol of racial progress in the Royal Family, could aid in promoting.” The hope was that Meghan being part of the family would be a way of having “difficult conversations” — lending to a milquetoast acceptance of the empire as long as conversations were being had. 
Priyamvada Gopal, Professor of Postcolonial Studies at the University of Cambridge, tells Unbothered that due to these omissions, the conversation in the documentary is “all very basic.” Still, she points out, it’s needed. “Given how very deep and deliberate amnesia around enslavement and colonization is in Britain, this has got to be seen as a welcome first step,” says Professor Gopal. In the wake of the documentary, the vitriol from the British press has reached new screeching volumes, with public figures like Nigel Farage, former leader of the Brexit Party, calling Harry and Meghan “despicable” for speaking out about racism in Britain and Britain's role in colonialism. “The reaction simply underscores how something so basic is perceived to be threatening, because there is a deep unwillingness to face up to the facts of empire,” Gopal maintains. 
Some of Harry and Meghan’s narrative gaps only enable this amnesia and unwillingness to take responsibility. “Despite the documentary saying the U.K. never acknowledges the horrors of its Empire or colonisation, the documentary itself skipped over the horrors of empire and colonisation, particularly British involvement in slavery,” Wheeler Artwell points out. For instance, Hirsch said that the Caribbean was like the U.K.’s Deep South — a factually incorrect statement; Britain had control over the colonies in the American South up until the Revolutionary War was won in 1776. “It's a false equivalence that lets Britain off the hook,” Wheeler-Artwell asserts. 

Overall, Harry and Meghan is a nice love story and a groundbreaking acknowledgment of colonialism and racism when we consider the source. But it remains a politically incoherent work.

While the documentary attempts to be a searing critique of the monarchy, its discussion of colonialism, slavery, and racism is incoherent to the point of being offensive at times; such as repeatedly stating how Harry and Meghan were willing to use her to keep Black and brown Commonwealth countries loyal to the Queen, or mentioning that Beyoncé texted Meghan that she was “selected to break generational curses that needed to be healed.” That’s a wild claim to make, that a Black woman was selected to heal the generational curses in a white imperialist family responsible for much of world history’s horrors. 
The documentary also states that Britain made the strategic choice to grant countries like Nigeria, India, and Jamaica independence. This is false. Those countries fought for their independence — they did not accept it as a gift. The idea that the British granted independence instead of being forced to give up control plays into the concept that the British were generous colonizers who gave up their holdings voluntarily. Professor Gopal debunks this myth in her book Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent, an exploration of the history of the British being forced out due to the fierce independence movements in African, Asian, and Caribbean countries. “There is a liberal narrative that change happened gradually, and then the British gave in gracefully and granted independence,” Professor Gopal states. “That fits very nicely with the kind of corporate philanthropy that Harry and Meghan are involved in. There’s a slight recognition on their part of racism, empire and its consequences, but there’s also an  unwillingness to take that all the way to its logical conclusion.”
Photo: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images.
Notably, Harry himself never actually uses the word “racism” to describe his previous views or his family’s actions; he only admits to previously having “unconscious bias” and then goes on to say that such bias — presumably because it is unconscious — is “nobody’s fault.” It’s a dereliction of duty from someone who represents — and is the material beneficiary of —  one of the most oppressive institutions in world history. In the third episode, Harry expresses remorse for wearing a Nazi costume to a Halloween party in 2005. “It was one of the biggest mistakes of my life. I felt so ashamed afterwards. All I wanted to do was make it right,” he says. He also says he is actively working towards undoing “unconscious bias,” but right after these comments, he waxes poetic about his time in the Army fighting a war in Afghanistan. Harry’s words fail to examine the ways that war decimated much of the Middle East and South Asia, and led to countless deaths of Black and brown people at the hands of American and British military and intelligence services. 
Overall, Harry and Meghan is a nice love story and a groundbreaking acknowledgment of colonialism and racism when we consider the source. But without the context of this content being produced by a grandchild of Queen Elizabeth II, it remains a politically incoherent work. Wheeler-Artwell says, “What was the point of the documentary if it didn't want to draw out clear conclusions? Why make the documentary if you don't want to draw the parallels between the lack of protection given to Meghan and the lack of protection given to Black MPs - or MPs of any protected characteristics — from external and internal racist abuse?” 
Perhaps it does make sense that this documentary would only focus on the more hyperpersonal narrative as opposed to zooming out to the wider picture of who the Royal Family is and what they’ve done on a global scale. But veering between acknowledging the horrors of slavery in one minute and then implying that a Black princess would be a “conclusion” to that history the next ultimately is not sufficient, although it may be a good start. Harry and Meghan is a documentary that asks for too much from audiences. It wants too much praise but isn’t willing to make the couple’s primary supporters — Black and brown people —  feel truly seen by taking full accountability. 

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