Originally published in The Tufts Observer: https://tuftsobserver.org/the-royally-revered-remembering-colonial-roots/
It was a Sunday evening when I checked my Twitter feed and was met with a flood of Oprah images accompanied by the phrase “were you silent or silenced?” The origin: Oprah’s interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. Set in a sunny Santa Barbara garden, the interview seemingly took the world by storm as Markle detailed both her explicit and implicit experiences of racism after marrying into the Royal family. Markle, an actress, a divorceé, and a United States citizen, broke the tradition of a typical spouse marrying into the modern British Royal Family. To top it off, she is Black. The interview brought in a whopping 49.1 million viewers worldwide, a number that speaks to the public’s level of intrigue. One of the more shocking moments of the interview, which made Winfrey’s jaw drop, was when Markle revealed that members of the Royal Family expressed concern over how dark the skin tone of Archie, her son with Prince Harry, would be. While this comment evinces a warped racist and colorist outlook, should we be surprised, given the family’s historic engagement in both slavery and colonization?
Professor H. Adlai Murdoch, the director of the Africana Studies program at Tufts, said, “What they reveal about how [Meghan Markle has] been treated within the family was somewhat disconcerting … When they revealed that there was a question [of] ‘what color this baby is going to be,’ … that was disconcerting … but not a surprise at the same time.”
Sophomore Isha Vazirani recalled, “For me, it was like the Royal family is racist, and we have known that for years. Especially for me; I am from India. It wasn’t shocking to me at all that there were concerns about [baby Archie’s] race.”
Today, the British Royal family has little say in the political matters of the country. Their duties reside in public appearances, charity work, and touring the Commonwealth, a political association of 54 former British colonies with the Queen as its figurehead. Murdoch explained, “The monarchy has been a constitutional monarchy. In other words, there has been no direct rule by the King or Queen of England since the early 1800s. Parliament passes laws, and then they take the law to the Queen, and the Queen signs it. The Queen has no influence over the law itself, the form it takes, or whether it is passed or not.”
Despite a lack of political power today, the British Royal Empire is notorious for colonizing huge swaths of the world: Kenya, Jamaica, Ghana, Hong Kong, Botswana, India, parts of the US, Canada, and more. A huge pillar of colonialism is enforcing racial hierarchies, and it is not a coincidence that many of these nations are historically made up of non-white people. The societal and social impact of systemic history constantly seeps into the present. Yet, there is this level of admiration surrounding the Royal family. Why?
Murdoch painted a picture of what it was like growing up in Antigua and Barbuda, a former British colony in the Caribbean and a member of the Commonwealth. “If you grew up in the Caribbean, like myself, it is almost impossible to get away from the Royal family … when we were in school the exercise book that we used had a picture of the Queen on the cover … They are present in your consciousness; you can’t really escape them the way people can escape them [in the US],” he said. This celebrity-like status and image serve as a way for the Queen to seem untouchable, almost mythical, and mysterious. Children grow up knowing that she is important and that there is a reserved pedestal for her in the social hierarchy.
Murdoch continued, “Every year [in Antigua], we hold a celebration to mark the Queen’s official birthday. It is a huge parade. Military, police, bands, Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, all in uniform, the Governor General stands there taking the salute, it is like the entire island nation is aware of this.”
The lingering effects of colonialism exist in everyday life; parts of the world where English is widely spoken are examples. The colonial agenda is pursued through education, which contributes to children’s mental models and how they think about the world. It is common for colonizing powers to force a narrative on their colonies that mimics their own values and society, which therefore positions the colonizers as superior. Even today, there are notable remnants of the colonial system in former British colonies.
Isha Vazirani said, “The signs of British colonization [are a] part of everyday life. I went to a Christian high school that was created during the British rule, and we follow the British system … [In India, there is admiration] towards … white people. In general, there is some sort of inferiority complex, not in a good way. It is not explicit, no one says it … There’s an inherent amount of importance given to someone just because they are white which I think is unfounded … that really needs to be changed.”
“It is a product of colonialism, for so many years we were made to feel inferior, we were not given opportunities … resources were stolen,” Vazirani said. “At country clubs, there would be signs that very clearly said ‘no dogs or Indians allowed,’ so when you are reduced to the level of an animal for so many years, you are going to feel it.”
We don’t always name these as effects of colonialism, and herein lies the issue. It is not easy for Meghan Markle to describe her experience of racism, especially knowing that audiences around the globe were watching and listening closely. At the very root of the issue, and what is easily lost in discussion, is the history of colonization in which racial hierarchy was perpetuated and enforced. European missionaries often expressed to their citizens that they were “civilizing” the masses in order to justify colonization and the brutal, violent treatment they engaged in. But, we are not actively acknowledging the simple fact that the British Royal family was historically responsible for this colonial violence, which thrived off of superiority and inferiority complexes, racism, and plain old pillaging. Even if the British Royal family and the Queen are mere symbols of a country’s history, they still bear that history in all of its atrocities and complexities. Part of this has to do with the “repackaging and rebranding of the Royal family,” according to Campbell Simmons, a member of the class of 2020. “There is a ton of marketing and money making the Royal family look like these parents of the planet … They have done a ton of rebranding [from] being the leaders of a literal empire to being the retired grandparents … which is insane.”
Simmons continued, “They want us to view the Royal family in really specific ways so that we are not ever going to rise up against them. That is really important that [we think] the Royal family are on our side … but they caused a lot of harm.”
The combination of the legacy of colonization and Britain’s role in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade creates more complexities when it comes to racial hierachies, specifically in regards to Black people. The Trans-Atlantic slave trade began with Queen Elizabeth I, who in the 1560s “sponsored” John Hawkins, a slave trader and sailor. In other words, the Royal family perpetuated the trade and commodification of human beings. Given this history, it is not hard to imagine this racist and colorist thinking and mindset to be generational.
The larger and more systemic roots of the colonial project have never been reconciled in the first place. There has been no acknowledgment of the deep wounds that have been created by the Royal family’s ancestors and the ways in which the current Royal family continues to profit from this, even as figureheads or as a publicly apolitical unit. Considering the fanfare that surrounds the family, we have all been exposed to some level of this Royal rebranding, like the propaganda from Murdoch’s school books in Antigua, Vazirani’s educational experience at a Christian high school in India, or Simmons’s perceptions of the royals growing up in the US. However, Markle’s interview is a small reminder of a larger issue. Sometimes history is forgotten in the glitz and glamour around what it means to be royalty, but we have to stay vigilant. By actively remembering the colonial roots of the Royal family, we can stay grounded in our understanding of the harm caused by the British empire.