Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, exits a hotel in New York City, February 19, 2019.
It was a declaration of independence that left the royal family reeling. On January 8, Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, posted on Instagram about their plans to relinquish their positions as “senior” members of the British royal family, split their time between North America and the UK, and establish financial independence. The suddenness of the announcement was surprising — it was reportedly released in a rush to beat a potential leak to the press, and seemed to catch Buckingham Palace unprepared — but the move itself was not entirely unexpected, particularly to those who’ve been following the young couple’s saga in dealing with the (often racist and sexist) media coverage of Meghan.
While Queen Elizabeth has since said in a statement on Monday that she’s “entirely supportive” of Prince Harry and Meghan’s decision, she also made clear, with unusually personal language, that she “would have preferred them to remain full-time working Members of the Royal Family.” Their departure is a loss to the Windsor family during a turbulent time (see: Brexit, the scandal of Prince Andrew’s friendship with and defense of Jeffrey Epstein, and the Duke of Edinburgh’s waning health), as well as to the monarchy as an institution. After all, Harry is the second-most popular royal, after the 93-year-old Queen. Meanwhile, as the lone woman of color to ever be a senior royal in modern society, Meghan Markle has become something of a global icon herself.
And yet, while Meghan enjoys worldwide popularity, the British press has been consistently, intensely critical of her. The “Megxit” narrative has been an occasion to recycle a lot of the same labels and accusations it has already deployed: that she is ungrateful and selfish for breaking up the royal family.
It’s worth keeping things in perspective, however. The Sussexes haven’t renounced the royal family on an ideological level (their website details the couple’s plans to continue to serve the monarchy and strengthen the Commonwealth). The move to be financially independent from the Sovereign Grant, which opens up the possibility of Harry and Meghan earning incomes in other careers, could raise questions (Might this be an option for more royal family members, particularly those far down the line in succession?). But it’s unlikely to have immediate, ruinous effects on an institution that has always had a knack for durability. As Peter Morgan, creator of The Crown, once described the British royals: “They’re survival organisms, like a mutating virus.”
At this rate, it seems more likely that if anything is to destroy the monarchy, it will be the British royals themselves. It is a tenacious institution. But by not enforcing or understanding the need to protect Meghan from vicious, racist press coverage in a more deliberate way, they are losing her and what she had to offer: a new, modern, more progressive image to associate with the monarchy — a brand that is ultimately rooted in appearances.
Britain’s Meghan, Duchess of Sussex reacts during her visit to Canada House in thanks for the warm Canadian hospitality and support they received during their recent stay in Canada, in London on January 7, 2020.
Meghan Markle has been accused of destroying her husband’s life and painted as a palace-wrecker who’s putting the future of the monarchy — particularly post–Queen Elizabeth — in peril. (Granted, some of these declarations are made gleefully by anti-monarchists, wanting to burn it all down.) She’s also been called a modern-day Yoko Ono on social media, a comparison that stirs up some interesting connotations.
These tweets have primarily been made in jest, some affectionate and some less so. But other likenings have been less lighthearted, with one tweet claiming that, like Ono, Meghan is “trampling on tradition, causing chaos, ruining everything and then runs and hides.”
Ono is a complicated and certainly not faultless public figure, but the widespread cultural narrative around her as the woman who “broke up the Beatles” is clearly misguided and misogynist. As a 1994 New York Times interview with Ono established, her public reputation was one of a woman whose “greatest achievement, it would seem, came from brainwashing that third husband into marrying her in the first place. He was, in the end, a god. She was, all along, the Devil.” And Ono has become the namesake of a tired, untrue trope that suggests women are often a (if not the) problem, seducing and bewitching men into misfortune and bad decisions. The so-called Yoko Effect is a fallacy, not an actual phenomenon.
But there are some notable parallels between Meghan and Ono, as two women who stand accused of breaking up historic and beloved British institutions. Maybe most important to keep in mind is that the distrust and demonization they face is, at least in part, rooted in their race.
“Everytime we saw her, we shouted awful things,” a fervent Beatles fan recalled about Ono in Philip Norman’s book Shout!: The Beatles in Their Generation. “‘Yellow!’ ‘Chink!’ Subtle things like that… Once, outside Abbey Road, we’d got this bunch of yellow roses to give Yoko. We handed them to her thorns first. Yoko took them and backed all the way down the stairs, thanking us. She hadn’t realized they were meant to be an insult. Nor did John. He turned back and said, ‘Well, it’s about time someone did something decent to her.’”
Meanwhile, Meghan consistently attracts racist news coverage from the British press, teeming with coded language and dog whistles. Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine claimed the Sussexes’ engagement photo gave her a “niggling worry,” while other Daily Mail pieces have mentioned Meghan’s “rich and exotic DNA” and (inaccurately) invoked her upbringing in a “gang-scarred” LA neighborhood.
Even when the tabloids don’t use race-baiting language, Meghan is targeted in ways that are disproportionate to the typically harsh, often absurd criticism all royal family members get. While Meghan’s wedding florals nearly murdered Princess Charlotte, Kate Middleton’s choice of the same flowers was “elegant and understated.” When Kate eats an avocado, it’s a cure for morning sickness, but when Meghan eats one? A source of human rights abuse and environmental devastation, naturally. Time and time again, Meghan has been portrayed in a villainous light.
“I think what Meghan Markle’s experience has shown me is that when you put a woman of color into that space, which has always been abusive, there are particular issues,” said British journalist and author Afua Hirsch in a BBC interview on Monday. “She’s more vulnerable because she’s visibly different.” The level of hostility both Ono and Meghan have faced is proof of how significant it is that they are occupying spaces where they are othered, spaces not constructed for them. And yet, when they’ve made efforts to change that space, or to find a more protected and sustainable role within it, they get the blame.
Another implication of the Yoko Effect (or rather, Yoko Myth) is that it assigns no power, responsibility, or culpability to a man in such a relationship — a fact that’s pretty rich considering the level of fame, privilege, and influence held by John Lennon and Prince Harry. Even the term “Megxit” in itself, while quippy, puts the onus of the duke and duchess’s joint decision on Meghan.
Like Lennon — who was, to be clear, the sole instigator of the Beatles’ breakup — Prince Harry has been known to be outspoken, a bit stubborn, with a rebellious streak. And based on his past comments, it doesn’t seem all that likely he was strong-armed by his wife into defecting from the royal family. He’s spoken of having “wanted out” before, as well as his desire for a semblance of regular life. “My mother took a huge part in showing me an ordinary life,” the prince told Newsweek in 2017. “I am determined to have a relatively normal life, and if I am lucky enough to have children, they can have one too.”
The reason why Harry would want to put more distance between his family and the British press is a no-brainer. He’s always blamed the media for the death of his mother and when the paparazzi began to report on Meghan as they were dating, he was quick to call the press out for hounding her. In an unprecedented statement from Kensington Palace in 2016, he condemned the tabloids’ coverage as racist and sexist: “Prince Harry is worried about Ms. Markle’s safety and is deeply disappointed that he has not been able to protect her.”
“I will always protect my family, and now I have a family to protect,” Harry told journalist Tom Bradby when the couple was touring southern Africa in October 2019. “Everything that [my mother] went through and what happened to her is incredibly real every single day. And that’s not just me being paranoid — that’s just me not wanting a repeat of the past. And if anybody else knew what I knew — be it a father, be it a husband, be it anyone — you’d probably be doing exactly what I’m doing as well.”
The Sussexes’ infant son, Archie, is no doubt a key factor in their decision to distance themselves from the monarchy and all the attention that comes with it. If they had hoped that their child would be spared from the realities of being a biracial royal, that hope was quickly quashed; days after Meghan gave birth, a BBC broadcaster likened the couple’s newborn to a well-dressed chimpanzee. To face racism, even as a child, is to live with a chronic, damaging stressor — one that afflicts both the mind and body. If casual, constant racism and the denial of one’s humanity is part and parcel of a publicly funded royal life — which, based on Meghan’s experience so far, it seems to be — then that royal life itself has become a clear threat to Harry’s family.
Queen Elizabeth II sitts and laughs with Markle during a ceremony to open the new Mersey Gateway Bridge on June 14, 2018 in the town of Widnes in Halton, Cheshire, England.
Since Harry and Meghan announced they were dating, the Queen has made active efforts to ensure that Meghan feels welcome and accepted in the royal family. And in the Windsors’ defense, it’s essentially a royal tradition to endure bad press, to keep calm and carry on. Plus, given the overwhelming whiteness of the monarchy, it’s not surprising they aren’t cognizant of a crucial factor in being an active ally: stepping up and speaking out (much like Harry has done through his warnings to the press, frank interviews, and pending lawsuits). It’s not a matter of coddling, but a gesture of care and consideration. If you want growth and evolution — that is, if the monarchy wants to modernize — emotional inertia can’t be an option.
It’s a common phenomenon: Historically white businesses and brands claim they want to diversify, but they fail to do the work to nurture and support newcomers. You can’t expect to benefit from the perks, PR, and fanfare of having a “biracial princess” if she isn’t given the space to feel empowered, heard, and accepted. The family spends millions on palace guards and security — a means to protect their physical bodies — but the notion of humanity doesn’t seem to be given the same weight or value. The racism Meghan has experienced is treated as benign, when in reality it chips away and infects, as evidenced by her emotional, viral interview with ITV in October.
And when royals lead pampered, sheltered lives — lives that provide little experience in resisting the prejudice baked into British and Western society — it’s not surprising they don’t (at least yet) understand this. The same seems true of many others, in the media and beyond. Only the two panelists of color on last Thursday’s episode of BBC’s Question Time were willing to suggest that Meghan’s unfair treatment may be tied to the way she looks. (For the record, when the moderator asked whether anyone in the audience thought Harry and Meghan had made a bad decision, not one hand was raised.)
Meanwhile, on BBC’s Newsnight that same evening, singer Jamelia — who is a black woman — shared that she too had been a victim of covert racism living in the UK and “it pales in comparison to what I’ve seen happen to Meghan Markle… It’s not just social media; it’s not. It’s mainstream media; it’s tabloid media.” In response, author and historian Robert Lacey (a white man) was skeptical: “I’d like to see the evidence of that.” Piers Morgan is another example of someone who repeatedly squawks at black women for evidence and then balks when it’s offered.
On Monday, Phillip Schofield, co-host of This Morning, also requested examples of racism that Meghan has endured, to which guest Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, a black lawyer and activist, responded: “It makes me question where have you been the last two years… Let me explain what racism looks like from the lens of white privilege. White privilege whitewashes racist and inflammatory language as unconscious bias. It perpetuates the bigotry of intolerant white people as ignorant. It defends and protects their private views once spoken as misspeak, and then camouflages racist behavior as error of judgment.”
The persistent demand for proof of racism during the “Megxit” news cycle has become at best exhausting and at worst triggering. I don’t find it surprising that Meghan herself, who was in Canada as the “Sandringham summit” occurred, felt it wasn’t necessary to be physically present for the talks between Prince Harry, Prince William, Prince Charles, and the Queen. It’s tiring to ask that your humanity be acknowledged only for your mistreatment to be downplayed or denied, over and over again.
It’s possible that Harry and Meghan’s decision and the dialogue it’s creating could help push both the monarchy and British media to evolve into something that’s not just more diverse and inclusive, but more self-aware (whether it be in revisiting and reframing old myths or simply setting the tone for the future). Still, it’s not the responsibility of black people or other minorities to teach Racism 101 to their white peers, not through interviews and certainly not through their lives. Meghan may have married someone whose family comes with a lot of baggage, but she didn’t sign up to be a case study.
Harry and Meghan’s decision to quit senior royal life and spend time outside of the UK is not a symbol of defeat: It is an act of self-respect and self-preservation. The move has been and will no doubt continue to be painted by critics as a selfish shirking of responsibilities, but it’s more of a shifting. It’s not a question of whether the Sussexes are dutiful or not, but to whom.
In a 2015 essay for Elle, before becoming a duchess was even on her radar, Meghan recalled an especially formative memory: “I was home in LA on a college break when my mom was called the ‘N’ word. We were leaving a concert and she wasn’t pulling out of a parking space quickly enough for another driver. My skin rushed with heat as I looked to my mom. Her eyes welling with hateful tears, I could only breathe out a whisper of words, so hushed they were barely audible: ‘It’s OK, Mommy.’ I was trying to temper the rage-filled air permeating our small silver Volvo.”
Even then, Meghan knew that some fights just aren’t worth picking, not when your adversary doesn’t deserve your time or energy, not when your family’s well-being is at stake. As they drove out of the parking lot, Meghan sat with a simple reason for their disengagement: “I shared my mom’s heartache, but I wanted us to be safe.”●
Sandi Rankaduwa is a Sri Lankan–Canadian writer, comedian, and filmmaker who’s written for The Believer, Rolling Stone, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Exclaim!, and The Coast. She splits her time between Brooklyn and Halifax.
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