Women’s History Month presents us with an opportunity both to recognize the countless ways women have fought for greater rights and to acknowledge the miles left to go to achieve true equity in society.
Meghan Markle’s interview with Oprah Winfrey earlier this month crystallized that duality in a two-hour conversation that ranged from sobering to infuriating, exposing how Markle’s fairy tale became a nightmare. As racism and sexism from within and outside the palace heightened the natural confinement of royal life, the crown’s refusal to protect and care for Markle evinced a dynamic that shapes many Black women’s lives.
In 2021, the British monarchy is essentially all about image and soft power. Stripped of that, it makes little sense for a family to live in almost-inconceivable wealth (much of it derived from colonialism), living a life of luxury financed by the British people. A response to the interview in the Irish Times put the archaic nature of the monarchy in a humorous yet incisive clarity.
By peeling back the curtain to show viewers the reality behind the mythology of the royal family, Markle’s story was a powerful indictment of the ways misogyny, racism, and their intersections affect Black women.
Anyone who has watched The Crown on Netflix has had a window into the human side of the British monarchy. In the show, which stretches across Queen Elizabeth’s reign, each generation of Windsors has to strip away pieces of their humanity to fit into the traditional royal mold. As the show depicts it, this process is painful for each character, and yet they force their children to undergo the same loss of identity, creating a cycle of isolation that each generation accepts as their lot.
And anyone familiar with Princess Diana’s story knows the toll that cycle takes on the people who enter into the royal world from the outside. There were points in Markle’s narrative that were eerily similar to the show’s depiction of history: like Charles and Diana, Meghan and Harry’s first trip abroad as royals was to Australia. And like Diana, the popularity Markle inspired there created jealousy at home. Once again, the royals could not handle an outsider seeming more beloved than them, even if that person created a new path for the monarchy in the modern age. Instead of supporting Diana and Meghan, the palace worked to snuff them out.
Other parallels added to this image of an almost-Shakespearean cycle. The mental health tolls both women faced while trying to weather the storm of backlash were soberingly similar. The inaction of the palace in the face of both struggles was made all the more cruel by the fact that both women knew they could be protected by the institution, if only it were willing to stand up for them.
As Markle told Winfrey, “They were willing to lie to protect other members of the family, but they wouldn’t tell the truth to protect me and my husband.” Most tragically, when Markle told the royal equivalent of human resources that she was suicidal—to the point of being afraid to be left alone—the palace told her that allowing her to seek professional help would be bad for the monarchy’s image. And so, like Diana, Markle was left to confront the royal maelstrom on her own. Only this time, the added element of racism made the vitriol all the more dangerous.
In a 2018 article in The Undefeated just before Meghan and Harry’s wedding that now reads as a prescient warning, Soraya McDonald wrote, “a word to Markle’s future in-laws: Fall on your knees and thank your lucky stars that she is willing to add some diversity to your gene pool. The monarchy is well past its sell-by date, and if it’s to remain remotely relevant, you’re going to need her far more than she needs you.” Well, the royals did not heed this warning and instead drove away Meghan and Harry, and perhaps the last vestiges of their popular goodwill—at least outside England.
Viewers joked on social media that Markle’s experience would be right at home on a future season of the show. But if, in addition to being archaic and oppressive to its subjects, the British monarchy is not even healthy for its own members, it begs the question why it even exists at all.
Joining Markle and Winfrey for the second half of the interview, Prince Harry shone a light on the human toll he perceives having grown up in the palace and now being cast aside by his own family. When he and Meghan sought support, they were told: “This is how it is. This is just how it is.” That cycle of suffering is of course exactly what Harry was trying to stop, because he knew how much it hurt. Reflecting on the lack of support he received from his father Prince Charles, who at one point stopped taking his calls, Harry said he feels “really let down, because he’s been through something similar. He knows what pain feels like, and Archie’s his grandson.”
Prince Charles witnessed a repeat of the pain he felt as he was pressured to conform to the royal mold, and a repeat of the pain he saw inflicted upon his late wife Diana. Yet instead of taking action to prevent his son experiencing the same pain, Charles punished Harry for seeking a way out. Reflecting on this dynamic, Harry described royal life like a prison, remarking that “my father and my brother—they are trapped. They don’t get to leave.”
But while Harry saw continuity between what his family had experienced and what he and Meghan faced, indeed he feared “history repeating itself,” he recognized the crucial difference between them: racism and social media made the backlash Meghan received “far more dangerous.”
The couple faced racism both from outside and inside the palace. The British press constantly pit Markle against Kate Middleton. In side-by-sides that would be comical if they were not so harmful, the tabloids attacked Markle for the very same things that Kate did. Take for example these Daily Mail headlines, written one year apart, when each woman was pictured with their hands on their stomachs while pregnant. The headline about Kate reads, “Not long to go! Pregnant Kate tenderly cradles her baby bump while wrapping up her royal duties ahead of maternity leave – and WIlliam confirms she’s due ‘any minute now.’” By contrast, the Daily Mail wrote about Meghan: “Why can’t Meghan Markle keep her hands off her bump? Experts tackle the question that has got the nation talking: Is it pride, vanity, acting – or a new age bonding technique?”
This is a manifestation of racism as clear as they come. By villainizing Meghan at every turn, the tabloids fueled what Harry called a “toxic” environment that became unlivable for the couple. As Harry describes, the “bigoted” coverage in the U.K. press “then filters out to the rest of society,” coloring the broader public’s perception of Meghan.
The palace was no refuge from this racism. Meghan and Harry revealed that someone in the family worried about how dark their son Archie’s skin would be. The palace also refused to confer a title to Archie, and with it denied him security. With the virulent racism driving death threats, the couple feared for their family’s safety, particularly after the tabloids revealed where in Canada they now lived.
So, to recap: after marrying into the royal family, Meghan faced an unending maelstrom of racist attacks and criticism for acting no differently than any other royal; but instead of protecting her, either by challenging the press or providing mental health support, the palace shut her and Harry out. When the couple then made the only logical choice, to move away from the environment that was so stifling, the palace retaliated by refusing to include their newborn son as a royal, or at the very least protect him from the threats to their safety.
It should not shock anyone to hear that the British monarchy is racist, nor should anyone be surprised to see the racism and misogyny in the tabloid press; Markle herself reflected she may have been naive when she first entered royal life. But those facts do not make what Markle has faced any less destructive, for her or the rest of us.
Despite taking place in the most privileged rung of society, Markle’s experience was incredibly human. Swap out “royal establishment” for “my employer” and you have a story that nearly every Black woman can relate to: she felt harassed and isolated in her workplace, and her company prioritized its image above her wellbeing until she could not remain there any longer. Then, it blamed her for leaving instead of acknowledging its role in the fallout.
Moreover, the racism and misogyny that shaped the way the British press covered Markle also imbues all their other coverage. The attention she brings to the media’s bias towards her helps bring awareness to the broader problem.
Markle’s story, then, was a story of the discrimination many Black women face, just with the world’s most powerful institutions magnifying it.
So this Women’s History Month, as we reflect on how far we’ve come and how much further we have to go, let us take these lessons from Markle’s story, and ensure that women, no matter their position in society, are valued, protected, and cared for.