A day after Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, was broadcast in North America, an online poll suggested only one-quarter of Canadians felt that Canada should remain a monarchy.
Conducted two weeks before the interview aired, the survey of 1,000 Canadian adults by opinion firm Research Co. also found that only one-fifth of them wanted Prince Charles to succeed Queen Elizabeth.
In our upcoming book Revealing Britain’s Systemic Racism: The Case of Meghan Markle and the Royal Family, we apply systemic racism theory and the concept of the white racial frame to assess the implications of Meghan’s entry into the British Royal Family. The white racial frame is an organized set of racialized stereotypes, emotions and discriminatory inclinations that motivate white people to discriminate.
A consequence of this frame is what we have termed social alexithymia — an incapacity to understand the painful experiences of oppressed people. Hostile white reactions towards the Duchess of Sussex following the Oprah interview — from Donald Trump, Piers Morgan, Megyn Kelly, Lady Colin Campbell, Tucker Carlson and even her own father, Thomas Markle — indicate that social alexithymia is common.
By questioning enduring beliefs about racial progressiveness in the U.K., our book provides an account of how Meghan’s experiences as a biracial member of the Royal Family highlights contemporary forms of British racism. We must challenge romanticized notions of racial inclusivity in Canada, too. We have a moral obligation to do so.
Defensive of the Royal Family
Canadians who support the monarchy will likely not be swayed by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s revelations. They are likely to become more defensive of the Queen and other royals.
Those who believe that Canada and the U.K. are post-racial and that we live in a colour-blind world will also likely maintain those beliefs. Canadians who believe that systemic racism is built into our nation’s institutions, on the other hand, will be less surprised by the couple’s revelations.
We should not assume that a desire to cut ties with the Royal Family is the same as an acceptance that systemic racism is a problem or even real.
Look at the media coverage surrounding the death of Colten Boushie, an Indigenous man from Cree Red Pheasant First Nation, and the not-guilty verdict of the white farmer who killed him to understand why.
That coverage exemplified colonialist and white racial framing. Chris Andersen, a Métis scholar-activist and dean of native studies at the University of Alberta, put the issue best. On his now-defunct Twitter feed, he tweeted in the aftermath of the verdict:
“Hey, journalists, if you want to bring clarity to important issues around the Stanley verdict, stop asking dumb questions like ‘do you think race was involved?’ If you can’t get over that hump as your starting point, you’re not helping.”
The expression of racial hostility and discrimination by white Canadians towards people of colour takes an imposing array of damaging forms, from blatant discrimination to subtler and covert discrimination. Recent examples illustrate the enduring presence of everyday racism in the white Canadian mind.
Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette encountered racist obscenities during his mayoral campaign in 2014 in Winnipeg. “Go back to drinking. That’s where Indians belong,” he was told.
Ouellette captured how irrational racism is:
“You know, I have my PhD, two master’s degrees and a bachelor’s degree. I was in the army for 18 years, and no matter, it seems, what I do, for some people it’s never enough.”
Effecting racial change
As we consider the relative inability of any one person or interview to single-handedly change minds and hearts, let alone systemic racism, we might consider what U.S. historian Howard Zinn once said about former president Barack Obama.
Explaining why he was not disappointed in Obama for his failure to push forward aggressively on labour, feminist and civil rights, Zinn remarked:
“If there is going to be change, real change, it will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves. That’s how change happens.”
This is important wisdom for people waiting for the Duchess of Sussex or any individual to effect real change when it comes to systemic oppression. A major international movement involving millions of ordinary people of all racial and national backgrounds is needed to bring about the kind of change that so many whites unrealistically fear Meghan symbolizes and others unrealistically hope she will usher in.
As we demonstrate throughout our book, the Royal Family has had deep ties to and has propagated the white racial frame, especially via their representation of the British Empire, colonialism and white racial purity.
We also document their individual acts of racism. For example, one month before Meghan married his son, Prince Charles told Anita Sethi, a British writer of South American Guyanese descent, that she did not look like she was from Manchester, England.
Sethi courageously excoriated Charles for his framing:
“This is exactly why some people, including the prince, urgently need a history lesson about immigration, the British Empire, the Commonwealth and colonialism. Because I do look like I’m from Manchester, actually — a city in which many people of colour have been born and bred.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called the Queen “a guardian of many of our country’s traditions.” He has also acknowledged that “many of Canada’s institutions, including Parliament itself, are built on a legacy of systemic racism” but says “the solution is not to dump them altogether but to reform them from within.”
Feelings about the monarchy in the wake of the Oprah interview are arguably more about how we feel about systemic racism, of which all people of colour are painfully aware — and all white people benefit.
While acknowledging “the risk … of disrupting white supremacy,” including the price Prince Harry has paid, the chief consultant for The Kojo Institute, which works to make workplaces less oppressive and racist, weighed in. Kike Ojo-Thompson said:
“Racism is white people’s problem. It’s a white construct. It was created by white people, the beneficiaries are white people. And therefore white people need to invest in making this change.”