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'Harry & Meghan' wrestles with lingering impact of racism and colonialism

In the new Netflix docuseries, Prince Harry suggested that some members of his family did not recognize the role of racism in the scrutiny of Meghan.

LONDON — Four years ago, the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, carried the promise of a modernized monarchy. A member of the British royal family, the whitest of institutions, was marrying a mixed-race American woman.

But in their docuseries on Netflix — the second installment of which will be released Thursday — the Sussexes, now based in the U.S., suggest that the ghosts of slavery and centuries of colonialism risk overshadowing a royal couple that had embodied hopes of reconciliation.

The first three of the six episodes touch on Britain's history as the world's largest empire — controlling swaths of Asia, Africa and the Americas — and seek to link this legacy with the treatment of Meghan even before she married Harry, both by the media and the royals themselves.

It highlights the intense media scrutiny Meghan and her family were subjected to when the couple’s relationship became public and headlines published in British newspapers including, “Harry’s girl is (almost) straight outta Compton,” and another saying, “One’s gone GangstER.”

Another column, by Rachel Johnson, sister of former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, referred to Meghan's “dreadlocked mother” Doria Ragland and “exotic blood.”

Prince Harry and Meghan walk behind Prince William and Princess Kate after having paid their respects to Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Hall in September.
Prince Harry and Meghan walk behind Prince William and Princess Kate after having paid their respects to Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Hall in September.Emilio Morenatti / AP file

Ragland, who is Black, says in the documentary that she told her daughter, “This is really about race. And she said, ‘Mommy, I don’t want to hear that.’ And I said, ‘You may not want to hear that but this is what’s coming down the pike.’”

In the documentary, Meghan said she hadn't thought much about her race until the media made it an issue.

“It’s very different to be a minority but not be treated as a minority right off the bat,” Meghan said in the second episode of the six-part series, the first three of which were released by the streaming service. “Obviously now people are very aware of my race because they made it such an issue when I went to the U.K.”    

On the flip side, Harry suggested that some of his family did not recognize the role that race played in the coverage given to Meghan as compared to other members of the family.  

“As far as a lot of the family were concerned, everything she was being put through, they had been put through as well. So it was almost like a rite of passage,” he said.

“Some of the members of the family were like, ‘Right my wife has been put through that, so why should your girlfriend be treated any differently? Why should you get special treatment? Why should she be different?’" Harry recalled. "And I said, ‘The difference here is the race element.’” 

In a wide-ranging interview with Oprah Winfrey in March 2021, the couple also alleged that in the months leading up to their son Archie’s birth, a royal insider expressed “concerns and conversations about how dark his skin might be when he’s born.” Winfrey later said it was not Harry's grandparents, the late Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, who made the remarks.

Prince William later denied that the royal family is racist.

“We’re very much not a racist family,” William said on March 11, 2021.

Queen Elizabeth II Platinum Jubilee 2022 - National Service of Thanksgiving
Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, in London on June 3.WPA Pool / Getty Images

Meera Sabaratnam, an expert in international relations at London’s SOAS university, told NBC News that some of the attitudes experienced by the couple “are very old.” 

“They were attitudes of superiority to people around the world but particularly Africans and often African Americans being of lesser prestige,” she said. “I think it’s important to remember that some of these attitudes were very widespread in Britain and in some respects continue to be widespread,” she added. 

She said “the double standard was obvious” with the way that Catherine, Princess of Wales, had been treated by sections of the British media compared to Meghan, particularly during their pregnancies.

“Meghan had this unique focus and it appeared that the level of scrutiny she was subject to went over and above everyone else in the family,” she said. 

For Marcus Ryder, a director at the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity at the U.K.’s Birmingham City University, the lack of diversity in British newsrooms was part of the problem. 

“British media is disproportionately white, and that shapes the way stories are framed,” he said.

“Obviously the Meghan and Harry story is very high profile, but it plays out in the way we frame immigration stories, it decides how we cover Ukraine versus other conflicts and it influences the media generally,” he added. 

However, he said there had been moves to improve and “there are people of influence who want to make change.”    

The documentary also focuses on what Meghan marrying into the royal family may have meant for many Black people in the U.K. In the third episode, footage shows Meghan and Harry attending a memorial service for Stephen Lawrence, a Black teenager killed in an attack by white youths in London in 1993. Two people were convicted of murder nearly 20 years later.

“It was really significant when Meghan and Harry visited this memorial, because it represented a direct attempt to speak to the pain that many people still feel as a result of the murder of Stephen Lawrence,” writer and broadcaster Afua Hirsch says in episode three.

Harry’s attendance of the service changed her perception of him as “racist” and “ignorant” to someone on a journey “transforming himself into an anti-racist,” she added.

Harry goes some way in addressing his own history of racism, speaking of his “shame” after being photographed in full Nazi uniform at a costume party in 2005, at age 20.

“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 in the third episode.

“I could have just ignored it and made the same mistakes over again, but I learnt from that,” he added, stating that he spoke with Britain's chief rabbi after the event and met with Holocaust survivors.

Other incidents, such as his use of racial slurs against army colleagues of South Asian descent in a video that came to light in 2009, have so far not been covered by the documentary. Harry apologized at the time for the comments, which were made in 2006.

The series grapples with the historical connections between the British monarchy and the slave trade — including Queen Elizabeth I's personal approval of the first commercial slave voyage in 1562 — but does not describe the British monarchy as inherently racist. Instead, Harry refers to “unconscious bias” within the royal family, which Meghan helped to educate him on.

In 2017, Princess Michael of Kent apologized after she wore a “blackamoor” brooch to a royal Christmas lunch. Some deemed the accessory choice a slight to Meghan, who attended the event with her then-fiancé.

That style of jewelry and sculpture, which depicts African and nonwhite male figures as servants, is widely deemed offensive by Black communities because of its associations with the slave trade and its celebration of racialized subservience.

Royal Family Attend Christmas Lunch At Buckingham Palace
Princess Michael of Kent at a Christmas lunch for the extended royal family at Buckingham Palace on Dec. 20, 2017, wearing a "blackamoor" brooch.Mark Cuthbert / UK Press via Getty Images file

A spokesperson said at the time that Princess Michael, who had worn the brooch “many times before,” was “very sorry and distressed that it has caused offence.”

Queen Elizabeth II devoted much of her reign to building and preserving the Commonwealth, a voluntary association of 56 independent states, most of them former British colonies. While Hirsch describes the organization as “empire 2.0,” the documentary does not focus on campaigns in many Commonwealth states to remove the British monarchy as their heads of state, or to return looted treasures that make up part of the crown's wealth.

The strength of feeling in some of these former colonies emerged in March when William and Kate were on a royal tour intended to strengthen Commonwealth ties and were met with protests calling for reparations and apologies for slavery in Belize, Jamaica and the Bahamas.

Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II in September, politicians in Australia and the Bahamas intimated that they might want to remove the U.K. monarch as head of state, following Barbados, which did so in 2021.

“We need to grapple with our past,” Ryder said. “What we have to do is look at curriculums and how they have taken things for granted. Whether it’s school or university curriculums, which writers we’re using, what personalities we’re focusing on,” he added.

However, he said it was “really good” that the issue of race had come to the fore with Harry and Meghan’s series, “but if the debate only ends with them, then we have a problem. We need to look at the substantive issues, not just one story.” 

Buckingham Palace has declined to comment on the series.