Meghan Markle and British racism: What her saga says to black Britons

"It reminded us that we shouldn't get too comfortable, and no matter how much we think we are accepted into society, we really aren't," one student said.
Image: Students and members of the black community in east London voice their opinions in a discussion on the recent departure of Harry Windsor and Meghan Markle from Royal duties
For many, Meghan's treatment has sent a damaging message to young British people of color, who perhaps saw her as a sign that racial prejudice might be finally ebbing away.Susannah Ireland / for NBC News

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By Alexander Smith

LONDON — She never previously paid much attention to the British monarchy, but Eniola Ladapo remembers vividly how she felt watching American actress Meghan Markle become royalty.

The image of a biracial, foreign woman welcomed into the bosom of white, traditionalist Britain carried colossal symbolism for her — and even a hope that it signaled greater inclusivity and tolerance.

"The history of the royal family is built around the British Empire, so it was almost like it was coming full circle," said Ladapo, 19, who grew up in Nigeria and is now an undergraduate student at the London School of Economics.

That feeling grew when Prince Harry and Meghan announced five months later they were expecting a baby.

"I thought: There's now going to be a child in the monarchy who, no matter how small, has some African heritage in him," Ladapo said. "It was so powerful to me."

What happened next came as a reality check.

Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, waves as she leaves an event in London on Sept. 12.Frank Augstein / AP file

Less than two years after their May 19, 2018, wedding, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have quit as full-time royals. According to supporters, they were driven out by toxic coverage in the British media, which often veered into racist harassment and bullying.

The collateral damage extends far beyond the palace walls. For Ladapo and others, Meghan's treatment has sent a damaging message to young British people of color, who perhaps saw her as a sign that racial prejudice might be finally ebbing away.

"This has been a very rude awakening," said Ladapo, who studies economics and is president of her university's African-Caribbean Society. "It reminded us that we shouldn't get too comfortable, and no matter how much we think we are accepted into society, we really aren't."

A moment in history

Harry and Meghan's departure has prompted a nationwide reckoning about whether this former empire has made any significant progress tackling issues of racism and classism. The fight has been cast as the latest battle in a culture war dividing this country and beyond.

Younger people are more likely to side with the Sussexes on grounds of mental health and race, polls suggest, while older Britons are more inclined to believe the couple acted hypocritically and disrespected Harry's grandmother, the widely loved Queen Elizabeth II.

The tone of the debate couldn't be further removed from the initial optimism of the wedding, which saw A-list celebrities, an African American bishop and a gospel choir breathe an unprecedented energy into the fusty pomp and circumstance that's defined these spectacles for centuries.

"It felt like something out of a storybook," said Munya Chawawa, 27, a broadcaster and a satirist, who was a pundit during the BBC coverage that day. "I actually felt a bit tearful, seeing a foreign woman of color not only being accepted into the royal family but applauded by the masses filling the streets. It felt like I was part of a moment in history."

Munya Chawawa was part of the BBC's royal wedding coverage back in May 2018.Mark Allan / Mark Allan

Soon came headlines, however, commenting on Meghan's "exotic DNA," and how she was "(almost) straight outta Compton." A BBC presenter was fired for tweeting a picture of a chimpanzee and likening it to the couple's son, Archie. And Princess Michael of Kent — who is married to the queen's first cousin — wore a blackamoor brooch when she met Meghan for the first time.

There were startling double standards.

The Daily Mail ran a story about Prince William's wife, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, "cradling her baby bump," while accusing Meghan of "pride" and "vanity" for doing the same. The Daily Express told of how William "gifted" Kate avocados, but when Meghan ate the fruit, it was linked to "human rights abuses and drought."

Not everyone agreed Meghan was a victim. Some members of the British commentariat, many of them middle-aged and white, not only saw the allegations of racism as overblown, but also often turned the claims on their head.

"To call me a white, privileged male is to be racist," the British actor Laurence Fox said during a BBC TV debate, when one audience member suggested he might be blind to such prejudices.

"It's not racism," he said of the headlines. "We're the most tolerant, lovely country in Europe."

It's true that the United Kingdom does have among the most positive attitudes toward immigration of any country in the world, pollster Ipsos MORI found last year. And for its part, the tabloid press insisted its initially positive view of Meghan only turned negative in response to what it saw as the couple's hypocrisy.

This included the Sussexes taking private jets while proselytizing about climate change, and using $3 million in public funds to renovate their residence, while demanding a level of privacy that's unprecedented for the taxpayer-bankrolled royals.

"It's laughable," Dan Wootton, executive editor at The Sun, told the British broadcaster ITV News. "The criticism of Meghan has got nothing to do with her race."

Blinded by privilege

In the diverse London neighborhood of Hackney, a group of black high-school girls erupted with laughter at the idea Meghan's treatment was fair.

"Of course, no one is going to call her an f------ N-word in a headline," Peace Ogbuani, 15, said censoring herself in real time. "Maybe in America they would write that, but in Britain they are more subtly racist. Instead, you can see it in their mannerisms and the way they treat people."

Her friend, Rhoda Sakate, 16, chimed in: "They are blinded by their white privilege. It's the older, white men" — her friends joining in, unprompted, to enunciate those words in unison — "who are the ones that are chatting the most."

This discussion at a local community college was organized by the London-based charity Voyage, which says it "aims to empower marginalized black young people" through workshops and other activities. For most of the group, Meghan was the first royal to pique their interest.

"If you see a representation of yourself in something, you're more likely to be interested in it," Rachael Oloyede, 15, said. "I can still remember how multicultural the wedding was and how it reached out to everyone," Jannelle Afram, also 15, added.

From left, Sophie Eziuloh, Rhoda Sakate, Peace Ogbuani, and Jannelle Afram at Hackney Community College in London, Jan. 20, 2020.Susannah Ireland / for NBC News

Now that fairy tale is over, and the message couldn't be clearer for these high-schoolers.

"Even if you're rich and of a certain status, you're still black," Ogbuani said. "You're black first and foremost before you're rich."

For another of the group, Sophie Eziuloh, 15, the bottom line is that "it really just emphasizes the notion that Britain is racist."

This is a particularly British brand of bigotry, according to those who experience it. It usually does not express itself via police shootings, of which there are few here. But rather it's a type of covert discrimination, sometimes unconscious, related to a pernicious lack of diversity.

Black and ethnic minority people are sorely underrepresented in government and senior management jobs, but overrepresented in prison cells. In supposedly progressive London, the wage gap between white and ethnic minority workers is 21.7 percent, government figures show.

"I'm not saying that the people who are making those decisions are intentionally racist," Ladapo, at the London School of Economics, explained. "But you can see their white privilege in that they don't feel the need to even consider it."

An empire forgotten

Britain's quiet racial hierarchy is, according to some experts, a symptom of the darkest passages of its colonial past.

Unlike in the United States, where the legacy of slavery is part of the mainstream conversation, the hangover from the British Empire is far less discussed on this side of the Atlantic. The United Kingdom prefers to shape its identity around World Wars I and II, rather than the colonialism and slavery that fueled its rise as a dominant world power.

While some Western historians argue the colonists brought benefits, many people — especially those who felt its boot heel — see the empire as defined by centuries of violence, looting and vampiric capitalism. To them, it was a project driven by white supremacy that strengthened mainland Britain at the expense of its subjects across Africa, India and beyond.

And yet British citizens are more likely than not to say their country should be proud of its former empire. Around a third say that today, racism here isn't a problem or doesn't exist at all.

"In Britain we are taught not to see race," author and commentator Afua Hirsch writes in her book, "Brit(ish)." "We have convinced ourselves that if we contort ourselves into a form of blindness, then issues of identity will quietly disappear."

This blind spot persists, according to one theory, because institutionalized British racism largely played out overseas — and at arm's length — rather than on home soil like it did in the U.S.

That meant that "Britain hasn't historically had to deal with large numbers of black and brown people," said Kehinde Andrews, a professor of black studies at Birmingham City University, England.

Today, 3.4 percent of Britons identify as black and 6.8 percent Asian, fewer than the 13.4 percent who identify as African American and 18.3 percent as Hispanic or Latino in the U.S.

"So in America you get this really virulent, openly hostile racism," Andrews said. "In Britain, the logic of white supremacy, that black and brown life isn't worth as much as white life, is still with us very clearly today. Our racism is still just as bad, it's just a bit more polite."

This is perpetuated because British schools are failing to teach kids a complete and accurate picture of the empire, according to research last year by the Runnymede Trust, a London-based think tank focusing on race and equality.

The trust found that this fundamental misunderstanding of the empire manifested itself in aspects of the 2016 Brexit referendum, which was motivated in part by people's desire to curb immigration and corresponded with a spike in racist hate crimes.

Rhoda Sakate believes that the "media's comparison between Meghan and Kate is disgusting."Susannah Ireland / for NBC News

Two years later, the "Windrush scandal" saw dozens of longtime Caribbean migrants wrongly labeled as illegal immigrants, detained and threatened with deportation.

In Britain, though, racism is often seen as an issue that blights other countries.

For example, when President Donald Trump told four Democratic congresswomen of color to "go back and help fix" their "broken and crime-infested" countries last year, Johnson, then candidate for prime minister, took the high ground.

"You simply cannot use that kind of language," he told a leadership debate. "It went out decades and decades ago and thank heavens for that. It's totally unacceptable."

Yet, Johnson is a man who once wrote newspaper columns about "piccaninnies with watermelon smiles," and described niqab-weaing Muslim women as "letterboxes." He also once described former President Barack Obama as "part Kenyan."

Back to reality

To young black people in Britain, racism is palpable and has direct consequences.

Kessley Janvier, 16, is a high school student in Bromley, south London. She's politically active and has plans to become a lawyer. Yet, she feels the daily pull of racism when her classmates, perhaps unwittingly, compare her unfavorably to another smart young peer who happens to be white.

"When people say that she is passionate about something, they say I'm angry," said Janvier, who is originally from Florida before her family moved to London five years ago. "So this angry black woman trope is immediately pushed on me. It's the stereotype of black people as being sort of barbaric."

Rachael Oloyede, above, believes that "when you're privileged I think it blinds you so much."Susannah Ireland / for NBC News

Her answer to this? More diversity and representation.

For example, she says, because most of the people covering the royal family are white, that may translate into unconscious biases coming through in reporting.

"If there were more women of color in the room, they would say, 'Guys, this is not a good idea,'" she said.

Sitting on the BBC's on-set couch during its royal wedding coverage, Chawawa, the broadcaster and satirist, described it as "a massive thumbs-up from the top" that the country was going in the right direction.

Now, sitting in his agent's office on a gray day in east London, he told NBC News the situation today feels like "touching down back to reality."

"To see how Meghan has been treated by some major news outlets, it shows that these undertones of xenophobia or racism, which many people of color always have an inkling about, seemed unfortunately to be proven true," he said, furrowing his brow, placing his hands together and choosing his words carefully.

"I'm afraid, for a lot of us, it feels like any smiling done on the day might have been smiling through gritted teeth."