The mother of popular antiracism presents these retired royals, and their pain, as a lesson to us all
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Happier days. Photo credit: ComposedPix/Shutterstock.com
Is it surprising that Their Royal Highnesses, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (otherwise known as Harry and Meghan) chose to make their first public statement about their decision to become private citizens on an Oprah Winfrey special?
No: it is predictable. Any American who believes they have anything important to say about race would do the same thing if they could.
First, there is the size and quality of the audience. What Barbara Walters used to do, Winfrey does bigger, better, and with a keen eye to who actually lives in the United States. According to the Los Angeles Times, 17.1 million people tuned in, making Sunday’s show the most-watched television event in months (CBS paid Harpo Productions $9 million for the interview; Harry and Meghan were unpaid.)
Then, there is the fact that Oprah Winfrey, the mother of popular antiracism, is probably the one person in the whole world that everyone white and Black will listen to about the racist abuse that is said to have precipitated this much-discussed rift in the royal family. (Why am I leaving any doubt about this? Because there is no second source for anything. Harry and Meghan say that what happened to them is definitely about racism; all other royals deny it. This, too, is perfectly predictable.)
Finally, since Oprah herself is American royalty, the interview was a conversation between equals. Oprah has reminisced about herself that, as early as the fourth grade, “I felt I was the queen bee.” This phrase has stuck: just Google “Oprah, Queen Bee” and see how many stories you come up with. Winfrey has interviewed royalty before, and she makes others into royalty: the so-called “Oprah effect” was credited by some for boosting Barack Obama into the presidency.
Winfrey is also famous for what we might call her “Every Woman a Princess” philosophy, which she puts into action with legendary personal generosity. For years, The Oprah Winfrey Show was famous for its “princess” feature, in which an ordinary woman would be celebrated for the ordinary life she lived. A bit like the old Queen for a Day show that ran from 1945 to 1957, first on radio and then on TV, Oprah would select a woman, crown her with a tiara and sash, and bring her on stage to be lavished with gifts. “Yet it should be clear,” Kathryn Lofton, the author of Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (2011), cautions us: “Winfrey’s tiara is the largest of them all.”
Besides being an outstanding businesswoman, an actress, and a media producer, Oprah's greatest gift is empathy. We could all use more of it, but it is also a quality that allows her to speak with equal authority to victims of racism and the white people who are most likely to be racists. Winfrey feeds white people information about (their own) racism and does so in a friendly way that encourages them to imagine worlds where racism no longer exists.
Oprah is probably the only interviewer in the United States who could have pulled off an event starring two extraordinarily wealthy and privileged people who were harmed by people even wealthier and more privileged than they. And to the extent that stories about anyone’s private life are news, the interview put some harsh claims about Meghan Markle’s experience as a mixed-race person in the English royal family on the table.
To summarize what we learned:
Markle was told that Buckingham Palace would “protect her” from the tabloids. They did not, even refraining from making public statements to counter the worst and most damaging gossip about her. Even more painful, the couple agreed, was the failure of Harry’s family to acknowledge that the attacks on Markle were racist and not just the ordinary bilge everyone tolerates.
Winfrey spent about twenty minutes on the rumor that Meghan had made Kate Middleton cry in the midst of an argument about dresses for the wedding attendants. In fact, it was Kate who made Meghan cry, and she apologized. I have no idea why this was important.
When he still in utero, Meghan and Harry were told that baby Archie would not be given a title at birth, making him the only one of the Queen’s descendants not to have one. (In fact, this is incorrect: because Princess Ann, Queen Elizabeth’s second child, was a woman, married to a commoner, and at the time a distant remove from ever becoming queen, her children do not have titles either.)
As things were getting worse, Harry had a confrontation with senior royals (he insists that the Queen was not involved), one of whom asked him how dark his child’s skin would be. I challenge any white person to honestly say they are truly shocked—as opposed to horrified—that this happened. And here is what I mean about the tutorial value of an Oprah interview and her role as Empath-In-Chief. I do not believe that Oprah was shocked by this information either. But her response—asking to have the information repeated several times as if it were unbelievable, a stunned expression—instructed the audience that being shocked was the appropriate way to feel at this moment.
To continue: because of these repeated insults and what she says were the Palace’s instructions to protect herself by being less visible, Meghan became isolated, anxious and went into a deep depression. This led us to the saddest revelation: that for a period, Meghan “Didn’t want to be alive anymore.” Harry went to, as he put it, “the institution” to get her some help, and they both allege that permission to see a therapist was refused. This is exceedingly odd because Harry himself saw a therapist for years, as have other senior royals.
In the end, the couple inferred, the only way to save Meghan’s life was for them to escape the grip of the family and the English tabloids. When, as a result, Meghan and Harry decided to move to Canada and take a break, they learned abruptly that they were being cut off from the salary and professional security services that they had been entitled to as working royals.
As you can see, these revelations range from trivial to serious; arguably, racism also runs the gamut from microaggression to structural discrimination, so this makes perfect sense.
Nevertheless, the mix of topics and the failure to explain their significance sometimes made it difficult for a viewer to tease out what really mattered other than the very obvious hurt that this young couple suffered from familial racism. For example, it’s hard to understand why Oprah spent as long as she did on the topic of who made who cry and less time helping us understand why it mattered. Yet the “evil” Black woman making the “fragile” white woman cry is a common racist trope: no one ever pointed this out.
Similarly, I understood that because Meghan and Harry were obsessed with “security,” it must be important. But why? I did not immediately perceive why a couple with a collective fortune of $45 million could not hire their own security. In fact, it seemed downright ridiculous.
However, when I did my own research, I learned that security is wildly expensive, something that Oprah could, and should, have told us, not the least of which because she must have it too. According to this story, Prince Charles covered the couple’s costs in the UK, which ranged between £1.8 and £4 million per year. The Queen’s security costs around £130 million a year, and I suspect that since many of the lesser royals live on her properties, they are drafting off her security staff much of the time. Costs in the United States have been pegged at between $1 and 2 million per year, but that is only if Meghan and Harry don’t travel much: in other words, you could use $45 million pretty fast at that rate.
The interview also assumed that we all know more about the monarchy's legal and economic arrangements than most Americans do. Early on, Markle told Winfrey that, walking in, she knew little about the royal family except that they were “celebrities”: since she was a celebrity too, she figured they were all on an equal plane. I was stunned by this since it was not just a very American attitude—it’s a small world, after all—but a very specifically California thing to say. Everybody reinvents themselves in California: why couldn’t you wake up and be a princess one day? While that can also be true in New York, the Eastern upper-class establishment's rigid expectations prepare those on the rise to approach the project with humility and a desire to learn. Just ask Edith Wharton: it really hasn’t changed much.
It was an opportunity missed when Winfrey permitted Markle’s reflection on all celebrities' similarity to recede from view. Instead, it might have been a reason to tease out an important fact about the contemporary English monarchy: it is a socially conservative institution that has changed very little in the past century. It hasn’t needed to, beyond a nip or a tuck here and there. Amending the law of succession to include women in birth order and permitting Prince Charles to divorce has pretty much been it.
And this, of course, is where a more interesting story about racism emerges. The monarchy’s social conservatism is not an unconscious lapse, or a failure to thrive in the modern world: it is deliberate. Importantly, the English monarchy has no governance role: thus, their only charge is to establish what it means to be English (here, I was persuaded that their failure to incorporate Meghan was foolish), to promote tourism, and to promote the purchase of English manufactures.
The contemporary royals have no real power. They serve entirely to enshrine classism in the British nonconstitution. They live in high luxury and low autonomy, cosplaying as their ancestors, and are the subject of constant psychosocial projection from people mourning the loss of empire. They’re basically a Rorschach test that the tabloids hold up in order to gauge what level of hysterical batshittery their readers are capable of at any moment in time.
This is the paradox of Sunday’s interview in a nutshell. Because the royal family has no political power, Oprah explored a quarrel between rich people that is entirely unimportant when it comes to the practical matter of addressing structural white supremacy. Simultaneously, because royal power is entirely symbolic, and an exercise in national marketing, Meghan and Harry’s struggles with it are of the highest social and cultural importance as we experience, with them, the process of recognizing, talking about, and thus the possibility of curing, racism.
Oprah is at her best as a performer and facilitator of a popular national conversation about race. Winfrey’s own expressions of shock and horror at Meghan and Harry’s experiences illuminate what she was offering, not to the unhappy couple but the public. To her Black viewers, she offered affirmation. If this could happen to a woman of color married to a prince, surely it affirmed Black women’s own collective experience of slights unseen and undervalued by whites. For white viewers, it offered something more complicated: the possibility of absolution. Because the racism was happening over there, not over here, in a sense, it temporarily relieved Winfrey’s American audience of a psychological burden that has rightly intensified over the last year—and at the same time, helped them travel a path to compassion. That path goes straight through, not the ugliness and complexity of structural racism or violence, but a problem recognizable to all of us: a woman treated cruelly and unfairly by her in-laws.
This is a critical feature of Oprah’s brand: creating racial bridges that permit difficult questions—for example, the durability of white racism or class differences that intensify the burdens of racism for the poor—to recede. What she then offers as an alternative solution is something that could be possible: personal relationships, empathetic connections, and wellness strategies that promise us that our racism is knowable and in our control.
It’s not just that she is selling these solutions: she believes in them. And this brings me to a final thought: for Winfrey, this bridging is philosophical, but it is also concrete. Remember that for years, a popular feature of Oprah’s afternoon talk show was storytelling about Black and white people who were related to each other biologically and who needed a facilitator to recognize themselves as a family.
Rebuilding connection: that’s what Oprah does. This is why I suspect that the interview was also intended as a platform for repair. Throughout the interview, Harry and Meghan said to the royal family in numerous ways: we would return—if you, who say you love us, make it possible.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).
Your royal homework:
The royal family is a business, Mark Landler argues, and Meghan’s burdens were a classic case of workplace harassment. (New York Times, March 9, 2021)
You will be shocked to learn that, according to Caroline Davies at The Guardian, the Buckingham Palace bunch is sad that Meghan and Harry are so hurt and prefers to address these issues privately. (March 10, 2021)
When asked about the interview, Prince Charles was broadly reported to have “chuckled” and refused comment but is not amused. (March 8, 2021)