America racial politics Racism

Meghan Markle’s Experiences are a Powerful Reminder That Adding Black People into Institutionally Racist Spaces isn’t Progress

It’s a harsh lesson in understanding that single individuals, or sprinkling a few Black and/or brown faces within institutionally racist spaces changes almost nothing

Mary Boateng

This country that has been turned upside down by pandemic, with schools shut, hundreds of thousands on furlough, students striking over paying rent and a growing mental health crisis. But the last couple of weeks have focused intensely on the upcoming Prince Harry and Meghan Markle interview with Oprah, which looks to be a promising tell-all conversation giving a glimpse into how Meghan felt she was treated, by the press and the royal family. 

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The rampant, unrelenting racism that Meghan Markle faced quite publicly in the press and possibly within the royal family, speaks volumes about the state of Britain’s attitude towards race; but it also teaches us an important lesson. The idea that a single person of colour could enter “the firm” an institution which is institutionally racist, and be reported on fairly by a mainstream press that is also institutionally racist, and somehow change all this is naive. It’s a harsh lesson in understanding that single individuals, or sprinkling a few Black and/or brown faces within institutionally racist spaces changes almost nothing. 

So, what is institutional racism? It was first used within mainstream conversations in the UK, after the killing of Black teenager Stephen Lawrence. There was a formal inquiry into how his murder case was handled by the police, who made glaring errors in bringing his killers to justice. The report labelled the Metropolitan Police as “institutionally racist” due to their failure to take the case seriously. 

Institutional racism is a form of collective behaviour, a culture within that institution which is accepting of and even encourages white supremacy. This can be reflected in processes embedded in the organisation, and collective attitudes like harmful learned stereotypes which are to the detriment of people of colour. Institutional racism within a single organisation is normally supported by a wider structural status-quo across the whole of society. In other words, white supremacy is relatively prevalent everywhere else as well, which reinforces it within that particular institution.   

So, it’s a lot. Racism is embedded so deeply into the institution in question that it’s impossible for the presence of a single individual like Meghan to simply join and not have any problems. Obviously, there are a lot of people out there who will vehemently disagree that the royal family could be institutionally racist (some have even claimed that because the Queen loves the commonwealth this is impossible). But like many UK institutions, the royal family has a historical legacy of white supremacy. As far back at the 1600s, King Charles II and other members of the royal family invested massively in the slave trade. Charles granted a Charter to the Royal African Company of England in 1672, a slave ship which generated profits for “the crown” by kidnapping Black Africans and selling them as slaves. During this period they shipped more Africans to the Americas than any other single institution during the whole of the slave trade. When the slave market was opened out to other British competitors, this was sanctioned by the Parliament and the crown, and it became a lucrative trade for Britain. The end of slavery came with the ramping up of colonialism, where a quater of the globe’s nations had it’s land and resources stolen by Britain, and their own cultures stigmatised and erased  on the basis of racial superiority. 

These historical attitudes don’t just disappear, they live on embedded within the institution; evolving perhaps but never just disappearing on their own. Prince Phillip is known to have made endless “gaffes” that are often racist or culturally insensitive. The Queen continues to hand out awards with the words British Empire included, and refused to consider changing it. Despite some flashy recruitment pages and a vague commitment to diversity, the royal households don’t keep a public record of the number of non-white staff employed by them, or ethnicity pay gaps which increasingly other organisations are doing. It should not surprise anyone if Meghan experienced racism, or an ambivalence to the racism from the press, within the royal family. 

The mainstream media, who’ve clearly driven some of the ugliest racism against her, encouraging a trickle down into social media spaces, isn’t a bastion of progress either. 94% of journalists are white, and half went to private school even though only 7% of people in the UK are privately educated. They are unlikely to have been exposed much to issues around racism, or the experiences of Black people and people of colour. They are likely to have heavily internalised white supremacy ideals, experiencing little else to counter this. Most mainstream platforms are held by a very small handful of owners, reducing the chances of wider perspectives being included in reporting. 

This helps to explain why we’ve seen some extremely concerning reporting, right from the start of Meghan and Harry’s relationship. Her mother was described as “dreadlocked” and “visibly Black”, in an article titled “(almost) straight out of Compton” despite being from a middle class background and attending a private school. She’s faced disproportionately unfair reporting compared to the quiet, English rose, stepford-wife-like Kate. The birth of their child Archie was mocked by a BBC presenter who likened him to a monkey. Meghan has also been framed with almost every Black female stereotype in the book; some of the most prevalent being parodied as a gold digger (despite the fact she has her own private wealth), a bully/aggressive, having an attitude and being “uppity”. Because there really is nothing worse than a Black woman who gets above her station. 

The enormity of this is too much- and frankly it’s not surprising that they decided to bounce. Some people have earnestly claimed they should have stayed to prove a point, but I think that’s naive. There’s no point in single Black individuals suffering in a pointless effort to change institutions that are systemically racist from top to bottom. If anything her presence in the royal family brought out the latent racism sitting under the surface. 

These are deeply embedded societal issues, and we need to look seriously at how we can unpack them and fix them through cultural change, education, policy reform and- in the case of the royal family possibly even abolishing it all together. Until we’re ready to have these broader conversations and take proper action to tackle systemic racism, don’t expect anything to change.

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