London — Queen Elizabeth II took two days to issue a 61-word response to the damning interview that Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, and Prince Harry did with Oprah Winfrey. She said “the issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately.”
But that family is a global symbol of Britain to the world, and more than 49 million people around the globe have tuned in to see Meghan and Harry level allegations of racism not only against an unnamed member of the royal family, but against the institution of the British monarchy and a tabloid media industry they said was complicit in pushing a racist narrative.
CBS News correspondent Holly Williams notes that, just last week, following allegations that the duchess had bullied staff members, another Buckingham Palace statement announced a formal investigation and said it would not tolerate bullying.
The statement issued by the Queen on Tuesday evening didn’t explicitly condemn racism, and many believe that one of the world’s most enduring royal families has a lot more work to do to address problems embedded deep in British society.
Modern Britain is a multicultural place. People of color have climbed to positions of power, but even some who’ve made it to the vaunted halls of the British Parliament say the royal couple’s interview “shined a light on the structural racism” that exists in the country’s institutions.
Meghan and Harry discuss depression and racis…
Dawn Butler, a Member of Parliament from London, told CBS News that the royal family has existed “cocooned in a bubble of whiteness.” They will know, she said, exactly who made the racist remarks revealed by Meghan, “But what they really have to unpick,” said Butler, is “how they made a member of their own family who had a different skin color feel.”
Butler said the Queen’s concise response, “in itself, is fine… But what’s bigger than that is the fact that the institution has to answer the racism that’s happened on their watch.”
She pointed to an anecdote relayed by the Duchess of Sussex, who told Oprah that just before her wedding to Harry, sister-in-law Kate made her cry during a conversation about bridal wear. Meghan said the royal family made a decision to let the press run with a story claiming it was actually Kate who’d been left in tears.
“It is a well-established racist trope against Black women to call them a bully or to call them angry,” Butler told CBS News. “What Meghan faced is what Black women face every single day in the workplace, and when one institution meets another institution like the tabloid press, and they decide to amplify that racist trope, it’s a problem. That is structural racism, and that’s what we need to get to terms with in this country, and that’s what we need to dismantle.”
“The institution around the royal family has to come to grips with the fact that they were complicit in amplifying a racist trope against a Black woman,” she said.
“An industry in denial”
While Queen Elizabeth said the royals would “address” the issue of racism, privately, the response from the other institution accused by both the Sussexes and Butler of complicity in driving a racist narrative has been less unified.
A media industry body in the U.K., the Society of Editors, issued a statement in the wake of the Duke and Duchess’ interview saying their accusations had been made with no “supporting evidence,” with the group’s executive labelling them “not acceptable” in an article defending the media’s coverage of Meghan, including by tabloids that demonstrably treated her differently than her white, English sister-in-law Kate.
The article was titled simply: “UK media not bigoted.” It drew a swift backlash.
A statement released within hours by 168 British journalists, broadcasters and editors of color called the society’s response to the Oprah Winfrey interview “laughable” proof of “an institution and an industry in denial.”
Now calls are mounting in Parliament for lawmakers to at least hold and open debate about racism in the press. The charge is being spearheaded in part by one of Butler’s fellow Labour Party MP’s, Holly Lynch, who co-authored a letter to Meghan in 2019 on behalf of more than 70 female MPs voicing support for the duchess as she faced what the politicians called press coverage with “outdated, colonial undertones.”
Meghan “would have expected a level of press interest and public interest” when she became involved with Prince Harry, Lynch told CBS News’ Haley Ott at the time. “What she wouldn’t have expected was xenophobic undertones to that interest. It doesn’t matter who you are in public life, you should never be subjected to that on an almost daily basis.”
“Missed that opportunity”
So, is it too late for the centuries-old British royal vessel to plot a course out of what Butler calls a “bubble of whiteness” — and hopefully to lead other U.K. institutions down a more enlightened and tolerant path?
British society at large, the parliamentarian told CBS News, has already gone that way.
“We are very accepting of who people are — whether it’s color of your skin, whether it’s your sexuality, whether it’s your gender,” she said. “Harry and Meghan was an opportunity for the royal family to stay relevant in the modern world. I think they’ve missed that opportunity. They’ve kind of blown that.”
There may be more opportunities, however, even if they’re only seized upon in private, as the Queen herself said they would be.
“I suppose they’re going on a process, which is fine if they’re going on a learning process,” said Butler. “What they can do, and what I think is important, is just dig beneath ‘who made whom cry?’ And for me that’s really important, because when we establish who made whom cry, we begin to unpick why it was easier to help promote a lie than it was to tell a truth. Why was that? Why did you think that was okay?”
“These are the uncomfortable conversations that have to happen in every single institution,” she said. “Let’s start unpicking this stuff so you can understand why you do what you do, and what the outcome is at the end of that, and how it feels to be bullied, to be intimated, to have racism piled on you.”