The British royal family and its racist past
Queen Elizabeth II never acknowledged the monarchy's historical role in supporting the Black slave trade
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In 2020, the royal family's silence over the Black Lives Matter movement did not go unnoticed, and Meghan Markle and Prince Harry's tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey in March of 2021, brought to the fore the topic of racism in the monarchy.
Harry said racism was "a large part" of why the couple left the UK, they claim a member of the royal family raised "concerns" over how dark Archie's skin would be before he was born, and Markle said her treatment in the tabloids compared to that of Kate Middleton was racist.
A statement released by Buckingham Palace on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II, at the time, said the whole family was "saddened to learn" how challenging things had been, adding: "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."
And a couple of days later, Prince William said: "We're very much not a racist family."
While the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have engaged with numerous anti-racism organizations and spoke openly about the death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, other members who represent the monarchy never spoke up.
This is not entirely surprising, though. The royals have been accused of turning a blind eye — and in some instances, even enabling — racism since the early years of the monarchy.
For starters, Queen Elizabeth I was connected to Britain's slave trade in the 1500s — the monarch publicly supported Captain John Hawkins, who captured 300 Africans and exchanged them for hides, ginger, and sugar in 1562.
The now-late Queen Elizabeth II never publicly acknowledged her ancestor's actions before her death Thursday, September 8, 2022.
Then there was Abdul Karim, the Indian attendant of Queen Victoria. According to The Guardian, the royal household "tried everything to displace him" because of the color of his skin. They eventually succeeded, sending him abruptly back to India after the Queen's death.
But these incidents aren't just historical — royal family members have been ignoring accusations of racism since as recently as June 2020, when the Queen failed to respond to accusations that the royal honors medal is "highly offensive" and resembles the killing of Floyd.
But, Kenneth Olisa, the first Black lord-lieutenant of London, said in an interview that the topic of race became more present among the family after George Floyd's death, NBC News reported in September 2021.
Queen Elizabeth II never apologized for the monarchy's racist past
Some members of the royal family have taken accountability for their own racist behavior in more recent years.
In 2005, a then 20-year-old Prince Harry angered the public and politicians after wearing a Nazi costume to a fancy dress party.
"It was a poor choice of costume and I apologize," Harry said at the time, according to The New York Times.
The prince issued another apology four years later, saying he was "extremely sorry" for using a racial slur to address his friend in a military training video.
In 2017, Princess Michael of Kent made a public apology after she was accused of wearing a racist brooch to lunch with Meghan Markle.
Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth II's late husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, was known for his controversial sense of humor and often made remarks during royal engagements that landed him in hot water.
These have included telling the President of Nigeria that he looked like he was "ready for bed" when he wore national dress to meet Prince Phillip in 2003, and comparing Ethiopian art to "the kind of thing my daughter would bring back from school art lessons" back in 1965.
During a visit to China in 1986, he also told a British student that if he stayed much longer, "you'll go home with slitty eyes."
Most of these comments have come and gone without acknowledgment from the palace. However, The Independent reports that the duke issued a public apology after a visit to an electronics factory in Scotland in 1999, where he said a messy fuse box looked "as though it was put in by an Indian."
Meanwhile, the British monarchy's most well-known tie to racism — the slave trade — is something Queen Elizabeth never acknowledged.
In 1564 Queen Elizabeth I even contributed a vessel to Hawkins, the first known Englishman to include enslaved Africans as cargo.
While Prince Charles, now King Charles III, previously acknowledged "the appalling atrocity of the slave trade, and the unimaginable suffering it caused," this is something his mother did not publicly comment on.
But as royal commentator Kristen Meinzer told Insider, the monarchy "was instrumental in supporting the slave trade," so Charles' apology doesn't even come close to making amends for the past.
"The Church of England, which the Queen is the head of, actively perpetrated slavery and profited from it," Meinzer told Insider. "It's not enough for the son of the monarch to apologize. The monarch should."
Human rights activist and journalist Peter Tatchell said that Her Majesty showed "an unwillingness to face up to past injustices" by staying silent.
"It is long overdue that the Queen should apologize for the monarchy's role in the slave trade," Tatchell told Insider.
"The fact that she has not done so shows a lack of remorse, an unwillingness to face up to past injustices, and a lack of commitment to a multiracial Britain," Tatchell added.
The monarchy could be considered a symbol of institutional racism
Tatchell says that the monarchy is an example of institutional racism because there has never been a non-white head of state.
"The UK's system of an inherited head of state is racist by default," Tatchell told Insider.
"The title of head of state is bestowed on the first-born descendants in each successive generation of the all-white royal family. A non-white person is therefore excluded from holding the title of head of state, at least for the foreseeable future. This is institutional racism."
Of course, this could change with the future generations — if Prince George was to marry a non-white person and they had children, for example, the next heir to the throne would be mixed race.
Meghan Markle is the first member of the royal family known to be mixed race. However, some historians believe that King George III's wife Queen Charlotte was mixed race as she descended from a branch of the Portuguese royal family who had roots in Africa.
There is no conclusive evidence to prove Charlotte's heritage, though, and when the Boston Globe enquired about it to Buckingham Palace in 1999, it was dismissed as unimportant.
"This has been rumored for years and years," palace spokesman David Buck told the newspaper, according to NPR. "It's a matter of history, and frankly, we've got more important things to talk about."
The royals did little to defend Meghan Markle against racism
Although there has been debate over the specific reasons Markle chose to leave the royal family — and the UK — behind, many experts believed it was at least partly to do with the racist treatment the duchess suffered at the hands of the British tabloids.
In the couple's interview with Winfrey, they confirmed that racism was indeed "a large part" of why they left the UK.
Harry was the only royal to speak in Markle's defense following a series of discriminatory articles, which implied that the duchess' hometown was "gang-scarred" and "(almost) straight outta Compton" and that she was "fueling human rights abuses, drought, and murder" for eating avocados.
No member of the royal family ever condemned Markle's treatment by the British tabloids, and Harry said "that hurts," as Insider's Armani Syed reported. Harry had himself released a statement addressing the issue right at the start of the couple's relationship in 2016.
Markle spoke candidly in 2020 about her relationship with the tabloids, saying that the "large number of false and damaging articles" caused "tremendous emotional distress" during her time within the royal household.
In the years leading up to the royal wedding, some of the tabloids also targeted the duchess' mother, Doria Ragland. The Daily Mail published photos of Ragland's home and used degrading language to compare it to Kensington Palace.
"Plagued by crime and riddled with street gangs, the troubled Los Angeles neighborhood that Doria Ragland, 60, calls home couldn't be more different to London's leafy Kensington," the 2016 article reads.
The treatment Markle has endured could be compared to the treatment of Karim, who was reportedly discriminated against due to his race. False stories about Karim's father's profession were contrived in order to make him seem less suitable for the royal household, according to The Guardian.
Queen Elizabeth had never commented on racism being a factor in the Sussexes' departure prior to her latest statement in the wake of the Oprah interview. An official statement in January 2020, following their step back announcement, said she recognized the "intense scrutiny" Markle and Harry had faced.
It wasn't until Markle left the royal family that she admitted she felt "unprotected" by the royal family's press team, who reportedly prohibited her from defending herself against the media.
In the Winfrey interview, Markle confirmed that she was banned from seeking professional help when her mental health was deteriorating, and the family was denied security after stepping back from royal life.
One of the most striking revelations from the interview, however, was that a member of the royal family expressed "concerns" over how dark Harry and Markle's children's skin would be. Neither would elaborate on who the person was, and Harry has since confirmed it wasn't the Queen or Prince Philip.
It's unlikely that the royals will take accountability
It's been more than two years since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the start of the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests that erupted across the globe.
"The question is what more can we do to bind society to remove these barriers. They [The royals] care passionately about making this one nation bound by the same values," Olisa said in September 2021, adding that the family supported the Black Lives Matter movement.
Before the senior aide announced the family's support for the movement, royal experts argued that the royal family hadn't publicly shared support for the movement because aspects of it could be considered "political."
However, they could have shown their support through engaging with anti-racism charities or by making a statement in favor of equality — something that wouldn't have required specifically naming BLM.
Like Markle and Harry, Prince William and Kate Middleton held video call engagements with various charities and organizations during the UK lockdown, though BLM and anti-racism charities were not included.
Although it's rare for the couple to speak about the topic of racism, it's not unheard of. In 2019 the Duke of Cambridge spoke about racism in soccer, saying he was "fed up" and "bored of it," according to The Guardian.
"Given the protocol that the royals must remain neutral and stay out of politics, it would be difficult for them to explicitly endorse the Black Lives Matter movement," Tatchell said.
"But nothing is stopping them from making a general statement in support of racial equality and inclusion. Their failure to do that speaks volumes about their white privilege mentality," Tatchell added.
As Prince Harry recently said during a video engagement about racism: "There is no way that we can move forward unless we acknowledge the past."
It would have been hard to imagine Queen Elizabeth II showing support for BLM — and anti-racism in general — when in her 70 years on the throne, she failed to address the racism that undeniably exists in the institution of the royal family.
"The longer they choose not to speak, the longer they're choosing to be complicit in white supremacy," Meinzer told Insider.
"As Desmond Tutu famously said: 'If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,'" Meinzer added.
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