tags: racism, Oprah Winfrey, Royal Family, Meghan Markle, Prince Harry
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).
This post originally appeared on her Substack: you can subscribe here.
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.
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.
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