Racism enters Black bodies. Enduring racial discrimination lowers heart rate variability and increases heart rates. Racism is fight or flight. The internalization of anti-Black racism accelerates biological aging by shortening telomeres, the protein DNA structures at the end of each chromosome, and so racism causes early death. Black folk carry the allostatic load of racism, meaning the stress of racism is a burden so great, it disrupts the immune, endocrine and circulatory systems, and damages the ability to regulate blood sugar levels. Racism jacks up Black folks’ mood. Racism enters Black bodies, alters Black bodies and destroys Black bodies. So, when Meghan Markle sat with Oprah Winfrey and testified her truth, telling the way racism in the House of Windsor nearly killed her, I not only believed her, I also felt my own heart rate rise.
Watching Meghan’s interview, I felt like I was watching a horror film. I felt my own Black body animated and engaged. “Get out,” my Black body hummed as she told the world that “the firm” silenced, sequestered and refused to defend her. “Get out,” my Black body hummed, as the palace loomed as a kind of haunted house, with the ghosts of rapists, plunderers, colonialists and colonizers past emerging from a centuries-old patrimony swirling all around.
“Girl,” my mind said. “I’m glad you brought your Black body back home.”
I’m a big fan of Meghan, and like most African Americans I support her decision to liberate herself from the master’s house. Knowing she continues to use her platform to resist silencing and amplifies her experience of dispossession only makes me love her even more.
And I’m relieved that Prince Harry — despite his earlier caper in a Nazi armband to a so-called “Colonials and Natives” costume party — has said he has been doing the work to unpack his own privilege and decided to center his family, his children and grandchildren, above the firm. In doing so, he is divesting himself of a fraction of his enormous inter-generational wealth, protection and privilege. Meghan and their son Archie lived as a kind of second caste within the royal family, in the British tabloids, and in the hearts of countless of their white subjects, whose virulent racism surfaced online in thinly veiled tweets and comments that became more explicit when the couple announced plans to retreat from royal life.
The racism was explicit and clear within the family, too, as Meghan, her face locked in post-traumatic distress, revealed that there were “concerns and conversations about how dark [Archie’s] skin was going to be when he was born.”
These are the kinds of encounters that erode the life force in Black bodies. These encounters, even when shared secondhand, drive Black folk over the edge, and drove Meghan to the brink of suicide.
The day after the interview, on “CBS This Morning,” Gayle King asked Oprah if she was surprised that someone in the royal family was concerned that Archie’s skin color might be dark. Oprah’s response echoed the very thought I’d had when I watched Meghan reveal this information the night before. Oprah, like me, wasn’t surprised that someone in the royal family felt this way; instead, she was surprised Meghan had revealed this truth, and then Harry confirmed it, out loud.
The couple’s transparency offers a full load of lessons for white allies who seek to repair the harm of structural racism; to uplift Black people, Indigenous people and people of color (BIPOC people); and to resist the oppression that kills. Institutions often talk about “DEI” (diversity, equity and inclusion), but that acronym for many has now evolved to “DEIJB”: diversity, equity, inclusion, justice and belonging.
“Belonging” may seem touchy feely or even redundant in its place after “inclusion.” But it’s helpful in understanding situations like Meghan’s: She was included. But what Oprah’s interview revealed is that she never belonged.
The many white women around the world who had spent their lives pining after Harry’s brother, Prince William, could accept that Kate Middleton snagged the man of their dreams. They could even project their white selves onto her, in the way that they’d imagined themselves as Cinderella, Snow White or even Ariel. In their minds, Kate belongs, and her rise from the middle class to royalty reinforces their own aspirations. Meghan doesn’t, and her American identity isn’t the reason why.
Diversity, especially the tokenism at play in the House of Windsor, will never dismantle structural racism. Indeed, diverse organizations are healthy organizations only if everyone within the organization commits to the ongoing work of chipping away at entrenched structural racism. If BIPOC are included but aren’t perceived as belonging, then diversity breeds resentment, isolation and an almost imperceptible yet steady loss of wellness. The entire organization suffers. The firm, the House of Windsor, the U.K. — all have suffered because of the marginalization they produced in their relationship to Meghan Markle.
They produced this adversarial posture through deceit and a failure to correct past wrongs. As Harry and Meghan’s wedding approached, British tabloids falsely claimed that Meghan was the source of discord within the family. That drumbeat only intensified as the couple began their life as married royals. It turns out that Meghan was not the source of conflict within the family. In fact, Kate made Meghan cry, not the other way around, and I will bet next month’s bills the British tabloids won’t pounce on her.
A glance at Kate and Meghan creates a perception of equality: Kate and Meghan are both commoners, both married to sons of the future king, both producers of male heirs to that throne, both committed to the work required of the royal roles they’ve assumed. Yet the shade of difference between them marks all the difference in equity in the way they move through the world. There is no equity in their treatment, no grace or joy extended to Meghan. Avocados to avocados, the difference is stunning: “Rude and racist are not the same.”
What harmed Meghan the most, according to her interview with Oprah, isn’t that the tabloid viciously attacked her like frothy-mouthed beasts, but that the firm did not protect her from the danger the press presented. Like rabid animals, print and electronic media lunged and snapped, but the wall of power that runs the crown never beat them back or shot them down. Their venom entered Meghan, producing in her mind vivid, precise details of her own suicide. The violence of white supremacy nearly killed her in a way that would have made it seem that she herself was responsible for her death.
None of this surprises Black folk on this side of the pond, for what is old money but a euphemism for Black terror? The performance of colonialism, with its familiar costumes and props, dulls the mind to the violence required to maintain the hegemony. All that pomp and circumstance, all the richness and riches, all that wealth — derives from the unpaid labor of Black and Brown bodies, has been extracted and stolen from Indigenous land, and rightfully belongs to the descendants of those who look more like Meghan than like them. Multiple thefts have occurred, and the harm done by those crimes is explicit and clear in the faces of BIPOC throughout the Commonwealth whose ancestors were literally stolen, and also stolen from.
Normalization of the ongoing performance of royalty, with its rows of Black and Brown children waving tiny union jacks in the hot sun as the queen and her husband wave from a drop-top convertible speeding by, decenters the exploitation of Black and Brown people throughout the Commonwealth.
Will the queen make any attempt to alter this reality? Nations subject to the British Empire can claim their independence, as they have done through time and did in great numbers at the high tide of anti-colonialist resistance in the 1960s and 1970s. Countries like Barbados can remove the queen as head of state. But it is an obligation of the queen herself to provide restitution for the physical, emotional, mental, even spiritual, and certainly financial harm done over the generations and around the globe, from the 1500s to today. There is so much that she owes Meghan Markle, who was harmed by the firm she helms. There is so much more that she owes the rest of us, too.
From the looks of it, however, she does not seem prepared to give much publicly at all.
Eisa Nefertari Ulen is an acclaimed essayist, journalist & author. Her website is http://eisaulen.com