Meghan Markle, and the British Media’s Defensiveness Around Race

By Jeremy Ullmann

Ever since Meghan Markle and Prince Harry announced their decision to step back as “senior royals,” the media has barely talked about anything else. The ‘stunning’ decision has been met by a strong sense of ‘shock’ by much of the media. But when the subject of racist coverage being a factor in the couple’s decision is raised, it is met with vitriolic defensiveness.

But is it really so surprising? When people of colour have gone onto television to comment on the racism of press coverage surrounding Markle, many media outlets have forced this into a debate over the existence of racism, rather than acknowledging the experiences of people of colour. Even though British tabloids have published articles detailing Markle’s exotic DNAand calling her (almost) straight outta Compton, many leading media figures categorically deny any indication of racism.

This level of ignorance shows a severe discrepancy between much of the British press and people of colour’s lived experiences. As Afrua Hirsch wrote in the New York Times, ‘If the media paid more attention to Britain’s communities of colour, perhaps it would find the announcement far less surprising.’

If this lack of attention is surprising, it was worth taking a look at the composition of the British mainstream media. In 2016, a survey into British journalism revealed that 94 percent of journalists are white, 55 percent are male, and 86 percent university educated. Often, these journalists are not equipped with the necessary experience, language and historical references to accurately report on stories that intersect with race.

Recently, this discrepancy was on display when the BBC’s flagship political program Question Time, hosted actor Laurence Fox on a panel debate discussing the media’s treatment of Meghan Markle. When Professor Rachel Boylea, a black woman in the audience spoke up, calling the media’s treatment of Markle racist, the actor dismissed her saying:

“We’re the most tolerant, lovely country in Europe. It’s so easy to throw the charge of racism at everybody and it’s really starting to get boring now. So to call me a white privileged male is to be racist. You’re being racist.”

The moderator neither addressed the racism in the room, nor kept him from interrupting the woman in the audience. As a result, a white man talked over a woman of colour on live television, drowning out a necessary conversation about racism in the press.

An understanding of race and its relationship to the Royal Family—and British history—is critical to understanding the press coverage surrounding Meghan Markle’s “Meghxit.” Even before we take the media into account, it needs to be acknowledged that the Royal Family is a symbol of the British Empire and is therefore inherently linked to the centuries of imperialism and genocide which it perpetuated, and in doing so, profoundly affected the lives of millions of people of colour. The family itself is built upon historical racist practices, with its hereditary system of succession keeping the family white, and whose wealth was built off the backs of slaves. However, this is rarely examined in British schools. It is enough of a problem that the race equality think thank, The Runnymede Trust, recommended a new approach to teaching the British Empire in schools to rectify the ‘chronic misunderstanding’ from the current political class on Britain’s relationship to its past.

Any notion that Britain has moved on from its racist history (especially due to the inclusion of a biracial woman into the Royal Family), only helps to perpetuate the racism still abundantly on display in this country.

However, people belonging to historically privileged social groups rarely acknowledge this. Instead, they keep debating whether or not racism exists with people like Phillip Schofield who claimed that he hadn’t come across any press coverage that he would categorise as “racist.” His ignorance was fortunately criticised by viewers—but if influential media figures like Schofield would realise that they need to acknowledge the ways in which British history lead to the realities of racism in contemporary Britain, he could convince others accustomed to privilege why ‘race’ is more important to this conversation than they think it is.

It is entirely relevant to point out, that when Stormzy responded to the question “is Britain still racist?” with “definitely, 100%, even if it’s hidden,” his words were twisted by many prominent media outlets into “Britain is 100% racist”—a misnomer that similarly derailed the debate into one about Stormzy, rather than one about racism.

It is necessary for the media to discuss the differences between ‘obvious racism’ such as Danny Baker tweeting a chimpanzee representing the Sussex’s baby, and unconscious bias racism that the viral Buzzfeed article comparing headlines of Megan Markle and Kate Middleton so perfectly summed up. While the latter is harder to grasp in isolation, an article that visually places headlines next to each other in this way drives home the racist narrative to more privileged consumers who might not immediately see it as racist. As Daily Show host Trevor Noah put it bluntly: “Think about it. Prince Andrew is over here having sleepovers at Jeffrey Epstein’s house and the British press is like, ‘Meghan Markle ORDERED GUACAMOLE!’”

Even though the racism is so obvious to many, the divisions remain strong in the British press. Instead of listening to people of colour, many established, often white media heavy weights question their experience—and, as happened on Question Time, don’t interfere when they are accused of “playing the race card.” As it is, the media’s reluctance to engage with racism allows privileged audiences to maintain their rose-tinted view of the world, where Britain is a country of pluralistic and progressive values and the history of Empire, the Union Jack, the Royal Family, Britannia Rules the Waves, are something to feel proud about, rather than symbols of ongoing racism.

These are usually the same people who believe racism ended with their ancestors, and that skin colour plays no role today. Instead of perpetuating this mythical world, British journalists would do well to pay more attention to moments like when ex-Liverpool player Howard Gayle turned down an MBE (Member of the British Empire) in 2016 because “my ancestors would be turning in their graves after how Empire and Colonialism had enslaved them.” Similarly, in December 2018, Raheem Sterling cited two Daily Mail headlines about his club team mates buying houses for their mothers, showing the difference in treatment his black teammate received compared to his white teammate. When he opened up the conversation to the way the press have treated him too, anchor Piers Morgan responded saying ‘I’ve seen no difference in the way Sterling is treated (good & bad) to white football stars’.

The conversation is happening – and ‘Meghxit’ has amplified it to new levels, but instead of listening to the voices of those who are authorities on the subject of race, many parts of the mainstream media are showing that they do not believe they need any further education. Black and minority voices need to be centred as lived experiences, not debatable opinions. White people, and in particular the overwhelmingly white British media, need to understand that until this is the case, their eagerness to contribute on the subject of race is not helping, and must only come after they have taken the time to listen and learn.

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