In a long and bleak year, two cultural shifts offered at least some hope: racial progress, accelerated by massive street protests across the United States, and the marginalization, albeit tentative, of the culture of celebrity.
Both these attainments seem to have been undermined this week by Oprah Winfrey’s palace-rattling interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle at their mansion in Santa Barbara.
Only a day before, the main news in the U.K. had been the pitiful 1% pay raise offered by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government to the overworked and exhausted staff of the National Health Service. The general reaction veered between dismay and outrage.
On Sunday, however, public attention, a strained reserve these days, quickly shifted to the travails of a disinherited prince and princess. Evidently, the pair was driven from Britain for Southern California by overt racism from the royal family and a campaign of persecution from British tabloids. On Tuesday evening, Buckingham Palace issued a statement saying the allegations were being “taken very seriously” and would be addressed privately.
It is not callous to suggest that Markle might have avoided this fate had she, like many women marrying into a joint family system, done some due diligence on her in-laws. Take, for instance, this typical remark by Prince Philip, offered to a group of British students in China in 1986: “If you stay here much longer, you’ll all be slitty-eyed.” The jaw-dropping recent BBC interview with Prince Andrew, Harry’s uncle and friend to the late Jeffrey Epstein, confirmed the royal family’s continuing remoteness from reality.
Markle could have also properly informed herself of the journalistic culture of her new country. Almost all of the British press has supported Johnson, despite his track record while a journalist of baiting gay men (“tank-topped bumboys”), Black people (“watermelon smiles”) and burka-clad Muslim women (“letterboxes”).
In other words, unreconstructed bigotry among the establishment and its loyal media is as much a British thing as Wimbledon and strawberries.
If anything, though, Markle may have been less ingenuous than those who hailed her marriage as the start of a social revolution in Britain.
According to a British writer of color in the New York Times in 2017, Markle’s marriage to a prince was “astonishingly political” and had “shaken to the core the country’s ideas about who is entitled to a seat at the royal table.” Another commentator in the Guardian prophesied that “Britain’s relationship with race will change for ever.”
So it has, but not quite in the desired manner. Markle’s unsurprisingly doomed co-habitation with an archaic dynasty has ended up hardening divisions in what the Guardian this week called “a culture war.”
Black or Brown commentators might bristle at the suggestion that it was not worth going to the barricades on Markle’s behalf. But there was always something desperate about the fantasy that social justice would be fast-tracked by a foreign citizen placed by marriage inside Buckingham Palace. A mixed-race American actress gratefully accepting her seat at the royal table was never going to be as politically transformative as, say, Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on an Alabama bus.
Bitter experience should have warned against investing political hopes in this or that upwardly mobile representative of racial minorities. Barack Obama was once thought to have inaugurated a “post-racial” America as the first Black president. He ended up provoking a ruinous “whitelash.”
Now, regardless of whether the U.S. economy recovers or social divisions are healed, it appears Obama will be “having a blast” with his rapidly growing multi-media empire and fortune, as the Washington Post reported this weekend. The naïve politics of racial symbolism may draw mass support. But it benefits no one more than the symbols themselves.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are no exception, as they build their own multi-media empire, backed by an extensive personal network of plutocrats, entertainers and sportspersons. One would conclude from the hand-wringing their interview has provoked that the couple has suffered more than Britain’s pitifully underpaid nurses, most of them ethnic minorities, who have spent the past year risking their lives and sanity on a daily basis.
No heart-to-heart talks with Oprah or global eruptions of sympathy from celebrities for these brave essential workers, of course. But then they know, as they prepare to go on strike, that positive change will come only through cooperative action and sustained struggle, not the bewitching but empty spectacle of yet another Black or Brown person joining the rich, the famous and the idle.-Bloomberg