Remember back in 2017, when Princess Michael of Kent wore a racist blackamoor brooch to the royal luncheon where she would be reportedly meeting Meghan Markle for the first time? I’m 100 percent certain that Meghan still remembers the incident—perhaps she couldn’t even forget it if she tried. Princess Michael, Queen Elizabeth’s cousin by marriage, has a storied history of anti-Black racist shenanigans, and it was properly on-brand that she wore an accessory that would demean and humiliate the “half-caste”—the term Brits who share her views sometimes use—American black girl in her midst during her first meeting. The brooch was obviously far more than a brooch. It was a none-too-subtle way of indicating that Meghan would not be welcome as a royal and, in case it was ever in doubt, identified her blackness as the reason why.
I thought of that brooch after Oprah Winfrey’s “tell all” interview with Meghan and Prince Harry, and the controversy it instigated over revelations of racism in the royal family. (Although, let’s be honest, there’s nothing especially revelatory about the news that members of a dynastic empire built on centuries of colonization and enslavement of black and brown people harbor racial bigotry.) Harry told Oprah that he “hadn’t really thought about the mixed-race piece” of Markel’s identity causing any sort of particular uproar in either his own family or British press, though he added in the same breath, “My God, it doesn’t take very long to suddenly become aware of it.” Was it really a surprise?
I won’t go on about how difficult it is to believe that Harry would not have foreseen at least some resistance among certain relatives to the possibility that the newest family addition might be a biracial black woman. The prince himself said he has “spent many years doing the work and doing my own learning” around issues of race and racism, which is essentially an admission that he saw a need to unlearn thinking on race he’d been taught during his “upbringing in the system.” It seems far more likely that Harry expected some pushback, but underestimated just how deeply entrenched and intense anti-Black racism is among some of his family members. The only relationship the royals have previously had with any brown folks is sovereign to subject. (Yes, I’m aware of Queen Charlotte, but that was a long time ago and the British royal family has dismissed the questions about her racial heritage.) Perhaps the royals nurture a paternalistic fondness of the sort colonizers hold toward those they’ve colonized, but that sort of thinking dissipates quickly when inheritances and bloodlines are on the line. Instead, you get more full throated racism, such as Princess Michael making a point of wearing jewelry that depicts black folks as the help, which insults Megan for existing and Harry for breaking his contract with whiteness.
There is no comparison between what Harry and Meghan have endured. Meghan has been the target of racist and sexist abuse that Harry’s whiteness, maleness and privilege will always protect him from. And I’m definitely not lauding Harry for defying all the racial rules. There are many people who have risked far more for the cause of racial equality. But it’s notable that the fallout from Harry’s marriage has left the royal family in disarray, willing to pull back all support from a rightful heir and his young family. This isn’t just about tradition or loyalty, as defenders of the monarchy like to pretend it is. It’s about how valuable whiteness, and assuring white supremacy, is to those who rely on its worth for continued relevance and power. Harry made a decision not to uphold the racial contract. And both his family and the UK press are ensuring that both Harry and Meghan pay for it dearly.
That racial contract, per philosophy professor Charles W. Mills, “establishes a racial polity, a racial state, and a racial judicial system, where the status of whites and nonwhites is clearly demarcated, whether by law or custom. And the purpose of this state…is specifically to maintain and reproduce this racial order, securing the privileges and advantages of the full white citizens and maintaining the subordination of nonwhites.” Mills cites the racial contract to describe the black-white inequities that define American society at large, but his analysis is applicable both domestically and globally to societies where whiteness is tantamount to power. (And even to places where, at the local level, that power isn’t specifically white. “Whiteness is not really a color at all, but a set of power relations,” Mills writes.)
Race, and more specifically, whiteness may be just one of many traits determining entrée into the royal family, but it’s also the eligibility factor that’s always been the most unquestioned and immutable. In fact, whiteness is integral to the Windsor brand. What is more synonymous with the British monarchy and its Germanic bloodline than its startling, ruddy-faced whiteness? To be British royalty is to be associated with a kind of eugenic yet incestuous whiteness—a racial purity as mythical as St. George, and equally as cherished. As the symbolic heads of the British polity the Crown has led with whiteness, so to speak.
Upholding and perpetuating white power means first and foremost ensuring, by means of gatekeeping, whiteness itself. The British royal family’s contract with whiteness has meant guarding their bloodline to ensure the reproduction of unquestioned whiteness. Hence the concerns reportedly expressed by an unnamed royal family member over how dark the offspring of Meghan and Harry might be. The contract with whiteness also requires signatories to avoid challenging the contract to reap the maximum benefits—that is, to avoid opposing racism. In recent years, Harry and Meghan have called on the Crown to acknowledge and address the lingering effects of colonialism, and to more effectively deal with institutional racism, noting that “the world that we know has been created by White people for White people.”
We know now that the reported consequences of those moves have been withholding of royal titles, security, and funds. It has meant the “Firm,” as Meghan referred to it, running no interference between Britain’s notoriously awful tabloid press machine—especially those owned by Rupert Murdoch—which cranked out the racist headlines, and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. The response to Harry abandoning the contract with whiteness, both in the Buckingham Palace and British media, has been swift, overt and punitive.
As Mills writes, “by unquestioningly “going along with things,” by accepting all the privileges of whiteness with concomitant complicity in the system of white supremacy, one can be said to have consented to Whiteness.” But breaking the contract ultimately means “eliciting the appropriate moral condemnation from the race loyalists and white signatories who have not repudiated either.” Anti-racism has a cost, including for white people whose refusal to thoroughly comply with the rules of whiteness threaten those who want to see the racial contract and the dividends it pays to whiteness continue.
It seems obvious that if Harry, scion of the British Royal House, can distance himself from his toxic family and its obsession with whiteness, then it should be something lots more white folks should take on board. For all the couple has lost, Harry seemed grateful that he was aware of, and existing in, a world outside of the one his “trapped” family members are still stuck in. There are so many other spheres where whiteness is as fiercely guarded to ensure the staying power of white supremacy, but the rift of the royals proves it is possible to escape that thinking. “Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity,” as the saying goes, and that has benefits far beyond anti-racism’s personal cost.