I feel like the rug has been pulled from under me, though I probably had no business standing on it in the first place.
The last few years have been a period of unlearning ‘facts’ that I was taught in school, a process that feels something like walking away from a religion you grew up with. And today, following Oprah’s bombshell interview with Meghan and Harry, I now find myself with some more unlearning to do. For here are some learned opinions that I took as gospel growing up:
- The British empire was a commendable venture, albeit the sentiment hasn’t aged well
- History is based on facts, not narratives
- The royals are harmless
Research and circumstance have successfully dismantled the first two for me. But 12 years after leaving school, I still find it difficult to accept blatant reality regarding the third. Even when faced with countless examples of royal misgivings, I struggle to give up my idea of the Queen. I now think her ‘goodness’ must have been one of my grounding beliefs. And if it didn’t directly oppose one of my other beliefs – that the UK suffers deeply from systemic and historic racism – I still might not have questioned it.
For that reason, on watching Oprah’s TV coup yesterday, I struggled. I found myself simultaneously tutting, unshocked, and swallowing gutting disappointment.
So, why the confusion?
Well, firstly, there’s lack of exposure.
When you operate in a bubble, as so many of us do thanks to the controlling influence of algorithms, it can be surprising to find that your opinion isn’t shared outside your circle. It’s similar to the shock (for me) of Trump being elected back in 2016. Having never publicly engaged in royal bashing or royalist chat, my devices don’t try to keep me engaged by showing me monarchy-related content. So, other than headlines about the credibility of The Crown, I’m rarely confronted with stories about the royal family.
Secondly, there’s the commonwealth.
It’s funny how much respect is given to the Queen when your family is from part of the non-white commonwealth. My mum’s side (Black) is from the West Indies; my dad’s side (white) is from south London. Both grandparents had respect for the royals. Looking at the West Indian side specifically though, civil rights activist Michael X makes an interesting point that goes some way towards explaining the often sympathetic sentiment.
“When we came to this country,” he said, “we were not travelling to a foreign country. We were taught that my country, Trinidad and Tobago, was an extension of [Britain]. When I was a little boy, I stood in 90 degrees of sun, day after day, and sang all types of silly things like God Save the Queen and Land of Hope and Glory with the greatest of fervour, and believed every word of it. To come here to discover that I was not only not travelling to the capital of the whole thing but that we weren’t wanted has been a shattering blow.”
My nan once told me that on arrival in London in the 1960s, a neighbour in Shepherd’s Bush told her she should climb back up the tree with the rest of the monkeys. It’s surprising that she wasn’t more disparaging of the country. But in all the years she was here, she never seemed disillusioned.
Inglan is a bitch
A major part of my own unlearning came from my old Namibian housemate. She was in the UK, studying with me in Manchester in 2014 and we lived together for three glorious years. She often despaired as members of her family upheld the belief that M&S underwear was the finest quality lingerie that could be bought worldwide, despite the far superior quality garms that were available round the corner from them in Windhoek. This myth of the rich quality of England is planted deep in its colonial history. And it’s central to the Stockholm Syndrome, I think, that many of us suffer from when it comes to the UK royal institution.
This shouldn’t shock us
To me, then, it is not at all surprising that people are surprised the royals are racist. We moved on from Prince Andrew’s indiscretions quickly enough, didn’t we? We’ve become used to brushing their, let’s say ‘less appealing’ foibles under the carpet. But this time, one of the rare times, they’ve been inescapably caught out at the heart of the crown.
Online bubbles, for once, are no match. Whatever platform you’re on, this story is being covered. And in the midst of a pandemic, with the world still entirely engaged online all day, every day, the internet’s long, algorithmic tentacles can reach us even if we’re trying to avoid the story.
Of course, we can expect the tabloid backlash to be swift and painful for Meghan. But where previously it might have been feasible for some to dismiss her portrayal as “not racist” (because, sure, us snowflakes find a lot of things outrageous nowadays), now the claims are more damning. And they anchor every microaggression that came before them.
So, why are we shocked?
I can’t speak for anyone else, but as a mixed-race person, I’m troubled by my reaction to this. It’s problematic. I don’t know what more the royal family could do to demonstrate that they’re not harmless, yet I’m clinging onto the Queen like the last wing in KFC. When Meghan assured us that her majesty always treated her well, I was relieved that my image of her stood up.
Yet it’s become increasingly clear that the British history I learned from 11 to 17 was taught through a royalist lens, and that feels very dangerous. My understanding of what I learned as fact is something I’m desperately trying to let go of.
But letting go is destabilising. Your beliefs give you a sense of belonging, so once I start to dismantle mine, what’s left? What else do I not understand? They’re a rug under your feet that’s woven bigger and tighter the older you get. I’m only 29, but it’s taken watching the critique of Meghan Markle’s treatment from people I respect and whose views I align with so closely to start recognising that my own threads need unravelling.
I imagine it’s probably how it feels when someone accuses you of racism. It’s uncomfortable and you reject it, mourning the simplicity of your views before they were challenged. But the rug needs to be pulled. You need the freefall to feel the ground when you land.