What the Church (and the world) must learn from Meghan & Harry’s Oprah interview
Edited (March 20) to add: As with all posts to the MinistryMatters online publication, the analysis and opinions expressed by any contributor do not necessarily reflect or speak for the entire Anglican Church of Canada.
Of all of the claims that Harry and Meghan made in their multi-hour Oprah interview last week, most analyzed is the second-hand report from Meghan of “conversations” that were had between Harry and an unnamed relative raising concerns about the colour of their baby’s skin. The audience was left with the implication that a senior member of the royal family thought it could look bad for a prince of the United Kingdom to be too dark-skinned. Debate has gone back and forth among royal watchers, wondering about the context of the comment and whether or not a future King of England is an overt racist. It has been suggested by others that based on inaccuracies from other topics raised by the couple, that this incident may also not have happened quite as they remembered it. The palace itself responded two days later with the gas-lighting assertion that “recollections may vary” from what the duke and duchess shared.
It might have been better if they had kept the anecdote to themselves — not because it casts damage toward the royal family, but because it allows the royal family (and us) to miss the point:
Harry and Meghan don’t need Buckingham Palace—or anyone else for that matter—to “white-’splain” to them whether or not they experienced racism. They have a story, and it’s not just about the monarchy.
The Christian church in particular has its own experiences to draw from, when it comes to understanding what the real issues for Meghan and Harry were. At the same time, the Church has much to learn… if we’re willing to pay attention.
Representation doesn’t stop racism
Prince William responded to the interview by insisting that “we are very much not a racist family.” His words reveal a common misunderstanding about racism, particularly about where and how its power is strongest. If a senior member of the royal family did indeed suggest that they didn’t want a prince of their family looking too dark, then that is shocking and awful indeed. But racism is easy to unmask for the hateful and unjust force it is, when it is so explicit. It is easy to then imagine that we can parcel out racism as something that other people do, rather than a reality in which we all bear responsibility.
The wealth and privilege of the monarchy is inextricably connected to the wealth and privilege of the British Empire, which as Dr. Shola Mos-Shogbamimu pointed out on the HeirPod podcast, “is steeped in slavery, steeped in colonization, all of which was about dehumanizing the black identity.”
The Windsors’ willingness to accept Meghan into the family is only the smallest of steps toward counteracting the systemic whiteness of the palace.
It is not enough to simply put a Black princess on the balcony with the rest of the royal family. Room has to be made for her voice.
Racism will only begin to be dismantled if and when she has allies—and being an ally takes work. Anything less than a commitment from the royals to explicitly align their power to support her, was always going to result in the difference that she represents being maligned, mistrusted and rejected.
In the summer of 2020, three female episcopal priests of colour, Kelly Brown Douglas, Stephanie Spellers and Winnie Varghese, penned an open letter to their church on the celebration of Independence Day. Their words called attention to the same dynamic that would be revealed months later in the Duke and Duchess’ Oprah interview. They talked about the domination of “whiteness” baked into the history of America, as well as the episcopal church. “Whiteness,” they said, “is a culture and way of being that claims superiority and universality, even as it subjugates, appropriates, silences, deports, dehumanizes, and eliminates that which is not White.” They called out the work that must be done, together, in order for the whole church to be freed from the grip of an oppressive system.
Our Canadian Anglican context is implicated here, too. I think particularly of the movement toward a self-determining Indigenous Church, in which space is being made for Indigenous people to make decisions in ways that are consistent with their own traditions and cultural norms. Too many times, we have thought it was enough to share the news of this movement of change out loud, to give ourselves a self-congratulatory pat on the back for being so progressive and enlightened—all the while imagining that the change we were talking about didn’t impact us too.
We have given Indigenous people representation in the councils of our church, but we haven’t heeded their different ways of pursuing discernment and decision-making. We have raised money for particular projects in Indigenous communities and have talked about the federal government investing in clean water for them; but, we haven’t gotten serious about addressing the basic income disparity across our church and the fact that most Indigenous leaders work for the church on a non-stipendary basis. We have conceded that Indigenous people need to have a voice at the table because it is right and just; yet, we have been slow to celebrate how much better we are able to discern God’s guiding light in the life of the church when we have a diversity of voices leading us.
There is a drastic difference between the privilege of Meghan Markle and our Canadian Indigenous context. Also, there is a truth that we all need to heed—that we so easily choose tokenism over real, systemic change. That all of us play a role within structures that edit out difference.
The irony of the dehumanizing institution
The institution of the monarchy is intensely personal. The countries of the Commonwealth can point to a person and her family, as our symbol of unity, dignity and identity. Over the years, the machine that surrounds this institution has worried that the scandal that will destroy the House of Windsor will be divorce, marital strife, love affairs, public feuds, private dalliances and (/or) “inappropriate love matches”. In recent years especially, that same machine has devoted a great deal of time and energy to protecting the line of succession as the recipients of the largest slice of the public’s interest and attention.
Women who have married into the family and whose voices have been too big—or whose stars have shone too bright—have fared poorly. In the jockeying for power, in worrying about the right kinds of relationships, and through a systematized jealousy, the monarchy has become trapped into a mindset that is much more likely to be its demise. It has eschewed the personal for the institutional. The relationships of family member to family member, and family members to public, have been focused on guarding and upholding the institution at any and all costs.
But when the institution only serves the institution, then the death knell is already sounding.
Harry and Meghan believed they needed to move across the ocean and go to the world’s most famous celebrity interviewer in order to get their family to hear what they have to say. Their story reveals a system where anxiety has been directed in the most obvious, ironically destructive way—toward managing public perception and obsessing over how things and people “look”. Their story tells the timeless tale of how actual people and relationships get trampled or jettisoned, in service to an institution that has forgotten that its only currency is in nurturing the personal.
The Church, likewise, exists to support the living organism of relationships, spanning time and geographical space, which allow us to walk with Jesus. And yet, institutional history is littered with many instances: of critical voices being maligned; mechanisms of accountability stifled; difference and diversity co-opted into a relentless homogeneity; tokenism chosen over real change; and, abuses of power swept under the rug or allowed to visibly continue unfettered.
In our systems that are the Church of today, more and more centralization of power is sometimes seen as the salvific response to decline. All too often, the local community becomes a cog in service to the greater institutional reality, rather than the other, more relational way around. Similar to the experience of Harry and Meghan, a greater and greater emphasis can get placed on managing appearance and narrative, with those who don’t conform to the prescribed look and story of the institution left feeling as if their voices have been silenced.
There is no life in this misguided way. Like the royals, the Church’s only currency is the personal.
The Church, the monarchy, and all of us
The British monarchy has long been accused of being out of touch. In this case, however, that accusation is dangerous. It suggests that what Meghan and Harry have to say is just about the royal family. In truth, the Windsors’ public struggle to understand and address racism is offering a powerful and disturbing reflection of the cultural landscape they serve, along with how much work is left to do.
There is a couple at the centre of this who: wanted to serve their people; showed great intuitive skill in doing so; and, not only found themselves unsupported in that service, but actively undermined. As a result, there is a crown whose legitimacy is being called into question. There are people of colour all over the world who see themselves in Meghan, who know the pain of the band-aid solutions to racism—which are so easily favoured over the real dismantling of power structures needed to make room at the table for new and diverse voices. This is not about the House of Windsor, it is not a private family matter, and the issue isn’t whether or not a future King actually made a racist comment. This is about the systems of power in which we all participate and the fact that two people have dared to use their platform to call us all to be accountable.