A Seat at the Royal Table

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry interview with Oprah Winfrey
(Image: Harpo Productions/Joe Pugliese)

The search for belonging within institutions built on exclusion is no new concept. This search is at the root of pushes for racial diversity in academic institutions which once consisted only of white men. It is what sparks the celebration of women who become the first female CEOs of their companies. This search often reflects a desire to see those who have historically been denied access to places of power finally claim leadership in modern society. 

The fact that attaining a seat at the table is something to celebrate (and even still a concept) tells us about the state of inequality in society; celebration of inclusion implies the persisting presence of exclusion. Every table at which people are still fighting to get a seat is necessitated by enduring discrimination which serves to preserve a racialised, gendered, and generally privileged status quo.

In societies like that of the UK and the US, racial inequality flows like a strong, invisible undercurrent no matter how calm the surface of a situation may look. The recent Oprah interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle gave the world a glimpse of Meghan’s struggle for acceptance in the British Royal Family and in the eyes of the British press, with the couple identifying Meghan’s blackness as a key factor explaining the Royal Family’s conduct. The interview highlighted racialised treatment and a woeful disregard for Meghan’s mental health from the Royal Family, as well as a drawn out and damaging character assassination from British tabloids. 

Although Meghan’s specific context – marrying a prince and becoming a member of the Royal Family – isn’t relatable to most people, the crux of her experience as a minority is: Meghan’s story is one as old as the concept of hierarchy itself. It is one of searching for a seat at the table, and finding that no amount of respectability, compliance, or bending over backwards to fit in can ever elicit true belonging from a space which is ultimately determined to preserve the status quo.

During the interview, Meghan delves into the experience of entering the Royal Family (often referred to as “The Firm” or “The Institution” in the interview) and her attempts to please her new relatives. From writing letters to her in-laws expressing dedication to her new role to evenings spent memorising hymns and the national anthem in order to nail public appearances, Meghan entered her new life keen to do her duty as a princess. Her best efforts were not enough to afford care for her wellbeing; as her mental health deteriorated to the point of suicidal thoughts due to the stresses of her new life, Meghan’s requests to leave her post and receive help were denied on the basis that the optics “wouldn’t be good for the institution.”

Meghan’s dedication to living up to royal standards also didn’t compensate for her blackness and what it could mean for the Queen’s yet-to-be-born grandchild, Archie. As Meghan recollects to Oprah, senior members of the Royal Family were having “concerns and conversations about how dark [Archie’s] skin might be.”

Just as telling as these remarks was the silence of the Royal Family regarding the British media’s treatment of Meghan. As Meghan faced racist backlash from the media so intense that British members of parliament came together across parties in condemnation, no statements in support of Meghan or in opposition to racism were issued from her new family.

It is well established that silence or “neutrality” in the face of injustice is condoning it, but when you are the institution directly responsible for the racialised oppression of millions across the globe, not speaking out against racism happening so close to home is an especially violent and telling act.

Meghan’s experiences remind us of what shows and films that  romanticise the idea of royalty obscure from popular understanding: the Royal Family is a calculated entity, one which embodies historical white supremacy. Decisions are made to uphold a certain external appearance, and what is done is done in the name of maintaining the power and reputation of an institution which oversaw and benefited significantly from Britain’s colonisation of almost a quarter of the globe. It should be no surprise that a mixed race person experienced such strife when entering a family which, in many ways, embodies the legacy of racist exploitation.

The futile search for a seat at the royal table, to find genuine kinship from the British royal establishment, can be seen on scales far larger than that of Meghan’s story. Today, several former British colonies including Jamaica, the Bahamas, and the Solomon Islands still recognise the Queen as their head of state. For the few that still have “God Save The Queen” as their national anthem, residents of these former colonies sing “long to reign over us” in reference to the Queen when they sing the song of their nation. In 2020, Barbados became the most recent nation to become a republic by removing the Queen as head of state. Explaining the decision, Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley said it was time to “fully leave our colonial past behind”, a statement which hints at the recognition that associating with the Royal Family is not a gaining of status but a loss of autonomy and identity, and a perpetuation of centuries-old racial hierarchy.

Meghan’s experience with the Royal Family holds a valuable lesson on the limits on inclusion. Inclusion and acceptance are concepts which only exist within a context of wider discrimination and supremacy within a society. The society I want to live in – the world I want to live in – is one where inclusion is an obsolete term. 

The Royal Family’s colonial history (perhaps not so much a history as an ongoing present), yet to be reckoned with, puts it at odds with this vision. This lesson has application closer to home: when Middlebury, an institution built on foundations of racism and patriarchy, fails to effectively oppose white supremacy and instead falls back on efforts of inclusion, it is also in opposition to an anti-racist vision. How do we include more people at this table? is not a question that leads to equity, far less liberation. When we start to ask, why haven’t we turned this old-ass table into firewood yet? maybe we’ll get somewhere.

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MIAN Editorial Board

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