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Meghan and Harry interview raises issue of race in Commonwealth countries

The former Meghan Markle accepts flowers from a child
Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, talks to children in Cape Town, South Africa, on a 2019 visit.
(Courtney Africa / Pool Photo)

In countries with historic ties to the U.K., allegations by Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, that someone in the royal household had “concerns” over their unborn baby’s skin color have raised a thorny question: Do those nations really want to be so closely connected to Britain and its reigning family anymore?

It was expected that the bombshell interview with Oprah Winfrey would expose more rifts within the royal family. Now it seems to be risking divisions within the “family” of the Commonwealth — an association of 54 countries, most of them former British colonies, held together by historic ties. For decades, Queen Elizabeth II has been the driving force behind the Commonwealth.

After the TV interview, broadcast Sunday in the U.S. on the eve of Commonwealth Day, former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull cited it as another reason for the country to sever its constitutional ties to the British monarchy.

“After the end of the queen’s reign, that is the time for us to say: ‘OK, we’ve passed that watershed,’” Turnbull told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “Do we really want to have whoever happens to be the head of state, the king or queen of the U.K., automatically our head of state?”

The value of the Commonwealth has been debated before, with critics questioning whether countries and peoples once colonized — and even oppressed — should remain in such an association with a former colonizer. Its stated aim is to improve international relations, but Britain’s relationship with the members has been clouded by diplomatic missteps and the legacy of empire. In a speech to mark Commonwealth Day on Monday, the queen spoke of “the spirit of unity.”

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Charismatic royals like Harry and Meghan have been deployed in the past to Commonwealth-related events with young people, businesses and volunteer groups.

Meghan’s father, Thomas, and half sister, Samantha, didn’t exactly have the kindest words for the duchess and Prince Harry after their Oprah interview.

But their interview this week “opens our eyes further” on the merits of the Commonwealth, wrote Nicholas Sengoba, a newspaper columnist in the former colony of Uganda.

He cited “unresolved issues” in his country relating to the abuses of colonialism and questioned whether the heads of Commonwealth countries should still be “proud to eat dinner” with members of the British royal family, considering the accusations.

Meghan, who is biracial, said in the interview that an unidentified member of the royal family had raised “concerns” about the color of her baby with Harry when she was pregnant with her son, Archie, and that the palace failed to help her when she had suicidal thoughts. Buckingham Palace said Tuesday that the allegations of racism by Harry and Meghan were “concerning” and would be addressed privately by the royal family.

Reaction to the interview was especially fierce in Africa. It was encapsulated by one Twitter user in South Africa who wrote: “It’s Britain and the royal family. What did you expect? They oppressed us for years.”

Piers Morgan leaves ITV’s morning show after clashing with guests, cohosts over the big Meghan-Harry interview. U.K. regulator Ofcom fielded 41,000 complaints.

Meghan and Harry traveled to South Africa in 2019, where their impending split with the royal family became clearer, and they even spoke of possibly living there.

Mohammed Groenewald, who showed them around at a mosque in Cape Town, was still digesting the interview, which was shown in South Africa on Monday. But he said that, more than anything, it sparked memories of “British colonial racism.”

“It comes out very clearly,” he said.

In Kenya, a former colony where a young Princess Elizabeth was visiting in 1952 when she learned about the death of her father and thus that she was now queen, news of the interview also has begun appearing in the country’s newspapers.

“We feel very angry seeing our fellow African sister being harassed because she is Black,” said Nairobi resident Sylvia Wangari, referring to Meghan. She added that Kenyans in 1952 did not show Elizabeth “any racism, and she stayed here without us showing her any discrimination.”

Oprah Winfrey’s sit-down with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex lays bare Britain’s divides over race, class and culture.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, which, like Australia, recognizes the British monarch as its head of state, declined to comment on the interview. He said many institutions in Canada were built around colonialism and systemic racism, including Parliament, and he said the answer was to listen to Canadians who face discrimination so that institutions can be fixed.

“The answer is not to suddenly toss out all the institutions and start over,” Trudeau said.

“I wish all the members of the royal family all the best, but my focus is getting through this pandemic. If people want to later talk about constitutional change and shifting our system of government, that’s fine, and they can have those conversations, but right now I’m not having those conversations.”

Before moving to Southern California, Harry and Meghan lived briefly in Canada and considered permanently settling there.

Jagmeet Singh, leader of the opposition New Democratic Party, said the British monarchy “is in no way beneficial to Canadians in terms of their everyday life.”

“And with the systematic racism that we’ve seen, it seems to be in that institution as well,” he said.

The interview was not shown on TV in India, the Commonwealth’s most populous member country, with 1.3 billion people. But it was covered by the media and drew negative reactions from the public toward the royals.

The Commonwealth “is relevant to the royal family, of course, because it shows that they ruled so many places,” lawyer Sunaina Phul said. “I don’t know why we are still a part of it.”

In Kingston, Jamaica, a retired professor said Meghan and Harry’s complaints of racism showed that it was time for her country to end its relationship with the royal family.

“What it should mean for us is that we should jump up and get rid of the queen as the head of state,” Carolyn Cooper said. “It’s a disreputable institution. It’s responsible for the enslavement of millions of us who came here to work on plantations. It’s part of the whole legacy of colonialism, and we need to get rid of it.”


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