Clearly, What This Controversy Needs Is Another White Person’s Thoughts On Racism, And I Am Happy To Oblige

Over on Twitter, the Daily Telegraph columnist Dan Hodges asks a question: has Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, been the target of specifically racist press coverage? Or is it just the double-standards in way the press writes about her, compared to the Duchess of Cambridge, that has led people to conclude that Meghan is the victim of racism?

The answer to the question appears to be ‘no’ – there has not been any mainstream media coverage or commentary that deploys racist tropes or epithets.

Instead of receiving straight answers to that question, Hodges’ replies are full of people complaining that he has missed the point. The duchess has been held to a different standard to her sister-in-law, and the most obvious difference between the two women is that Meghan is mixed-race. A fashionable response I see a lot on Twitter is a wry ‘Mrs Merton’ type question: “Yes, why does the first mixed-race member of the Royal Family receive so much criticism? What could it possibly be?”

This question reveals the different epistemological orbits of those who have gone through their lives experiencing racism first-hand, and those who have the privilege to know about it only in the abstract. The former group tell us that it’s obviously racist, which prompts unease among those in the latter group. Why attribute everything to race? Unless it’s explicit, how can we ever know? Why must you racialise everything? Why be so sensitive?

The response to this (which is one that feels right to me) is that victims of racism are the best judges of whether something is racist or not. If they say that something is racist… then it probably is.

I think this is a fine heuristic for everyday life. But intellectually, it sticks in the craw. At a time when labelling something as ‘racist’ is so consequential for a person’s career and social standing, having the matter settled by such a subjective measure is worrying. The same goes for labelling an institution or even a country as racist. It can’t just be on some people’s say-so, can it?

To counter that, we might point out that racism itself manifests itself subjectively. It’s not always people screaming nasty epithets accross the street (though of course that does happen). More often, racism is a feeling that cannot be rationalised or even articulated. It is the teacher’s judgement that the black kid is disruptive while the white kid needs to be challenged; The interview panel’s innate sense that a crew cut is ‘professional’ while dread-locks are not; The aesthetic ‘rule’ that a thin nose is beautiful and a wider one is ugly; The police constable’s perception of who is acting suspicious; and so on.

White people are not used to having subjective judgments affecting their everyday lives and long-term life chances. And so it bugs us when perception and feelings are turned back upon us, and our moral conduct (whether personally or as a society) is condemned.

I think this is what is at the root of the current backlash against the ‘racism’ explanation, now embodied in the person of Lawrence Fox, the rich white man who recently claimed to be the victim of racism himself.

Native informant

“If you want to know whether something is racist,” they say, “then ask a victim of the racism.”

Yeah, you could do that. Or you could ask someone who knows the alleged racists, and probably is one himself.

Someone like me.

I grew up in the Home Counties. The Daily Mail heartlands, where the great, washed middle-classes rubbed shoulders with the upper-middle-classes. A real melting pot of colour, from gleaming white to ruddy pink. It was idyllic.

My town was not the sort of place that produces leaders as such. If you want a Prime Minister or a Captain of Industry you still need to go and find one in Eton, apparently. But it’s only one rung below all that. Upper management, if you like. Permenantly Tory and precisely the kind of mentality that is perfectly reflected by the middle-market tabloids.

I know my people. I lived among them. And let me assure you, I would know if they were racist.

They definitely are.

Not, you understand, N— word and P— word racist. Not the kind to deliberately exclude a brown family from the golf club or clutch pearls at a mixed-race marriage.

Rather, it’s the second-order racism, described above, that’s rife in my people. Something unspoken, not because of some grand conspiracy to keep a secret but because we don’t even know we’re doing it.

And what’s true for my Daily Mail reading home town is, I believe, true for those at that newspaper and others who are subjecting Meghan Markle to the constant drip of below-the-water prejudice. Not a few ‘bad apples’ at one newspaper or on Twiiter, but an entire culture inexplicably agin to this woman and others like her.

I think it is important to offer a partial defence against the accusation of racist bias against the duchess, because I think to do so offers an important insight into what’s actually going on.

The negative coverage is not only driven by racism. There are other prejudices mixed up in there too. There is a clear class prejudice at play – an annoyance at someone acting Royal, who wasn’t. There is some sexism in the mix. And finally, some Anti-Americanism, which is a cousin of class prejudice.

To mention these other -isms does not (or should not) diminish the charge of racism. Prejudice is not a zero sum game.

But this does, I think, explain some of the pushback against the racism charge. Not against the analysis per se, but rather against its crude one-dimensionality as an explanation for what’s going on. The unpleasant treatment of Meghan Markle is down to so much more than just racism. It’s a complex web of prejudice – one that is so uniquely British, that it makes me almost patriotic to think about it.

2 Replies to “Clearly, What This Controversy Needs Is Another White Person’s Thoughts On Racism, And I Am Happy To Oblige”

  1. I think this is a superb distillation, Robert. I’ve always said myself it’s a combination of three factors – race, the fact that she’s foreign (and American in particular), and the fact she’s an actress (which has led to the silly, fevered suggestion by many of her detractors that she’s “fake” or acting; it’s not that long ago in the cultural memory that the acting profession was held in low regard and actresses were viewed as akin to prostitutes). I think if she had been white but still an American actress, she’d still have gotten a targeted, comprehensive campaign of abuse from the press (the opportunity to spin out a fictitious good-princess/bad-princess soap opera narrative to sell newspapers and magazines would have been too tempting to resist in all cases) but it would have been less bad and less enduring. Class is a huge, huge factor, and Meghan’s difficult family background and the financially motivated media interventions of her estranged family members on her father’s side haven’t helped. If Harry had been the older brother and thus first in line to the throne, it simply wouldn’t have happened; the media would have thrown themselves at her feet as they have done with Kate. But because Harry is the “spare”, she’s an available target and it’s open season. I almost think that if Harry had been gay and had married a middle-class white English guy, they’d have been better treated by the press than Harry and Meghan have been.

    Every new royal gets an initial grace period of positive coverage, then the exploitative end of the press (mid-market tabloids, red-tops, women’s magazines and gossip sites) start running negative stories on a test basis, to see if there’s a public appetite for them. Pretty much every royal has had this at some point. It only endures if the negative stories meet with public demand that makes them financially worthwhile. In the 2000s, before social media, there simply weren’t enough people who resented (or could be inculcated into hating) Camilla, let alone Kate in the 2010s, so their periods of negative coverage were much shorter. But this time, the media discovered that their readership was (for some reason) hungry for – and prepared to shell out for – vicious negative stories painting Meghan as a soap-opera villain (my go-to reference here is Annie from Sunset Beach, which makes Kate Meg). So it mushroomed into a genre and generated a sustained income stream. Publicly abusing an innocent person to make money out of latest racists. Once it had started, none of the publications doing it were realistically going to turn the money tap off, especially not when all their competitors were doing it too. One almost has to be thankful for the royalist obsequiousness of genteel old-school titles like Hello!, which amid a sea of nastiness has been consistently positive about Harry and Meghan.

    The treatment of, and attitude toward, Meghan in this country reminds me of Amanda Knox – who has been proven completely innocent (stitched up together with her then-boyfriend by a conspiracy-obsessed Italian cop with a track record of unprofessional overreach), but was portrayed through the UK media as a she-devil based on little more than her body language and a few anecdotal reports of her behavior. Again, the fact she was a) American and b) perceived as worldly and sexual fed into this greatly (as did her slightly odd, non-neurotypical personality). Most people in the UK still think she murdered Kercher despite the clear findings.

    About that second-order racism – I’ve had very different experiences in central Europe when travelling solo as a white guy or with white friends/family members versus when travelling with non-white friends. I’d traveled in Germany, Austria and eastern Europe for years and never had any bad experiences, but the first time I did so with non-white companions was a real eye-opener, and I was shocked at how differently we were treated in restaurants, by bus drivers, by museum staff, etc. Never a single instance of open racism, but just consistent incidents of hostile treatment and surliness clearly driven by an underlying anti-foreigner sentiment, even in places you’d expect to be thankful for paying guests. It really unnerved and perturbed me, and it got worse after the 2015 refugee crisis. The fact I speak fluent German (with an English accent) even started working against me in parts of eastern Germany, because then you’re no longer perceived as a tourist (good) but a resident foreigner (bad). So you’re correct – racism doesn’t have to be open, it’s much more insidious than that, especially in countries where open racism is taboo so people and publications find other ways to express it instead. (The whole “Obama is secretly a Muslim”/”Obama wasn’t born in America” thing was only ever a code for “Obama is black” that allowed people to express racist sentiment towards him without committing the rhetorical taboo of open anti-black racism.)

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