What ‘Harry & Meghan’ Still Doesn’t Say About Race
“I tried so hard.”
These are the words that Meghan Markle said out loud, utterly exasperated, when she landed in Canada from England in March 2020, a few hours after she and her husband, Prince Harry, finished their last official event as working members of the British royal family. Tearfully recounting this exchange with her security guard during the second half of the docu-series “Harry & Meghan,” released on Thursday by Netflix, Meghan continued, “That’s the piece that’s so triggering.”
“Because you go, It still wasn’t good enough,” she added finally. “And you still don’t fit in.”
This is not breaking news. Most headlines have focused on Harry’s more dramatic but hardly unexpected revelation that his older brother, Prince William, yelled at him when he announced that he and Meghan were stepping back from their royal roles.
But Meghan’s admission was one of the more heartbreaking moments in this six-part documentary. Because for women, especially women of color, “I tried so hard” is a frustratingly familiar refrain, particularly when paired with “it still wasn’t good enough, and you still don’t fit in.”
Her words, appearing in the penultimate episode, also capture the central, unresolvable conflict of an uneven docu-series that tries to confront the topic of race, the monarchy and the British media head-on.
Directed by Liz Garbus, “Harry & Meghan” goes wider in scope, particularly in its first half, than did the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’ more provocative sit-down interview with Oprah Winfrey, in March 2021. Back then, the most jarring revelations included the charge that a close family member had expressed concerns to the couple over how dark the skin color of their son, Archie, might be, a disclosure that resonated even more because of how casual and intimate the racism was.
More on the British Royal Family
- Harry vs. William: In the latest installment of the Netflix documentary “Harry & Meghan,” the younger prince made several incendiary allegations about his brother.
- Boston Visit: Prince William and Princess Catherine of Wales recently made a whirlwind visit to Boston. Swaths of the city were unimpressed.
- Aide Resigns: A Buckingham Palace staff member quit after a British-born Black guest said the aide pressed her on where she was from.
- ‘The Crown’: Months ago, the new season of the Netflix drama was shaping up as another public-relations headache for Prince Charles. But then he became king.
The racism explored in the documentary is generally less about what occurs among the Windsors than about its long history within British culture. Commentators including Kehinde Andrews, Afua Hirsch and David Olusoga, experts on Black British identity, explain how the origins of modern British racism go back to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonialism, illustrating how endemic white supremacy was to the rise of the British Empire, and thus essential to the monarchy itself.
This contextualization, arguably the most enlightening aspect of the series, intensifies the offensiveness of the real villain in Harry and Meghan’s story: the British tabloids with whom the monarchy has a symbiotic (parasitic?) relationship. When a newspaper scapegoated Meghan as “gangster royalty,” or when, as Harry recalls, the BBC journalist Danny Baker tweeted a photo of a couple holding a baby chimpanzee after Archie’s birth, they are drawing on deep roots.
Yet, there is a paradox at the heart of the series. As much as “Harry & Meghan” acknowledges how enduring and intractable these racial stereotypes are, the real-life Harry and Meghan were a bit dumbfounded and highly disappointed that they, or rather their marriage, never really had the opportunity to transform it, a responsibility to which they say they had hoped to dedicate the rest of their lives.
“Anyone inside that system, whether it’s my family, whether it’s staff, whether it’s P.R., whatever it is, have already missed an enormous opportunity with my wife,” Harry says. “And how far that would go globally.”
Of course, he is right. Referencing her popularity during their tours to Australia, South Africa, Malawi, Angola and Botswana, Harry highlighted Meghan’s rare ability, as a biracial woman, to both represent a truly modern monarchy and connect to the people — especially those in the Caribbean and Africa, which together contain more than half of the independent countries that make up the British Commonwealth.
And while such optimism is needed by many of us Black people to sustain our aspirations and ambitions as we navigate the predominantly white institutions in which we often live, learn or work, it is also somewhat naïve. It risks prioritizing individuality over collectivity and symbolism over structural change. While one person might move up the ladder and serve as an inspirational example, the infrastructure of discrimination often remains the same — unbending, unmoving and ultimately unwelcoming.
The British Empire is still with us, in a way, in the form of the Commonwealth realms. A group of nations that still count the British monarch as their head of state, the realms are mostly former colonies, and some have grown increasingly incensed at Britain’s reluctance to atone for various horrors it perpetrated during the colonial era and, in some cases, beyond.
So, at the end of my six hours of watching “Harry & Meghan,” I found myself caring far less about their family scandals or even their enviable fairy-tale romance. It was the parallel narrative of the documentary that lingered: If Meghan had been allowed to fulfill her role as what the Australian scholar Jess Carniel calls “The Commonwealth Princess,” what would that have actually achieved for those millions of people who saw themselves in her?
We will never know. Instead, progress has been made in other ways. Six commonwealth countries in the Caribbean formally expressed a desire earlier this year to move out from under the Crown. In 2021, Barbados cut its ties. Protesters in Jamaica and Belize demanded an apology and reparations for slavery from the British crown during William and Kate’s tour there in March.
The series includes mention of these developments, in an almost obligatory fashion. But such actions will have far more reaching consequences for a monarchy that now finds itself with a new king, Charles III, and a working royal family that, with the very public departure of Harry, Meghan and their children, finds itself substantially (and avoidably) less diverse.
It is not the outcome I would have predicted when I cheered for the couple on their wedding day, but it’s the one I probably should have known was going to happen all along. “Harry & Meghan” makes a convincing case that Meghan did try, and that it should have been good enough. But maybe this is the fairy tale ending that the British monarchy always deserved.