Racism is a lucrative business. When it comes to Meghan Markle, the media’s strategy is transparent. Tabloids pillory her with a range of mostly ludicrous allegations – her baby bump is too prominent, her avocados are not “woke”, her earrings are drenched in blood – and then networks double up with manufactured debates in which anti-racist commentators try to push back on those narratives.
It’s no wonder that, in the teaser for his forthcoming interview with Oprah Winfrey, Prince Harry referred to history repeating itself. We saw a similar strategy of obsession and vilification play out with his mother. The genius of it then and now – from a tabloid perspective – is that they as perpetrators are also the major beneficiaries, as their endless coverage racks up clicks and newspaper sales.
Knowing this, and being aware that this discourse is rarely designed to achieve progress or change, has made me reluctant to continue entering the fray. I have not answered the literally hundreds of calls I’ve received recently from broadcast networks, asking me to comment first on the state of Meghan’s womb (presumably the entire nation feels entitled to have a view), and then on her decision to speak to Winfrey.
There is the general obsession with celebrities and royals, and then there is the particular shape this obsession takes when the object in question is a woman of colour.
It’s hardly breaking news that the British media is often driven by deeply racist instincts. You never have to look far to illustrate the point. “Do you look at [Meghan] and see a black woman? Cause I don’t,” said LBC host Andrew Pierce. “I see a very attractive woman. It’s never occurred to me.”
The idea that being attractive and being black are mutually exclusive has a long history in Britain. The very first time I was interviewed by a newspaper, aged 18, I was asked to comment on Jeffrey Archer’s view that, in the past, “your head did not turn in the road if a black woman passed you because they were badly dressed, they were probably overweight and they probably had a lousy job”. (At the time Archer was the Conservative candidate for mayor of London.)
Pierce simply offered us an up-to-date example of how, confronted with Meghan – a black woman he does consider attractive – commentators reconcile this apparent anomaly by reclassifying her as not black at all. And so that cycle continues.
So does the one involving the character assassination of women of colour as a kind of sport. The Mail on Sunday was willing to break the law – as a recent high court summary judgment established – and to take its attack on Meghan to a new low. Having obtained and published a distressing handwritten letter from Meghan to her estranged father, the tabloid deployed a handwriting expert to reveal that her penmanship shows her to be, “a showman and a narcissist”, “self-aware” and “self-oriented”, someone who suffers from “anxiety”. It would be strange not to suffer from anxiety, wouldn’t it, when the media is using your private life for a feeding frenzy, and the institution capable of shielding you – in this case, Buckingham Palace – has decided to sit back and watch?
Indeed, the palace has decided that this precise moment – days before the Sussex’s highly anticipated interview with Oprah Winfrey is broadcast – is the right time to launch an investigation into allegations of bullying made by former royal aides against Meghan three years ago.
Bullying allegations must be taken seriously. That should have been the case for home secretary Priti Patel, who was found culpable of abusing senior civil servants and has just paid out £340,000 to one of her accusers. Yet despite being accountable to the electorate, her political career seems unscathed by this. Clearly she plays a useful role for Boris Johnson, who has consistently protected her, even when she was found by his independent adviser to have broken the ministerial code, which is normally a resigning offence.
It’s richly ironic therefore that the media – which has relentlessly bullied Meghan, including most intensely during two periods when she has been pregnant – is now consumed with these latest allegations that she herself is a bully. It’s also not without context because – as numerous black women have attested of their experiences in white spaces – we are frequently perceived as threatening.
I have my own painful memories of how, as a teenager, younger children at my school said they found me “terrifying”, and how I was dubbed “Scary Spice”. Being biracial did not exempt me from being perceived as frightening simply because of my physical appearance.
It’s difficult to compare these personal experiences to those facing Meghan, because she has become a fixation of the global news media in ways few of us can imagine. She is in this position because of her relationship to the palace – a unique institution that creates global superstars who are not elected, not accountable to the electorate. In her case, she no longer even lives at the taxpayers’ expense.
And yet there is so much the palace could have done to provide Meghan with the same shielding that other senior members of the royal family enjoy. For Prince Andrew, who has faced allegations of involvement in sexual abuse, a palace spin doctor even tried to enlist the help of an online troll to discredit the prince’s accuser.
I would condemn the idea of discrediting Meghan’s sex abuse accusers; except she doesn’t have any. I would criticise Meghan for visiting Saudi Arabia, as other members of the royal family have on many occasions; except she has never set foot there.
Instead, she reportedly wore a pair of earrings gifted by Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose track record of extreme human rights abuses, including authorising the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the dismal war in Yemen, has not prevented our nation from selling him arms. I doubt the royal family will open an investigation into this particular allegation anyway, since doing so would offer an inconvenient reminder to countries in the former empire – now its Commonwealth friends – of how much of royal treasure was stolen from them.
I would criticise Meghan for furthering Prince Philip’s current state of ill health, except – contrary to the suggestion of one royal commentator – it has nothing to do with her whatsoever. If Meghan can be linked to murder for wearing jewellery, I dread to think what she’d be blamed for were his condition to get worse.
The greatest irony in all this, of course, is that Meghan left Britain – as I suspect we will discover with some clarity when her Oprah interview is broadcast – to get away from the toxic and racially motivated media obsession with her. And yet even in its remarkable track record of denying her the basic human expectations of privacy, the media are outdoing themselves all over again in proving that her judgment was right.
Afua Hirsch is a Guardian columnist