Insult or Understanding? Prince Harry and Meghan Markle Spark Debate on Race

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry's calls for the Commonwealth to address the past have sparked anger among British commentators.

The Duchess of Sussex warned the conversation could become "uncomfortable" as together with her husband she called out racism and unconscious bias.

And the debate started almost immediately in the U.K. with many interpreting the remarks as an attack on the Commonwealth, which has Queen Elizabeth II as its head.

A palace insider told Newsweek they knew about the discussion in advance and were "fine" with Harry and Meghan's comments.

Here's some of the other reaction.

What Harry and Meghan actually said

The couple made their comments as president and vice president of the Queen's Commonwealth Trust, an independent charity aimed at creating opportunities for young people.

Prince Harry said: "Certainly, when you look across the Commonwealth there is no way that we can move forward unless we acknowledge the past."

Meghan said: "We have to, in this moment in time, say 'we're going to have to be a little uncomfortable right now' because it's only in pushing through that discomfort that we get to the other side of this and find the place, as you're pointing out, where a high tide raises all ships."

She added: "It's not just in the big moments, it's in the quiet moments where racism and unconscious bias lies and hides and thrives. It makes it confusing for a lot of people to understand the role that they play in that, both passively and actively."

Prince Harry, Meghan Markle at Commonwealth Day
Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, attend the Commonwealth Day Service at Westminster Abbey on March 9, 2020 in London, England. Max Mumby/Getty

The Media

The duke and duchess have had repeated arguments with the media and it was not long before commentators denounced their remarks.

The BBC's veteran political interviewer Andrew Neil criticized the couple for not distinguishing between the British Empire of territories conquered and the Commonwealth, a voluntary union.

He said on Twitter: "What is it that the Commonwealth has done wrong? And since they don't live in it, what's it got to do with them?"

In response to one reply, he added: "The Commonwealth replaced Empire. So what? It's multi-racial club of independent states. Membership is entirely voluntary. Even non-UK colonies have joined. It took strong stand against apartheid. What's your problem? Where's its 'brutal history'?"

Veteran royal photographer Arthur Edwards acknowledged there had been no official indication from the palace that the queen was upset.

However, writing in The Sun, he also said: "Prince Harry is entitled to his views. But in criticizing the Commonwealth—the organisation closest to his grandmother's heart—he has simply lost the plot.

"One of the Queen's greatest achievements has been keeping together 54 countries in this 'family of nations,' which grew out of the end of the British Empire."

Meanwhile, Daily Mail columnist Robert Hardman wrote: "I'm not entirely comfortable saying this, but you seem to assume that the Commonwealth and the British Empire are one and the same thing.

"It is a common enough mistake among people with no great interest in the subject, but a pretty baffling howler for the President of the Queen's Commonwealth Trust (as you continue to be, despite relinquishing the Youth Ambassador role).

"The modern Commonwealth was born as the Empire shrivelled. And yet given the choice, almost all the free and independent nations which had once been part of the British Empire gladly signed up to this new creation."

Meghan Markle Launch of Together Cookbook
Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, interacts with a young girl at the launch of the Together cookbook with recipes from Hubb Community Kitchen chefs who were affected by the Grenfell Tower fire. The launch was at Kensington Palace on September 20, 2018. Ben Stansall/Getty

The Commonwealth

Seth George Ramocan, Jamaica's High Commissioner to Britain, backed Harry and Meghan's comments as a representative of a commonwealth country.

He told the U.K's Today program: "This really should be a matter of open discussion and acknowledgement of what the wrongs were, particularly through the slave trade and how we come to a common understanding about this."

He added: "I believe what the duke and duchess are saying is that there is an elephant in the room and we all need to address it because if we want to move forward... we will just have this stumbling block in the way.

"To move on we need just what Prince Harry is saying - we need to move on but we can't move on without understanding. For that reason there needs to be a discussion because much of the ills of the past perpetuate today.

"What really was the mindset that drove slavery was the mindset of dehumanisation. We saw one people as being so much less than the other that they became chittle. That mindset still exists in a more subtle form of course, but certainly it impacts the relationship. I think that discussion has to take place."

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in Morocco
Meghan Markle and Prince Harry attend a reception hosted by the British Ambassador to Morocco at the British Residence during the second day of her tour of Morocco on February 24, 2019 in Rabat, Morocco. Samir Hussein/Getty

Academics

A number of academics have also spoken out, offering their interpretations of the history behind debate.

Professor Nigel Biggar, who runs a University of Oxford project on the British Empire, told the Daily Telegraph: "My view is that I don't think the Commonwealth has anything in particular to be ashamed of. There were parts of our history that were bad, but that's not particularly remarkable.

"The idea that we all have a rosy, upbeat view of the Empire as being simply good and nothing ever bad happened... I'd be very surprised if most Brits aren't aware of our involvement in slavery. I find the notion that there's some dirty secret about the Commonwealth extraordinary."

Professor Saul Dubow, of the University of Cambridge, told the Daily Telegraph: "I think Harry and Meghan have some good instincts but a very shallow understanding of history. I don't know exactly what Harry is referring to but I guess it's that the Commonwealth for many people has seemed like an extension of British imperial power.

"The Commonwealth was part of the continuation of the British Empire under another name, and there is some truth to that. But it's not a simple truth. Over many years, Commonwealth members successfully excised the adjective 'British' from the organisation and repurposed it to serve their own interests and objectives.

"It's all about subtlety, complexity, and paradox. There's no simple moral story in history and certainly not in the Commonwealth," said Dubow.