Since Oprah Winfrey’s March 7 interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the truths uncovered by the discussion have been the topic of rampant and ongoing conversation and has fueled accusations of racism by the Royal Family. Like many, I was unsurprised by the revelations disclosed in the interview. As someone who has worked in prestigious organizations where I was one of the few women of color, many of Markle and Harry’s stories resonated strongly with me. Unfortunately, many women of color in the workplace experience similar racist microaggressions, a frequent lack of support and gaslighting on a daily basis.
Looking Inside the Interview:
Markle shared that she was “naïve” about the true nature of the Royal Family when she entered her marriage. She said she did not recognize that it was more than just “a family” and rather a long-standing institution built to protect itself from change and potential scrutiny. Markle shared that to her mind, there are two entities existing within Buckingham Palace: “There is the family, and then there’s the people running the institution.”
This discovery was something she was unaware of and thus unprepared to deal with. “Perception and reality are two very different things,” Markle said. “You’re being judged by the perception — but you’re living the reality.”
According to Harry, the “institution survives based on the perception.” It strives to appear neutral, even when it is detrimental to the members of the family. He also mentioned how he and his family were “trapped within the system,” forced to maintain the status quo and keep up appearances in an attempt to ensure the monarchy’s longevity.
Initially, when she was introduced to the family, Harry stated that they were supportive. But this changed, according to Harry, when Markle proved her competency — and glamour — during a trip to Australia on behalf of the Royal Family, making her a threat to the others in the Royal Family.
Ultimately, the U.K. media also turned on the couple and unfairly scrutinized Markle’s behavior in comparison to her sister-in-law, Kate Middleton, who is married to Prince William.
One example Winfrey cited in the interview was how Middleton was frequently praised by the press for mundane actions like eating avocados or holding her belly while pregnant. Markle, on the other hand, was excoriated for doing these same exact things.
There was also a rumor that Markle made Middleton cry over the importance of the dresses for her and Harry’s wedding. Markle shared that the reverse happened; it was actually Middleton who made Markle cry. While the Royal Family knew the truth, no one refuted this story to the press.
This is something I know all too well as a Black woman who is constantly dealing with the “angry Black woman stereotype,” and the fact that white tears can be weaponized.
It became clear that there were not only double standards but that the media wanted a “hero and villain” narrative. As such, Markle was painted as a money-hungry and manipulative person. She then turned to the Royal Family for support, but they would not speak out for her or highlight the truth. Markle believed that they would “protect” her, a belief she now regrets. She was left feeling vulnerable and alone, leading to depression and thoughts of suicide. Still, she was expected to “perform” as a happy, jovial and elegant royal. Due to the challenges many women of color face in organizations, they can experience mental health issues, particularly when dealing with systems that were not designed for them and do not support them.
Markle and Harry told Winfrey there was a real opportunity to have the Royal Family be representative of the diversity in the Commonwealth (which, as Markle highlighted in the interview, is “around 60% people of color”), and to speak out against injustice — an ample opportunity the Royal Family failed to take.
Markle also mentioned how influential her presence in the family could have been, emphasizing in the interview that “growing up as a woman of color… as a little girl of color… I know how important representation is. I know how you want to see someone that looks like you in certain positions.”
Ultimately, the Royal Family’s lack of support — from not disputing claims made by the U.K. media to taking away Harry and Markle’s security team — led the couple to step away from the royal life.
Markle often had to advocate for herself and, unlike others in the Royal Family, she had to learn how to behave (protocols for bowing and speaking) with no support or mentorship. If they had received more support, the couple admitted they would have likely stayed with the institution.
Lessons We Can All Take Away:
For women of color and allies alike, there were several key lessons and takeaways revealed in Winfrey’s conversation with Markle and Harry that can be applied to almost any workplace:
- Recognize that women of color often face enhanced scrutiny even when holding higher-level positions, and are held to double standards that white women may not encounter. Watch out for these occurrences and don’t be afraid to point them out to coworkers and managers.
- Be aware that women of color entering a prestigious organization or institution are often expected to conform or deal with the current community-norm culture. Others are likely to think women of color are “just lucky to be here” and will likely be unwilling to change structures and behaviors for their benefit. If you are a woman of color, push against these boundaries and don’t let them constrain you or hold you back.
- Understand that as a woman of color in the workplace, you may be mistreated and undervalued in your position. Simultaneously, the company may use you as a token symbol of diversity or progress in order to improve its overall appearance and external reputation. Both of these behaviors are wrong; you don’t have to stand for them.
- Don’t be afraid to make a change when it’s necessary. As a woman of color, it’s acceptable to leave a toxic environment — especially after you have tried your best to work within the system to improve the work environment. It is ok and find a workplace where you feel safe.
- For women of color, do not think you are solely responsible for enacting change in your organization. People have to want to change in order for true change to occur. Some don’t want to evolve and progress, and you may never be able to make them change —particularly in organizations focused on “tradition” which can literally mean maintaining the status quo. When you encounter these toxic individuals or organizations, know that it’s always ok to cut them from your life and replace them with people and organizations that do support you and that do recognize your value and existence exactly as you are.
- The lesson for allies: do not ignore injustice in the workplace. Address racist comments and behaviors if you see them. Speak out and take action, regardless of the risks. In Markle’s case, Harry showed an example of true allyship by not only communicating the racist comments he’d heard from family members with Markle but also denouncing them — even though they were coming from his family. Harry continued his support, eventually noticing what was happening and recognizing the racism and differential treatment his wife was experiencing (lack of security, title differences for their son Archie, etc.). He also educated himself on racism and the Black experience. He was willing to take the risk of challenging those closest to him and an institution he’d grown up in, even if it meant upsetting people he loved or losing them.
Whether it’s in your work life or your personal life, is not easy to bring issues of maltreatment and racism to the forefront. That’s true when you’re dealing with a friend or family member, and especially true when the culprit represents a powerful, long-standing institution, particularly one that many in the public respect or hold in high regard.
As a woman of color, people may discount your experiences. They may criticize you on a personal level, or view you as a traitor — as if you should be loyal to an institution that does not support you. They may assume that the organization or the institution — and not the individual — is always right. But you know the truth.
It can be a risky endeavor to be bold, to share your story or experiences with racism, biased treatment and inequality. But as Markle and Harry have shown, it’s a challenge worth taking on. When you share your story; when you make changes that are important for you, that support your life, ambitions and goals — that’s when true happiness, success and career fulfillment can occur.
About the author
Dr. Brittany Robertson is a Research Analyst with DiversityInc. She is a project lead for DiversityInc’s annual Women of Color and Allies event and assists with various research projects. Dr. Robertson received her doctorate in higher education from the University of Pennsylvania. She also has an extensive career as a higher education professional, working in the areas of advising, admissions, enrollment and recruitment. Dr. Robertson’s research focus is on women of color and their experiences in the workplace.