Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, better known as Meghan Markle, stunned the world (and apparently the royal family) when they announced on Wednesday that they would be "stepping back" from royal duties, splitting their time between Britain and North America, and seeking to become financially independent. But there was one group of people who weren't at all surprised -- black people living in Britain. Some expressed relief that Markle (whose mother is African-American) was finally out of the toxic atmosphere in which she'd been trapped. They wondered how she had stood it for so long. "Nobody should tolerate bullying and abusive behavior because of the color of their skin," Sanaa Edness, an immigrant from the Caribbean to Britain told the New York Times. Edness added that she'd experienced similar racism herself.

What racism? Well, there was Rachel Johnson, prime minister Boris Johnson's sister, who commented that Markle had "rich and exotic DNA." There was the BBC commentator who tweeted an image of a couple holding hands with a chimpanzee and joked that it was the royal baby. There was the Daily Mail headline "Harry's girl is (almost) straight outta Compton," on a story that enumerated the recent crimes that have taken place near Markle's childhood home, and listed all the street gangs known to operate in the area, reminding the reader again and again that the neighborhood where she was born "couldn't be more different" from the tony environment in which Prince Harry was raised. 

Then there was the sense that, no matter what she did, Markle could never do anything right. At least according to some critics in the press, who earnestly insisted that it wasn't her race they objected to, it was some other thing that she'd done wrong. Like when she was roundly criticized for guest-editing an issue of Vogue UK. Dan Wootton, executive editor of The Sun went on TV to say, outrage in his voice, that "Royals don't guest-edit magazines!" Except that they have a long tradition of doing just that. Prince Charles guest-edited Country Life twice. Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, to whom Markle is frequently unfavorably compared, was praised for guest-editing the Huffington Post and she also posed for the cover of the UK Vogue. But just in case there was any doubt as to the true reason for objections to Markle, the Mail dug up her family tree and published it, writing, "Now that's upwardly mobile! How in 150 years, Meghan Markle's family went from cotton slaves to royalty."

And then there are the other members of the royal family, who have met all this abuse with silence. "You never see them speaking out about the racism, standing beside her, defending her. She's been all alone," a black immigrant to Britain from South Africa told the New York Times

Are billions in revenue leaving with them?

Prince Harry and Meghan "stepping back" from being senior royals has financial consequences. Some Britons (and especially the same tabloids that have been attacking Markle all along) have expressed outrage that the couple say they will perform fewer royal duties, which usually include such things as ribbon cuttings and visiting schools and hospitals, given that British taxpayers have been paying for their security and funded the multi-million-pound renovation of their home. But the hugely popular couple, social influencers with millions of followers, have been revenue generators too. By one estimate, the royal wedding (which the royal family paid for) brought about a billion pounds to the British economy. This included things like foreign tourists coming for the wedding and sales of wedding memorabilia. Since then, interest in the couple has remained high, translating into sales of products bearing their images and a boon for the retail and travel industries. 

But perhaps even more important, it raised the international standing of the royal family and of Britain itself. An estimated two billion people around the world watched the wedding, which many have compared to a fairy tale. After all, Edward VIII, the last royal to marry a divorced American woman, was forced to abdicate the throne as a result. Now here was the royal family and their millions of subjects embracing a beautiful and glamorous American commoner who was not only divorced but also biracial. It seemed to signal that the monarchy and the nation were evolving away from their xenophobic past. It did indeed seem like a fairy tale, one for modern times.

But the fairy tale turned out not to be true. Polls seem to show that most Britons are angry with the couple for making their announcement without prior royal approval, even though the Sun was about to break the story, and even though they'd been attempting to negotiate a more orderly exit for over a month. To the non-British world, though, it makes the royal family, and the Britons who revere them, seem racist, churlish, and stuck in a past when they considered themselves superior to all other people on Earth. That's not a good look for a nation that wants to belong in the 21st century. And it's not good for business, either.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the subjects of a photograph of a couple holding hands with a chimpanzee. The subjects in the photo are unidentified.

Published on: Jan 11, 2020
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.