King Charles wants to appear progressive on race. He’s not

Banseka Kayembe, OpenDemocracy

The King’s coronation is here and those watching across the world will be taking great interest in the similarities and differences to the crowning of Queen Elizabeth 70 years ago. These comparisons to his mother’s reign are something Charles will struggle to avoid, and there are already signs he wants to do his own thing – or at least appear to be doing so.

In what has been lauded as a significant step forward, he recently expressed support for research into the monarchy’s ties with slavery, suggesting a more progressive approach to race and racism for the royal family. But an institution that has survived for hundreds of years knows how to adapt to survive; so how substantively different are these attitudes to race? Do these actions really threaten the white supremacy embedded in the monarchy?

It’s definitely a timely intervention. The murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the global Black Lives Matter protests that followed brought racism and the legacy of empire back into the spotlight. In the UK, that meant more scrutiny on the royal family. This was compounded by revelations soon after from Prince Harry and his biracial wife Meghan Markle that there were concerns about the darkness of their son Archie’s skin colour from someone within the institution. William and Kate’s Caribbean tour then received backlash for its patronising colonial tropes; images of them parading in a 4×4 waving at their subjects seemed oddly anachronistic. And last year the Queen’s lady-in-waiting, Lady Susan Hussey, was forced to resign after her racist interrogation of Ngozi Fulani, the then-CEO of Black domestic abuse charity Sistah Space (who later resigned because of the backlash the charity faced). In asking Fulani: “Where are you really from?” Lady Hussey revealed how comfortable people within the institution are with being casually racist.

Despite a largely positive reputation as a grandmotherly figure of the nation, the Queen’s record on racism was pretty poor. Her official response to the interpersonal racism suffered by Meghan was to insist she knew nothing about it and wanted to solve these issues “privately”. She also had, for a period of time, a household ban on hiring staff of colour, making herself exempt from racial equality laws. Even superficial changes, such as renaming the empire honours awards to make them less offensive, she refused to do. The perception of the Queen as a harmless, benevolent older woman, hid the insidious racism of the monarchy, both past and present.

Charles in some ways seems much more savvy, perhaps knowing he does not have the luxury of high approval ratings like his mother. Last year in his Commonwealth address he apologised to nations affected by slavery, citing his “personal sorrow at the suffering of so many”. He made the unprecedented step of guest editing Britain’s only Black newspaper The Voice in September in a bid to appeal to Black Britons. Buckingham Palace also – with Charles as monarch – swiftly labelled Lady Hussey’s comments as “unacceptable and deeply regrettable”.

It all seems, on a superficial glance, like a step in the right direction.

In many ways, though, the monarchy is more like a private corporation than it is a public service; it’s known internally as “The Firm”. Underneath the pomp and pageantry is private wealth in the realm of billions. Like many corporations’ efforts to launder their reputation through what are essentially PR campaigns, Charles’s reign will not be substantively different. The University of Bristol has researched its own ties to slavery, the Guardian recently published an apology for its founders’ links to slavery and even The Bank of England held an exhibition following research into its role in the slave trade. Whilst these actions may ease consciences and boost bottom lines, what tangible difference does admitting this do, if it is not followed by financial reparations to the communities exploited?

There is also something very problematic in suggesting the royal family’s involvement with the slave trade is somehow vague, or even unknown. From Elizabeth I signing off the first known slave ships, to the creation of the slave trading corporation The Royal African Company by James II (African slaves had RAC burned into their flesh to mark them as property), much is already known. Other colonial exploits they benefited from are also well known; the crown jewels contain diamonds seized by the East India Company in warfare. This research is an endeavour of distraction, a liberal attempt to address racism, without any explicit mention of subsequent actions that would fundamentally alter the economic exploitation that has underpinned it.

An institution based on concepts such as “blood purity” and constructed hierarchies is unlikely to ever be capable of being decolonised. British monarchs have been key players in the country’s colonial project, accruing personal wealth at the expense of violently subjected people across the world, and it was justified on the basis of racism. The current monarch continues to be a financial beneficiary of this through inherited wealth. Even Prince Harry, hailed by some as a model anti-racist, couldn’t quite bring himself to critique Lady Hussey, modern British imperialism abroad, or admit the comments about his child’s skin colour were racist, instead choosing the tepid label of “unconscious bias”.

The deep impacts of slavery and colonialism live on and recognition of this history is not enough. The best thing Charles could ever do to be truly anti-racist is to commit to financial reparations and to abolish the monarchy altogether – but I don’t expect that to be on the table any time soon.

This article was originally published on OpenDemocracy and has been republished under a Creative Commons License

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