The Meghan and Harry interview: A 'damaging' view on race as Palace history repeats itself

Amid all that Prince Harry and Meghan had to say to Oprah Winfrey, one statement stood out and seems particularly serious for the House of Windsor: the declaration that a senior member of the Royal Family had worries about the colour of the skin of their first child before he was born.

Duke and Duchess of Sussex offered numerous revelations that are sure to rattle the monarchy

Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, are interviewed by Oprah Winfrey in an interview broadcast Sunday night. (Harpo Productions/Joe Pugliese/Reuters)

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The revelations just kept coming Sunday night as Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, gave Oprah Winfrey — and a worldwide television audience — their view on why they had to leave the upper echelons of the Royal Family.

The reasons were many, but amid all they had to say, there was one statement that stood out and seems particularly serious for the House of Windsor: Meghan's declaration that a senior member of the Royal Family had worries about the colour of the skin of their first child before he was born.

In an interview Monday on CBS This Morning, Winfrey said Harry told her neither Queen Elizabeth nor Prince Philip were part of conversations about Archie's skin colour.

"I think it's very damaging — the idea that a senior member of the Royal Family had expressed concern about what Archie might look like," Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based royal author and historian, said in an interview late Sunday night.

Meghan told Winfrey the concern had been relayed to her by Harry, and when questioned further on it, Harry refused to offer more specifics, saying it's a "conversation I'm never going to share."

And that, Harris suggests, speaks to the seriousness of the matter.

"It's very clear that Harry didn't want to go into details feeling that it would be too damaging for the monarchy."

WATCH | Royal Family expressed concerns about son's skin colour, Meghan tells Oprah:

Meghan says Royal Family expressed concerns about son's skin colour

3 years ago
Duration 0:16
Meghan told Oprah Winfrey that the Royal Family didn't want her and Prince Harry's son to be made a prince or receive security partly over concerns over how dark the baby's skin would be.

It will take time to digest the impact of all that Harry and Meghan had to say to Winfrey. But some early comments in the British media this morning suggest Harry and Meghan's account will have a profound impact.

"They have revealed the terrible strains inside the palace. They have drawn a picture of unfeeling individuals lost in an uncaring institution. They have spoken of racism within the Royal Family. This was a devastating interview," the BBC's royal correspondent, Jonny Dymond, wrote in an online analysis

"But Harry describing his brother and father as 'trapped,' and Meghan revealing that she repeatedly sought help within the palace only to be rebuffed is a body blow to the institution."

'A damning allegation'

The Guardian reported that Harry and Meghan telling Winfrey of conversations in the Royal Family about Archie's skin colour is "a damning allegation that will send shockwaves through the institution and send relations with the palace to a new low."

Many themes and issues developed over the two-hour broadcast, which sprinkled lighter moments — they're expecting a girl, they have rescue chickens and Archie, age almost two, has taken to telling people to "drive safe" — with much more serious concerns, including the lack of support they say they received, particularly as Meghan had suicidal thoughts.

WATCH | Meghan had suicidal thoughts during royal life:

Meghan says she thought about suicide during royal life

3 years ago
Duration 0:23
The Duchess of Sussex told Oprah Winfrey that she had asked for help from the Royal Family for her mental health, but received none.

"A theme that emerges again and again, and it's something that Harry explicitly states in the interview, is the Royal Family being concerned with the opinion of the tabloid press," said Harris. "This may very well have influenced decisions not to speak out about the way Meghan was being treated and that may have influenced some other decisions as well."

One of those might be the question of security, something that was of considerable concern to the couple when they learned royal support for it would be withdrawn.

"The Royal Family has frequently in the past received bad press regarding minor members ... receiving security,"said Harris.

'Negative headlines'

"There were a lot of negative headlines regarding Beatrice and Eugenie continuing to receive security and their father's [Prince Andrew's] insistence they receive security despite being comparatively minor members of the Royal Family who do not undertake public engagements representing the Queen."

There was also a sense out of Sunday's interview that issues that troubled the Royal Family in the past may still be a worry now.

"Even in the 21st century after all of the problems that the Royal Family encountered in the 1990s with the breakdowns in the marriages of Prince Charles and Prince Andrew … there still doesn't seem to be a consistent means of mentoring new members of the Royal Family," said Harris.

Meghan said she had to Google the lyrics for God Save the Queen, and was filled in at the last minute about having to curtsy to Elizabeth just before meeting her for the first time.

Queen Elizabeth, Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, pose for a picture at a Buckingham Palace reception following the final Queen's Young Leaders Awards ceremony in London on June 26, 2018. Both Meghan and Harry spoke warmly of the Queen during the interview Sunday night. (John Stillwell/Reuters)

Throughout the interview, Harry and Meghan repeatedly expressed respect and admiration for the Queen, if not for how the Royal Family as an institution operates.

But there is considerable murkiness around just who may be responsible for some of the more serious issues they raised.

"We know they respect the Queen and have a good personal relationship with the Queen. We know that Meghan had a conflict with Kate but says Kate apologized and Meghan forgave her and she doesn't think Kate's a bad person," said Harris.

Lacking 'specific details'

"But when it comes to who made racist comments about Archie's appearance or who was dismissive directly of Meghan's mental health, [on] that we don't have specific details."

High-profile royal interviews such as this — particularly one by Harry's mother Diana, in 1995 — have a track record of not turning out as the royal interviewees may have intended, and it remains to be seen the lasting impact of this one. 

Harris sees parallels with Diana's interview, as she "spoke frankly" about a lack of support from the family, and felt that she had been let down by Prince Charles.

Meghan spoke with Winfrey before they were joined by Harry. (Harpo Productions/Joe Pugliese/Reuters)

Harry talked of hoping to repair his relationship with his father — "I will always love him but there's a lot of hurt that happened" — but said he felt really let down, and noted a time when his father wasn't taking his calls.

Harris expects the interview will prompt further critical scrutiny of Charles, and Harry's older brother Prince William.

The relationship with William has already been under intense scrutiny, and is clearly still a delicate matter for Harry, who hesitated noticeably before responding as Winfrey pressed him on it. 

"Time heals all things, hopefully," Harry said.

How Buckingham Palace responds to all this remains to be seen. Generally, the public approach in matters such as this is silence, and a determination to be seen as carrying on with regular duties.

Whether a member of the family might make a more informal comment — say in response to a question from someone at a public event — also remains to be seen. 

WATCH | Meghan says Royal Family failed to protect her and Prince Harry:

Meghan says Royal Family failed to protect her and Prince Harry

3 years ago
Duration 0:23
The Duchess of Sussex told Oprah Winfrey that things started to worsen with the Royal Family after she and Harry were married.

But from what did emerge Sunday evening, there is a sense that whatever efforts the House of Windsor has made to put a more modern face on the monarchy, they appear not to have yielded the fruit that might have been hoped.

"There's been some elements of modernization, but it's very clear that the institution has difficulty adapting to the needs of individuals who marry into the Royal Family," said Harris. "It's clear that Meghan came away from her experiences feeling that she was not supported or mentored in her new role."

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Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.

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