Meghan Markle’s guest-edited issue of Vogue features an interview between Prince Harry and Dr Jane Goodall that’s generating a lot of reaction over in England, in particular Harry’s comments about “unconscious bias”. To put it in context, Harry first asks Dr Goodall about focusing on children and her work with the younger generation. She tells him that kids learn from previous generations. Her words:
“They don’t notice, “My skin’s white, mine’s black,” until somebody tells them.”
So that kicks off a conversation about stigma and perspective and what Dr Goodall has learned about human instinct from studying animals and wildlife and being able to separate what is learned from what is natural. This is when Harry brings up racism:
“It’s the same as an unconscious bias – something which so many people don’t understand, why they feel the way that they do. Despite the fact that if you go up to someone and say, “What you’ve just said, or the way that you’ve behaved, is racist” – they’ll turn around and say, “I’m not a racist.” “I’m not saying that you’re a racist, I’m just saying that your unconscious bias is proving that, because of the way that you’ve been brought up, the environment you’ve been brought up in, suggests that you have this point of view – unconscious point of view – where naturally you will look at someone in a different way.” And that is the point at which people start to have to understand.”
This is being perceived by some to be Harry “lecturing”, with the British tabloids fomenting the narrative that he’s up on a pulpit calling out racists, which they say makes him a hypocrite because didn’t he once dress up in a Nazi uniform and use a racial slur? It’s true, he did, back in 2005 and 2006 and it was gross. These were two major mistakes, horribly offensive acts and words. And he apologised afterwards. He has also, since then, for many years, demonstrated that he’s made attempts to grow and learn.
What is that worth?
For some, it’s a mark for life, an unforgiveable sin. I get it. Some things cannot be forgiven, no amount of “sorrys” can make up for the hurt and there are those who’ve decided for themselves that Harry should never get a pass again. That said…
Are the British tabloids in any position to be deciding what’s forgivable or not where “unconscious bias” is concerned?
My personal take on Prince Harry’s offensive and racist past is that… well, obviously. He grew up in the most status quo f-cking family in England, maybe even the world. When he talks about conditioning and “the environment you’ve been brought up in”, he fits the whole ass profile. In that sense, he might be the exact right candidate to address “unconscious bias” because he’s one of the people, hopefully, who is trying to be more aware of it, to address it, because he has been it, he has lived it, he was raised in it. And the message he can share with others is this: if a privileged prince can acknowledge that he’s behaved badly, then perhaps we can all start looking inward.
Did he succeed at doing that though?
Here’s where it would have helped for him to have added in a sentence about his own evolution. For the change he’s trying to effect, we all have to change too, right? That includes him. That includes self-inspection. And this was about the safest space he could have asked for to show that vulnerability – with Dr Jane Goodall, one our planet’s kindest hearts. So it was a missed opportunity, an incomplete effort. Definitely lots of room for improvement here.
But the other part of this is how it’s being received. Many appreciate that Harry, given his position, even mentioning “unconscious bias” is a step forward, because for those who experience it, members of minority and underserved communities and groups, this is a reality they’ve been denied: the confirmation that they are indeed seen and treated unfairly, unequally. One of the most high profile white men in the world has just verified that there is a relationship between racism and unconscious bias. This is important. The acknowledgment that something exists is important. Which is more than we can say about the British tabloids and media who’ve denied that they themselves have covered Royal Meghan with unconscious bias while performing unconscious bias.
I was on TV in the UK today on a daytime lifestyle show. I was invited on to talk about whether the British press has been treating Meghan unfairly. The other guest was an academic and British historian, Kate Williams. She and I were aligned in our position that Meghan has been unfairly targeted. The interview began with a question, directed at me, about what advice I would give to Meghan in light all of the negativity the British press has been directing at her. My answer was that she doesn’t need advice from me and that the British media should be challenged for their f-cksh-t. At one point, after some back and forth, one of the hosts posited that Meghan should answer to her critics and that she can’t expect to come into her role all “uppity” without regard to whatever… I don’t remember what else was said because I was triggered by the word “uppity”. It’s a loaded word. It carries a LOT of pain for Black people.
Yesterday I compared Meghan Markle’s experience to that of Michelle Obama’s and wouldn’t you know it, not even 24 hours later, someone uses the same word to describe Meghan that they once used to describe Michelle. Rush Limbaugh called her “uppity”, neo Nazis have called her “uppity”. And the implication here is that when a Black person is being “uppity”, it means they don’t know their place, that there is a limit to how high their place should be, and it’s objectionable to whiteness for them to even think they can actually level up to equality.
And isn’t this exactly what Harry was trying to illuminate in his interview with Dr Goodall in Vogue?