“You don’t have to know Meghan personally,” says Sapphire Brookes, a 43-year-old support worker from Enfield.
“It’s knowing that her face and skin colour doesn’t fit and knowing she is going through the same problems that we face daily as Black women. Having to hear that bigotry and that old-age racism stirs up a lot of annoyance.”
Along with millions of other Brits, Brookes sat down to watch Oprah Winfrey’s interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex on Monday night. Not since Diana’s 1995 Panorama with Martin Bashir had a royal interview stoked so much controversy before it aired, not even Prince Andrew’s in 2019.
Like many, Brookes thought she knew Meghan Markle’s story: Hollywood star meets British prince, they fall in love and marry, only for Markle to be pursued by an insatiable, often racist press until the family, now with a son in tow, announce they are stepping back as senior royals and move to the US.
But Brookes found herself relating heavily – even to a celebrity. “In my experience, when white people talk about Black women, it’s like they don’t expect us to have anything and that we should just be grateful,” she says of Markle not being fully accepted or listened to when she shared her struggles.
“We can’t complain. We have to put up and shut up and we are tired of it.”
Since the Sussex interview aired on CBS on Sunday in the US, and on ITV the following night in the UK, conversation hasn’t taken a breath. It’s a topic that has almost every Black women talking and the British media and public, too.
Brookes says she’s been surprised, shocked even, by the responses of some people close to her to the treatment of Markle. “The reaction from some of my white friends has made me evaluate some of our friendships,” she says.
One friend who streamed the show on Sunday night called Brookes on Monday and proceeded to argue angrily with her about Markle’s motivations and account of events. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, she adds.
“Their views have shone a light on how I feel they perceive me as a Black woman. We’d be discussing Meghan and Harry and the things that upset me about the situation. They often dismissed it with micro-aggressions and sometimes racist undertones. And when I pulled them up about it, they would trot out the same negative stereotypes they held about Black women.”
The day’s delay between the US and UK broadcasts made Monday a frantic whirl of commentary on talk shows and social media as the nation chewed over the key revelations: Markle’s treatment at the hands of a bigoted media, her deteriorating mental health after her marriage to Harry, and racist comments made by unidentified Royals ahead of the birth of their baby boy, Archie.
For her part, writer and broadcaster Sinai Fleary, 36, welcomes the platform Winfrey gave to Markle’s comments about racism, which she says put the plight of Black women and the negative stereotypes they face firmly in the spotlight.
“It was good to hear from Meghan and hear her truth,” says the mum of three, who watched the interview on Monday with her fiancé, and found some of the details revealed by the duchess more upsetting than she expected.
“What I found really alarming about this situation was that here we have a woman who has suffered a miscarriage who has openly and publicly shared that she had suicidal thoughts and she struggled with her mental health,” she says.
Markle’s position as the first mixed-race woman to marry into the Royal family might be unique, but her experiences aren’t. “She highlighted the fact Black women are often gaslighted and ignored,” says Fleary, “always labelled the aggressor and never given a chance to express that we might be feeling hurt.”
It’s an “all too familiar scenario”, she adds. “As Black women we’ve all been there – in the workplace, family, friendship groups – and that is why there is anger, and why there is support from the Black community towards Meghan, both from Black men and women.
British society is “very good at denying racism and pretending it doesn’t exist,” says Fleary. “They like to point the finger at America but at the same time you are doing things within the media, with society, that is still damaging our community and that is still deep-rooted in racism.”
“As Black women we’ve all been there – in the workplace, family, friendship groups – and that is why there is anger and there is support.”
By Monday morning, media pundits, indignant with rage, were channelling their anger at Markle for daring to lift the lid on life inside “the Firm”.
Meanwhile, Black women on social media were noting the string of “stale, pale and male” commentators lining up to dismiss allegations of racism and defend the Monarchy and using age-old stereotypes of the ‘angry Black woman’ to justify their criticism and silence any detractors arguing the other side.
Piers Morgan called the Oprah interview an “absolutely disgraceful betrayal” on Good Morning Britain, criticising the Duke of Sussex’s loyalty and sense of duty and questioning his wife’s account, not only of racism within the Royal family, but of her own suicidal thoughts.
Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, women’s rights activist and a guest on Monday’s show, took Morgan to account for his analysis and, as he tried to interrupt her, said: “Let me finish. You’re more outraged that Harry and Meghan had the audacity to speak their truth than at the actual outrage of racism.”
Morgan has since left the job, following a head-to-head with colleague Alex Beresford that caused the anchorman to storm off set. Hearing the news, Dr Mos-Shogbamimu tweeted that “a Black woman should replace him”.
When it comes to the experiences of Black and mixed-race people, Fleary believes “it’s only right you have people from those backgrounds discuss issues.” Since the interview aired, she has also been asked to speak on TV and radio, but refused all invitations because she didn’t want to be “used”.
“We are not listened to and just have our claims of racism dismissed,” she says of many Black women’s impression of the media. “Our lived experiences are denied and then history repeats itself and we are back to square one again.
“White people cannot control what is racist and what isn’t. They cannot keep defining what is racist for the Black community. That is not going to work.”
For her own sake, Fleary will be “checking in and out of the story, but won’t be following everything because its draining and damaging to hear and see people dismiss their claims,” she says.
“Self-care and self-love comes first and I love myself too much to continue to be an audience to systematic displays of racism, and denials of racism.”
Marianne Sunshine, a publicist and writer who identifies as Generation X and watched the interview via clips, rather than live, is also unsurprised by the support shown to the Sussexes by the Black community.
But she tells HuffPost UK that personally she is weary of the Duchess’ views, aired only when she became a direct victim of racism herself.
“For some, her treatment has been triggering,” says Sunshine. “We recognise the micro-aggressions she faced, especially the colourism within the family.
“However, Meghan stated in the interview that, had she been treated better, she would have remained a part of that racist, imperialist family which for me is telling. I’m not sure we should be going all out to defend someone who was happy to ignore that behaviour until it affected her personally.”
Sunshine wants more attention paid to the issues. “Moving forward, the racism from the press and media should be put under the microscope because it affects everything, in particular politics, which has a dire affect on society.”
Beautician Yazmin Lewis, 24, who is mum to a mixed-race daughter herself, was surprised that Markle was shocked at the racism she received from the Royal family, including comments about the colour of her future child’s skin. Colourism – discrimination or prejudice based on the darkness of a person’s skin tone – is a common experience for many Black people, especially women.
“I think it was expected, to be quite honest,” says Lewis of Markle’s story. “I don’t know why she would have gone into the situation thinking otherwise.”
“The way Black people see colourism is different to how white people see colourism, no matter what shade you are,” Lewis continues. “If you are Black or mixed-race, white people will see you as Black regardless.”
Except when colourism means they don’t – last week, journalist and LBC host Andrew Pierce responded to a listener who suggested Markle has never been accepted because of her skin colour. “Oh God, that one again! Do you look at her… and see a Black woman? Because I don’t. I see a very attractive, a very attractive woman. It’s never occurred to me. I never look at her and think, ‘gosh, she’s Black!’ in the way you look at Oprah Winfrey, you would be in no doubt.”
In their interview, Markle also spoke to Winfrey about her lack of knowledge and research into her new boyfriend’s family and how the tabloid press operated.
“Even with the assault on her by the media, I’m really surprised she wasn’t prepared for it,” says Lewis, who has been following discussion closely on social media since the broadcast.
“I’ve seen a lot of comments like: ‘Well, she should have prepared herself.’ A lot of the comments that I read on socials and from friends my own age are really not surprised at the treatment she has received and frankly they are more surprised that she thought she wouldn’t be a victim of racism.”
Even so, Lewis admires Markle for speaking out and believes her honesty is symptomatic of a generation. “I think younger people are more open calling things out very quickly – as opposed to the ones before us who would just put up with it,” she says. “A lot of young people now won’t put up with racist micro-aggressions and the negative stereotypes about Black women.”
If she found herself face-to-face with bigotry or racism, Lewis insists she would challenge it. “I think we understand mixed-race relationships better,” she says.
“I am constantly reminding my daughter that she is Black and even though she is light skinned and could be perceived as ‘white passing’, the world will always view her as Black.
“When I was pregnant, no one from my daughter’s white side of her family ever said they had concerns about her being dark skinned, but if they ever did, believe me, they would’ve soon regretted making that comment.”