In the wake of Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, and Prince Harry’s “bombshell” Oprah Winfrey interview earlier this month, there were reports last week that Buckingham Palace is conducting a much-needed diversity review and is even considering hiring a “diversity czar,” a diversity consultant or a chief diversity officer for the palace.
As a historian of race and a diversity professional, I am glad to see that the royal family is finally taking the allegations by Meghan and Harry of racism and exclusionary treatment seriously. But it does come after the palace’s initial brief and tepid response March 9 that said, “While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously,” and Prince William’s March 11 declaration that the royals are “very much not a racist family.” (Given the diverse British citizenry and the global scope of the Commonwealth, one would hope not.)
At first glance, the palace’s statement may have seemed innocent enough; noting the obvious reality that people recall events differently is hardly shocking. Yet in the context of Meghan and Harry’s allegations of race-based exclusion, negligence and mistreatment, this statement has two rather devastating implications.
First, positing that “recollections may vary” calls into question the veracity — and thus legitimacy — of the experiences Harry and Meghan conveyed. It leaves open and even invites the questions of whether Harry and Meghan were exaggerating in their claims, what their real motivations were and even whether they are trying to take down the institution. Ultimately, by suggesting that others remembered the events they recounted differently, it had the effect of undermining their public legitimacy.
It is easy to write off an accusation of discrimination by saying the victim misunderstood a decision, misjudged a gesture or misinterpreted someone’s words.
But more perniciously, that sort of statement also calls into question Meghan’s and Harry’s own memories and even their capacities to perceive. It invites, if not demands, that they, too, wonder if they misunderstood the comment about the skin tone of their son, remembered things wrong or exaggerated the sense of race-based exclusion, negligence and mistreatment in their own minds. Challenging the truth of their recollections could have the effect of undermining their self-confidence and self-regard.
Consolidating one’s power by causing individuals to question their own judgments, perceptions of reality and memories has a name: gaslighting. It is a form of psychological manipulation by which abusers build their authority — and ability to continue abusing — by breaking down their victim’s or victims’ sense of self and their confidence in their grip on reality.
Gaslighting not only leads to cognitive dissonance, low self-esteem and disempowerment on the part of the victim, but it can foster further dependence on the abuser as the only valid and veritable source of judgment, truth and memory — and it can even crush a person’s will to live.
Gaslighting and discrimination often go hand in hand, which is why we need a new term to refer to this particularly dangerous coupling: discriminatory gaslighting.
The palace statement displays discriminatory gaslighting, which is an abusive way to treat “much loved family members.”
Discriminatory gaslighting happens when dominant social groups or individuals exclude or discriminate against minoritized groups and people and then deny their discriminatory behavior by calling into question the legitimacy of the victims’ perceptions or allegations. It is, in our society, tragically easy to write off an accusation of exclusion or discrimination by saying the victim misunderstood a decision, misjudged a gesture or behavior or misinterpreted someone’s words (“recollections may vary”).
Discriminatory gaslighting, then, is a powerful and timeless tool of oppression.
While I have no objective knowledge of what occurred in the incidents that Harry and Meghan described, it is clear that the palace statement displays discriminatory gaslighting, which is an abusive way to treat “much loved family members.”
It is bewildering that the royal family did not utilize the opportunity of their response to Meghan and Harry to model a better way to respond to claims of exclusion, discrimination and neglect.
The process of cultural change is tricky, in large part because racism and other forms of bigotry most often work unconsciously.
They could have said: “The whole family is deeply saddened and concerned as we comprehend the full extent of how challenging the last few years have been for Harry and Meghan.”
They could have added, “We regret the ways that we may have failed to care for them or create an inclusive environment.”
They could have stated, “We stand firmly against all forms of racism and discrimination.”
And they could have promised, “As such, we will launch an investigation into the incidents described in the interview and into the functioning of the institution with the goal of upholding policies and cultures of inclusion.”
So why didn’t they? Especially given that, but a few weeks later, they seem to have taken the last step anyway?
Hiring an expert in diversity and inclusion and revising policies is a critical step toward structural change, of course, but procedural changes from the top down are not enough. Cultural change is also necessary — and that will take a deep commitment to reckoning with the past, as well as cultivating new ways of thinking and behaving for all members of the royal household.
The process of cultural change is tricky, in large part because racism and other forms of bigotry most often work unconsciously. Every human — including royals — has implicit biases that inform their perceptions and decision-making about people, places, events and things. These biases are a part of cognitive functioning and are shaped by the prejudices of the world around us. It is only through continual training and intentional action that one can combat these tendencies and heal from evolving in a world of intersectional prejudice.
I hope the royal family will take it upon themselves to begin thinking about these larger concerns in good faith and face their answers. I also hope they will continue to investigate the allegations and commit to hiring a diversity professional to help them institute inclusive policies, practices and culture.
In this time of reckoning, when British citizens of all backgrounds are tearing down relics of the nation’s colonizing and slaving past, it is high time that the British monarchy owned up to its failures and led the way in the work of anti-racism and anti-discrimination. History — not to mention the new generation of the royal family — is watching.