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Harry & Meghan Tries to Offer a History Lesson on Race. Here’s What It Says

Prince Harry and Megan Markle’s multi-part documentary has quickly become one of the most talked-about shows on Netflix—in part because of how the Duke and Duchess of Sussex address about their experience dealing with race and racism in the British Royal Family.

But, unlike the couple’s Oprah interview, viewers hoping for bombshell revelations will likely be disappointed. Instead, Harry & Meghan spends a lot of time trying to teach some history. The series—the second half of which debuted on Thursday—seeks to kickstart conversations about racism in the U.K. and the legacy of British colonialism. It’s all part of an effort to contextualize their experience as British royals—and especially the reaction to Meghan, an American who identifies as biracial.

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But the issue also has major implications for the future of the Royal Family as more former colonies debate whether to keep their ties to the British monarchy.

Read more: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on TIME’s list of the 100 Most Influential People of 2021

Dog whistle and tabloid headlines

In the fourth episode out Thursday, the couple discusses dog-whistles, words that have racist connotations. The specific context here involves tabloid headlines that described Meghan as “gangster royalty” from a “crime-ridden neighborhood.”

“So many people expect racism really just to be the N-word,” Prince Harry says. But it also includes “stereotyping,” like tabloid headlines that associate Meghan with drugs or terrorism. As he talks, a National Enquirer headline “Megan’s Drug Secret Exposed” appears.

As Kehinde Andrews, author of The New Age of Empire, explains on screen, “nobody wants to be openly racist. That wouldn’t be civilized, and that wouldn’t be British, but it’s perfectly fine to dog-whistle, give a nod to—she’s a ‘diva’ she’s making people cry—this angry Black woman trope came to the fore really quite suddenly.”

When Harry is recalling the press reaction to the birth of their son Archie, he brings up the journalist Danny Baker who posted a photo of a couple holding handles with a baby chimpanzee. (Baker apologized for the tweet, but the BBC fired him.)

Read more: TIME’s 2018 cover story on Meghan and Harry’s royal wedding

An ‘unconscious bias’

Courtesy of Prince Harry and Meghan, The Duke and Duchess of Sussex.A scene from the Netflix docu-series Harry & Meghan

Prince Harry admits that he’s learned much about how his family views issues of race. “There is a huge level of unconscious bias. The thing with unconscious bias, it is actually no one’s fault. But once it has been pointed out, or identified within yourself you then need to make it right. It is education. It is awareness. It is a constant work in progress for everybody, including me.”

While Harry talked about unconscious bias, Meghan talks about how race has always been a part of how others viewed her in their world, telling her she’s “not white enough” or “not black enough.” She said her mom, who has darker skin, was often mistaken for Meghan’s nanny and called the N-word. “People don’t talk enough about what it’s like to be mixed race, so much of my life is trying to figure out where I fit in,” as Meghan says in the series. She said she went as far as to say that she used to wear a lot of white and beige so that she would literally blend in with the royal family.

The show will only fuel debates about whether the royal family is equipped to oversee a rapidly diversifying commonwealth.

“I think that the documentary may contribute to a larger debate regarding the royal household and whether there could be more diversity in terms of the palace staff and Carolyn Harris, a historian and expert on the British monarchy at the University of Toronto, School of Continuing Studies.

Read more: A special TIME100 Talks featuring Prince Harry and Meghan Markle

Harry’s Nazi mea culpa

In the docu-series, Harry was keen to show he is a different person from the 20-year-old who wore a Nazi swastika to a costume party in 2005. He describes the outfit as “one of the biggest mistakes of my life.” While Prince Harry did put the magnifying glass on his own past, experts on royal history thought that the documentary was a missed opportunity to go deeper.

“I felt that was part of the documentary that could have been expanded as there have been some other controversial moments involving Harry, racial slurs that he used in banter when he was in the military,” says Harris.

For example, video footage that surfaced in 2009 that showed him referring to a fellow Army cadet as a “Paki” and using the term “raghead.” Royals historian Alexander Larman also thought there really should have been someone interrogating Harry more.

“What really annoys me about the program is that there was no anti-Harry voice,” says Larman. “There was nobody there who was allowed to give any kind of counter…What I felt, watching the series, is that he’s a confused boy.”

In the docu-series, Hirsch argues that she initially saw Harry as “a little bit racist” and “very ignorant,” but says he has “embraced the education that’s required for someone like him to transform themselves into an anti-racist.” As an example, she cites the couple’s appearance at the 2018 memorial service marking the 25th anniversary of the death of 18-year-old unarmed Black man Stephen Lawrence, murdered by a gang of white men.

Stephen Lawrence memorial service
David Parker-WPA Pool—Getty ImagesThen-Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn (L) Prime Minister Theresa May (C), Prince Harry (R) and Meghan Markle (2nd,R) attend a memorial service at St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the murder of Stephen Lawrence on April 23, 2018, in London, England.

Commonwealth, or empire?

In the docu-series, David Olusoga, author of Black and British: A Forgotten History, says that Prince Harry marrying Meghan reflected a diversifying Britain. He hoped that Meghan, who resembled “most of the people in the Commonwealth,” would spark “difficult conversations that have been pushed away so many times.”

The monarchy describes the British Commonwealth as a “voluntary association” of 56 independent nations. It includes a strikingly diverse range of countries from Kenya and Nigeria; to India and Pakistan; to Canada and Barbados; to Australia and Fiji. In Harry & Megan, Afua Hirsch, who was the Guardian’s first West Africa bureau chief, calls the Commonwealth, “the Empire 2.0,” while Andrews says Commonwealth is just a nicer word than empire, arguing that conditions for many Black people in the commonwealth haven’t changed in 50+ years.

Harris calls the “Empire 2.0” frame “overly simplistic.”

“New countries have applied to join and have joined that were not members of the British Empire previously,” she tells TIME. “There are countries like Rwanda, Cameroon, Mozambique that were never part of the British Empire, but who see diplomatic advantages to joining this organization and being able to draw on the Commonwealth’s resources and network with other countries, like at Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings…Certainly, the Harry & Megan documentary on Netflix could have included more scholars of the modern Commonwealth.”

And while former British colonies are increasingly deciding to remove the British monarch as their head of state and become republics (Barbados has already done this; and Jamaica and other Caribbean nations are moving in that direction), membership in the Commonwealth is less controversial.

The pundits argue that just as America had slavery in the Deep South, the British had slavery in the Caribbean where “it was far away… out of sight and out of mind,” as Hirsch puts it. Though Britain abolished slavery in 1833, Black and brown people continued to hold the lowest paying jobs in the British empire. In the mid-20th century, Britain recruited Black people from the Caribbean islands to move to the U.K. to drive buses, teach in schools, and work as nurses in the newly formed National Health Service (NHS). By delving into this history, the documentary argues that a half-Black, successful actor like Meghan marrying into the royal family attracted racist vitriol because she challenged ideas of Black people’s place in British society.

“It’s quite rare for anyone in the royal family to have those conversations,” says Laura Clancy, author of Running the Family Firm: How the Monarchy Manages Its Image and Our Money. “Harry and Megan have explicitly addressed the monarchy’s role in that history rather than just a vague ‘we regret this history.’”

Clancy expects the docu-series will also fuel republican sentiments, from those who believe the monarchy shouldn’t exist at all and says it comes out at a notable time as King Charles is set to be coronated on May 6. As she puts it, the documentary “does contribute in an interesting way to the critical discourse around the monarchy that is building and likely to continue to build as we get closer to the coronation.”

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