LONDON — Hours after an interview with Prince Harry and his wife Meghan was broadcast in the United States on Sunday, Britain was already grappling with the shock wave rippling out across the Atlantic, exposing a deep royal rift.
In the two-hour prime time interview with Oprah Winfrey — to be shown in Britain Monday night — Meghan and Harry spoke frankly about what drove them away from Britain last year, taking a sharp turn from the default silence of the royal family. They spoke of comments by one family member about the potential color of their son’s skin, racist coverage from the tabloid press and a general lack of support that Meghan said drove her to thoughts of suicide.
For many Black Britons, the interview offered a scathing assessment of the royal family and resurfaced barely submerged tensions over entrenched racism in the country at large.
“It’s very hard listening to the interview not to focus on some of the salacious details and the family drama,” said Marcus Ryder, a visiting professor of media diversity at Birmingham City University. “But what we’re talking about is a major part of the British state, it’s a major institution.”
The allegations of racism made during the interview could have major implications for the monarchy, he said, whose family members and their households are paid in part with public funds.
“Once you realize that, and divorce it from the idea of the personal family drama, what you have is a Black woman who was the first, in the modern era anyway, to enter that British institution,” Mr. Ryder said, “and makes allegations of racism at the very top.”
Meghan’s revelation that someone in the royal household questioned whether her son would be “too dark to represent the U.K.” was a major problem, he said. (On Monday, Ms. Winfrey said that Harry had asked her to clarify that neither Queen Elizabeth II nor Prince Philip was the source of that comment.)
Many critics noted the marked imbalance between the bombshell disclosures in the interview and the palace’s clumsy attempts to discredit Meghan as a bully in a leak to The Times of London last week.
For others, the interview was a moment to reflect on the decidedly different public persona of Harry and Meghan as they broke with the dutiful silence expected of the royal family and brought a more American approach.
The interview left the country divided, with major news outlets publishing biting commentary. On social media, some denounced the couple’s infidelity to the family, while others firmly defended them.
Nadine Batchelor-Hunt, a British journalist, applauded Meghan’s “fearlessness” and said her treatment reflected the deep-rooted racism experienced by Black people in Britain.
“In my family, we don’t really care about the monarchy,” Ms. Batchelor-Hunt said, but as a mixed-race woman, she found that the allegations resonated deeply. “A lot of our ancestors were enslaved under the banner of the British empire in the name of the crown.”
Allegations of racism from within the royal family, both from Meghan and Harry, had given the royal family new relevance, she said.
“Seeing her speak so openly about it is really liberating,” she said, “which is why I think a lot of young people, particularly a lot of Black people, care so much.”
The reaction illustrated divisions between those who view Harry and Meghan as victims and those who disapprove of their behavior and of their willingness to attack the monarchy in public. Critics argued that by refusing to name the person who questioned the skin color of their son, they had made it impossible for the royal family to try to rebut the allegation.
In the Daily Telegraph, Camilla Tominey wrote that the conclusion the couple seemed to want the public to draw was that since “we are never likely to know, we may as well consider them all white supremacists, along with any journalist who has ever written anything vaguely negative about them.”
In the beginning, when her engagement to Harry was announced, Meghan was acclaimed as an international beacon of a more inclusive royal family — until then a profoundly white institution. But that moment quickly passed, and she soon found herself under frequent attack in the British tabloids, often the subject of articles laced with overtly racist language or undertones of bigotry.
Before the wedding, articles appeared in the tabloids about her driving her sister-in-law Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, to tears in a disagreement over the flower girls’ dresses — the exact opposite of what actually occurred, Meghan said in the interview Sunday. Then came accusations in the tabloid press of her bullying the staff, of being so demanding as to be impossible to satisfy.
Some noted that the tabloids would sometimes criticize her for doing almost the same things that earned Kate lavish compliments.
Not that Kate escaped criticism entirely. While her parents are highly successful professionals, the tabloids made much of the fact that her mother began her career as a flight attendant and is more likely to trace her lineage to a coal miner than an aristocrat.
Yet what cut particularly deeply, Meghan said, was the lack of support from other family members. And when she went in search of help for her increasingly desperate mental state, the palace’s human resources department said its hands were tied because she was not a staff member. She was further told, she said, that she could not go to a psychiatric facility because that would reflect poorly on the family.
Black Britons had been calling out the problematic portrayals of Meghan in the British press for years. Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, a lawyer and activist, has frequently spoken out about the racism directed at Meghan. In a heated back-and-forth on “Good Morning Britain,” she took Piers Morgan, the presenter and a staunch critic of Meghan and Harry, to task.
He asked for a reaction to what he called the couple “spray-gunning his family on global television” while Prince Philip, Harry’s grandfather, is hospitalized with a heart ailment.
“You want to deny that the royal family has any racist undertones or actions against the first biracial person, simply because you are in love with the queen?” Ms. Mos-Shogbamimu responded, as Mr. Morgan accused her of “race baiting.”
“You can love the queen and be able to call out the actions done by the royal family when they have got it wrong,” she added.
Many noted that the allegations made by Meghan during the interview highlighted a blind spot in much of the British news media when it comes to race, with the ranks of royal correspondents nearly all white.
“This is a story which is predicated on race,” Mr. Ryder said. “And what we have is that we have a British media that has so far been slow to recognize that this is actually a racial story.”
Mr. Ryder also said the allegations could have broad repercussions for the monarchy, pointing to longstanding questions about inclusion and the hereditary model of succession.
“We keep talking about issues of diversity, and how well does diversity sit with the hereditary principle?” he asked, noting that some may argue that there is a way to make it work. “But what she’s saying is that there seems to be a conflict.”
The palace has said nothing in the aftermath of the interview, and it remains to be seen how the queen herself will respond and whether the palace will investigate the claims Harry and Meghan made as enthusiastically as it pledged to look into the claims of Meghan’s bullying of staff.
Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, said that the allegations in the interview around racism and mental health need to be taken “very seriously.”
But the government reacted with caution. During an afternoon news conference, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he “had the highest admiration for the queen and the unifying role that she plays in our country and across the Commonwealth.”
He added: “As for the rest, all other matters to do with the royal family, I’ve spent a long time now not commenting on royal family matters, and I don’t intend to depart from that today.”
But many agreed that the fallout from the interview could linger.
“I’ve always said that the royal family would come out at best looking out of date, out of touch, perhaps unwelcoming,” Katie Nicholls, the royals editor at Vanity Fair, said in an interview on Sky News shortly after the broadcast. “But this is so much worse than that.”
Stephen Castle contributed reporting.