Why Prince Harry's recent comments about race are a big deal, but shouldn't be

Tonya Russell
·4 min read

Prince Harry is certainly embracing his black sheep-ness. He's been challenging family tradition, conservatism and, now, privilege since his marriage to the American former actress Meghan Markle. In a recent discussion with Black Lives Matter activist Patrick Hutchinson, Harry opened up about his ignorance and the high-society upbringing that shielded him from the realities of unconscious bias — beliefs and stereotypes that we aren't aware we carry.

"Unconscious bias, from my understanding, having had the upbringing and the education that I have, I had no idea what it was," Harry said. "I had no idea it existed, and then, sad as it is to say, it took me many, many years to realize it, especially then living a day or a week in my wife's shoes."

He added that for someone in a position of power, it's "dangerous" when you're not aware of your own bias, and that it's incumbent to change as soon as you're aware of it. "Once you realize or you feel a little bit uncomfortable, then the onus is on you to go out and educate yourself, because ignorance is no longer an excuse."

Harry is literally a prince, and his admirable admission points to how privilege can shelter you from the struggles of others — often caused by people who look like you — and will hopefully lead more people to examine and acknowledge their underlying prejudices. But his statements are also an important example of a white person's talking about his own responsibility for education, a burden that is too frequently borne by nonwhite people, compounding the difficulties unconscious bias creates for us.

It's no wonder that Harry, as a member of the British royal family, had no idea about Meghan's plight. It's also no wonder that Meghan was the agent for his realization.

"Privileged people are sheltered from the experiences of marginalized groups," notes psychologist Jameta Barlow, whose research often delves into the connection between Black health and history. "Harry married a biracial woman with a Black mother. He now has experienced firsthand insight to a level of racism that most Black people are told to disregard and, instead, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps."

Francesca Parker, a psychologist and professor at Pepperdine University, believes that while witnessing someone else's struggle is often a catalyst for growth, it was key that Harry already had the inclination to expand his worldview.

She says that Harry credits African vacations and witnessing Meghan's experiences with having had a major impact on him but that it's possible that neither of those things would have made an impression if he wasn't also motivated to look at his role in perpetuating systemic injustice. "This is the hard part," she points out, "because you have to be willing to see parts of yourself that you may not entirely like or be proud of."

Yet while it's significant that Harry has been open to seeing unconscious bias and working to counter it, his education must still continue — without further help from Meghan. People of color are tired of teaching others how to treat us and about our experiences, and the emotional labor for us is more challenging than is tackling one's own privilege.

Barlow explains, "It's not the marginalized person's job to teach the privileged person about a system that benefits the privileged person."

Barlow reflects on her upbringing in Charlottesville, Virginia, and how she was made a spokesperson for Black issues in school. This also happens in workplaces when a person of color is made to participate in diversity exercises for the benefit of white colleagues.

This wouldn't be as emotionally taxing if we hadn't spent our whole lives learning a whitewashed version of history that protects and props up colonizers, requiring us to do additional work, research and advocacy to learn and include our part of this history.

Instead, Parker suggests asking yourself what you can do on your own. Books like "White Fragility," "So You Want to Talk About Race" and "How to Be Anti-Racist" are great starting points. These books seek to explain white privilege and allyship, providing education without requiring people of color to use up their time and energy.

Perhaps we can remain optimistic about Harry's attempts at becoming "woke." Barlow explains that his position may present a unique opportunity. "Harry's journey into learning about systems of oppression, intersectionality and decolonization could be one of many interventions our world desperately needs for reparations, reconciliation and transformation," she says.

She refers to the Black proverb "each one, teach one." The saying originated from slavery, when slaves were prohibited from learning. When one person gained literacy, they took it upon themselves to share that knowledge with someone else. Harry's admission passes the ball to others who haven't explored their own privilege.

"Maybe more people will now do the work and bring others along with them," she says. Let's hope so.