In addition to being a prince and the son of Princess Diana, a large part of Prince Harry’s appeal has always rested on the fact that he seemed different from the rest of his family. Compared to the tight-laced royals, Harry gave the impression that he was interested in at least appearing relatable (or as relatable as any prince could be): He loved Xbox, talked about therapy, took budget airlines, and did dumb things while drunk. His image as the handsome, rebellious, anti-Establishment royal solidified with his marriage to Meghan Markle, an American actress and the first biracial member of the British royal family. Unlike other members of the Firm, Harry publicly condemned the racist and sexist media coverage of Meghan — and he also seemed willing to walk away. For fans, Harry and Meghan’s 2020 announcement that they would “step back” demonstrated his commitment to love — and to his wife — above royal precedent. It only made him more likable.
With his best-selling, highly candid memoir, Spare, Harry continues to position himself in contrast to his tight-lipped, tradition-obsessed family. But the book — and Harry’s recent press tour — has also revealed the limits of his willingness to fully rebel against a violent and racist institution. Talking to Anderson Cooper, Harry said that he was “probably bigoted” before he met Meghan, saying, “I didn’t see what I see now.” It’s telling that he didn’t take a persistent stand against the British press’s racism until the tabloids came after his wife and the problem became personal. Despite Harry’s insistence on how much he’s learned, Spare exposes his blind spots when it comes to race and the monarchy — and how much his complaints remained focused on his own experience.
Ghostwritten by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist J.R. Moehringer, Spare is an entertaining but often cringeworthy read, particularly because it makes plain that Harry still doesn’t quite grasp his privilege. To his credit, Harry acknowledges that the Crown “rest[s] upon lands abstained and secured when the system was unjust and wealth was generated by exploited workers and thuggery, annexation and enslaved people.” Yet he quickly sidesteps any true engagement with the monarchy’s legacy of colonialism, concluding, “No one wants to hear a prince argue for the monarchy, any more than they want to hear a prince argue against it. I leave the cost-benefit analysis to others.” He opts not to get into the Crown’s approval of slavery or the growing frustration in some Commonwealth countries over Britain’s refusal to acknowledge and repair damage it did during the colonial era (which has recently led several Caribbean countries to signal that they intend to remove the monarch as their head of state).
In Harry’s telling, the Commonwealth countries are a place of safety and adventure, filled with joyful memories — where he has often escaped to when things at home have been tough. He and Meghan traveled to Botswana early in their relationship and returned there for her 36th birthday. It’s worth noting that his closest friend in Africa is also a prince. His ex-girlfriend, Chelsy, is a white Zimbabwean whose father owned a big game farm, as he writes in Spare, and she spent her life going between boarding school in Britain and holidays in Zimbabwe and South Africa, an opportunity not easily afforded most Black Zimbabweans and South Africans. Only after it’s suggested to Harry by a friend does he consider how to give back to the continent. Africa is also apparently a possession to fight over with his brother. Harry claims that when he expressed interest in doing conservation work on the continent, his brother said, “Africa is my thing, you can’t have it,” and “Rhinos, elephants, that’s mine!” Though Harry clearly has an affinity for the countries he’s visited, his acknowledgment of most African people only comes in the form of frustration and pity about land mines, poachers, and fighting AIDS.
Similarly, over the past few weeks, Harry has made clear that he doesn’t have a problem with the institution of the British monarchy — just with how the Firm has treated him and Meghan. He writes, “My problem has never been with the monarchy, nor the concept of monarchy. It’s been with the press and the sick relationship that’s evolved between it and the Palace.” When asked by Michael Strahan on Good Morning America if he thinks there is a place for the British monarchy in the 21st century, he responded, “I genuinely think that there is. Not the way that it is now.”
In one of the most perplexing moments of his press tour, Harry went as far as to claim that he and Meghan never said the royal family was racist, appearing to backtrack on the couple’s explosive claim in their interview with Oprah that someone in the royals’ inner circle expressed “concerns” about the skin tone of their then-unborn child. When ITV’s Tom Bradby said, “In the Oprah interview, you accused members of your family of racism,” Harry cut in. “No, I didn’t,” he said. “The British press said that.” After Harry confirmed that there was “concern about [Archie’s] skin color,” Bradby pressed him: “Wouldn’t you describe that as essentially racist?” Harry replied, “I wouldn’t, not having lived in my family.”
Harry proceeded to draw a confusing and categorically false distinction between racism and unconscious bias, seeming to argue that behavior is only racist if a person intends it to be. In his interview with Anderson Cooper, he doubled down on this interpretation. “Neither of us believe that that comment or that experience or that opinion was based in racism,” he said, referring to him and Meghan. “Unconscious bias, yes.”
Harry’s lack of understanding of the nuances of racism were on display yet again when he launched into an unprompted defense of Lady Susan Hussey during his interview with Bradby. Hussey — the late queen’s lady-in-waiting and Prince William’s godmother — resigned in December after Ngozi Fulani, a Black British woman, tweeted that she had “mixed feelings” about her visit to the palace after a member of the royal family’s staff asked her repeatedly where she was from, seeming not to accept her answer that she was British. Fulani told The Independent that she was “stunned” by the interaction. Buckingham Palace called the comments “unacceptable and deeply regrettable” in a statement.
Meanwhile, Harry told Bradby, “Meghan and I love Susan Hussey.” He continued, “And I also know that what she meant — she never meant any harm at all, but the response from the British press, and from people online because of the stories that they wrote, was horrendous.” Harry and Hussey may both be well intentioned. But in defending Hussey and blaming the press, Harry dismissed Fulani’s experience — a classic attempt by a white man to retell and reframe a Black woman’s story.
A generous interpretation of Harry’s mangled comments is that he’s still learning. Both his and Meghan’s public statements have suggested that prior to 2016, when their relationship became public, they hadn’t spent much time thinking about racism or colonialism. In their recent Netflix docuseries, Meghan said, “Obviously, now people are very aware of my race because they made it such an issue when I went to the U.K., but before that, most people didn’t treat me like a ‘Black woman.’” In Spare, Harry describes the utter shock of seeing racist coverage about Meghan in 2016. “I hadn’t been ready for the racism,” he writes.
While promoting Spare, Harry told People that he understands matters of systemic racism better than he used to and that he “had so much to learn and, equally, unlearn.” If he wants us to believe how far he’s come, he could start by rejecting the racist and repressive institution he grew up in. But it’s become apparent that he’s not really interested in doing that. When Cooper asked, “Why not renounce your titles as Duke and Duchess?” Harry brushed off the question, responding, “And what difference would that make?”
Harry’s refusal to even consider a full break with the institution he criticizes suggests that he’s still enamored with the palace and the advantages of royal life. He wants the social cache and validation from the public that he is different from his family, but he also wants the benefits that come from being the Duke of Sussex. (Spare’s cover plainly says its author is “Prince Harry.”) I feel for Harry and Meghan and all they have endured in the public eye. But Harry’s reluctance to take a real stand against the harms of the British monarchy makes it harder to keep rooting for him.