Change possible in Britain's institutions after Meghan's royal racism claims, says Diane Abbott

Diane Abbott believes “tangible change” is possible in Britain’s most historic institutions as the fallout from a series of astonishing claims made by the Duchess of Sussex continues. 

Ms Abbott, the country’s first female black MP, told ITV News presenter Charlene White the royal household must “face up to the reality” of institutional racism. 

She was speaking as part of a ITV News panel of black women from the fields of politics, business, education and law, who gave their reactions to the explosive interview and shared their experiences of racism.

Meghan’s revelation that someone in Harry’s family had made racist remarks – revealed in a tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey – remains the most damaging one for the royals.  

Both Harry and Meghan say one of the Royal Family expressed “concern” over Archie’s skin colour while the Duchess was pregnant.

It now poses serious questions for Buckingham Palace and its attitude towards racism. In a statement released on Tuesday, Buckingham Palace said: "The issues raised [in the interview], particularly that of race, are concerning.  Whilst some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately."

Diane Abbott: 'I think there can be tangible change'

Ms Abbott said: “I think there can be tangible change, it may not happen as quickly as all of us on this panel would like.

“But I think a lot of people who might not otherwise have thought about it – including people in the royal household – have to face up to the reality of institutional racism."

On her own experiences in an institution run by white people, Ms Abbott spoke of her “nearly-30 years of isolation” in Parliament, where she said it felt lonely being the only black woman. 

“I still get excited to go into Parliament and see a whole bunch of young black women there, it’s amazing to me after 33 years,” she said. 

“But it was lonely and it was isolating and when things went wrong you kind of blamed yourself, you thought ‘this must be me.’ 

“And, of course, everyone around you didn’t discourage you from blaming yourself so it was isolating, nearly 30 years of isolation.”  

Watch our panel's full discussion on the race issues raised by the Meghan and Harry interview

‘Change must come from the leadership’ 

Echoing the idea of institutional change, Naomi Kellman highlighted the importance of leadership. 

She was the only person of black heritage in her year at her college in Oxford University, where she founded Target Oxbridge – a programme that helps black people get into Oxford or Cambridge. 

Speaking on ITV News’s panel, she said any institution trying to address racism within its system must have leadership on the issue “from the top.” 

“I think the key thing when thinking about institutions trying to deal with these issues of institutional racism is honesty and also leadership,” she said.  

“And so, where I’ve seen change in institutions it’s when leadership has come forward and said ‘there’s a problem here, and we need to solve it, and we’re going to do work to solve it, and honestly it will take time but this is our plan.’ 

“And I think that’s often what’s been key to when things have started to shift in other institutions. 

“It’s about that leadership step, and it’s not an easy one because you have to accept that something has gone wrong and that needs fixing but that’s the key thing – if there is no leadership from the top these things often don’t move.” 

‘We tell people before you enter a company – do your research’ 

Meghan’s treatment by the tabloid media has been widely criticised as racist – something that Meghan touched upon in her Oprah interview. 

The death threats increased in the wake of some of the coverage, which at one point labelled her as “straight out of Compton.” 

Her perceived lack of support from the royal family also led to her increasingly fragile mental health and, ultimately, to her departure with husband Harry.  

Asked if Meghan entry to the royal family gave her hope, Kike Oniwinde, founder of BYP Network, a platform that connects black professionals with each other, said she felt like she “saw this coming.” 

“We tell people before you enter a company to do your research, know it that’s a company you want to enter, speak to the people before,” she said.  

“And I feel like we kind of saw this coming, which is really sad to say. It’s heart-breaking to see a woman go through that, go through suicidal thoughts. 

“And I think what really hit me was when she said that she didn’t want them to know that she was going through that, and I think we as black women we don’t want them to see us break.  

“You know, we ‘have to stay strong’, as they say, and she was in an institution that wasn’t for her that didn’t want her to be there.”  

Ms Oniwinde added she was happy that Meghan was able to “use her voice” and leave the royal family. 

“I think by her doing that… that’s why change will happen and change is happening,” she said.  

“You can’t silence a woman that was already outspoken, she was somebody before she married Harry, she was always someone about women’s rights so why would she now go through all of that and remain silent?” 

‘I know I’m smiling, but this is my armour’ 

Leading barrister Paula Rhone-Adrien also underlined the importance of speaking out. 

Drawing on her own experiences of racism she encounters in the courts, she said it got to a point where she had to “say something” about her treatment even from other barristers. 

She said at one point she lost her voice and was “so distressed” by the “horrific” abuse she suffered.  

“I was so distressed and the message was so clear to me: ‘you do not complain, you do not make a fuss, you will lose work, you will be paid less, you won’t get the best jobs and you will accept that as an outcome’,” she said. 

She added that she was expected to wear her hair and dress in a certain way. 

“And when Meghan spoke about that pressure and I’ve spoken about having to wear an armour and when we have just heard from Diane [Abbott] just now about feeling lonely, you are completely isolated you do not even have an opportunity to voice,” she said. 

“Because it you do, you are shut down, you are ‘angry’, you are ‘aggressive’, you are ‘playing the victim’…  

“And so, even in making the complaints and raising my grievance now – because it’s after 20-odd years of practicing that I have felt brave enough to say something – I am still having to identify particular examples where there are other people around because the other people will validate what happened to me, it can’t just come from me.” 

Asked about her specific circumstances, she said: “I know I’m smiling but this is my armour, this is what I do, I have to smile, I have to shrug, I am at work and I have a client sitting outside.  

“So when I walk into the advocate’s room or I walk into a room where the other barristers are and I engage in a conversation relevant to the case and someone – a white person – turns to me in a room full of white people and says ‘sorry who are you why are you here, this is just for the barristers?’  

“And everyone else goes absolutely puce and nobody says anything, and I point out who I am and the person who says that to me – who asks me to leave – doesn’t apologise, will turn their back on me and will not engage with me and this barrister will then go outside and represent a person of colour.  

“It was time that I said something.” 

Oprah With Meghan and Harry is available to watch on demand on ITV Hub for viewers in the UK.