William, War, and Misheard Words

On March 9, Will and Kate went to the Ukranian Cultural Centre in London to speak to people who have been affected by the current situation in Ukraine. By “situation”, obviously I mean the unjustified and horrific attacks on Ukranian land and people by Russian forces and led by Russian President Vl*dimir P*tin.

(Thank you to the person who pointed out that at no point in William’s comments did he use the word “war.” This is a good point – William using a word that aggressive would be seen as intensifying the situation/taking a political position, neither of which are things he is supposed to do. When I say “war” in this piece, I am referring to that in my own personal capacity. Will’s specific comments could either be referring to the “conflict” in Ukraine, and/or the humanitarian crisis that it has created for Ukranians and the countries bordering Ukraine. Thank you to the person on Twitter for keeping me honest!)

This visit to members of the Ukranian community in London was at once a normal and abnormal engagement for the Cambridges. It was normal in that Will and Kate have gone on dozens of engagements like this, to community centres to speak with regular people, all over the world over the years. The hugs, the concentrated listening, the small gestures of help – W&K brought treats made in the Kensington Palace kitchens for volunteers – it was very par for the course.

What made the visit was abnormal was that Europe and the rest of the world have been watching, gobsmacked and horrified, as death and destruction have resulted from Putin pushing farther into Ukraine. Civilians have been targeted. Children have been killed. A maternity ward was bombed, which resulted in the deaths of both parents and babies. All of these crimes have been committed by P*tin under the guise of “denazifying Ukraine”. This is ludicrous. The President of Ukraine is Jewish and there are no Nazis or anything close to Nazis in positions of political power in Ukraine. This was a clear and deliberate act of war.

The political situation is tense. We don’t know what’s going to happen hour to hour, day to day. It is very possible that one small action by one political leader could trigger World War III. And as great as Will and Kate are at their jobs, they’ve never had to be leaders during wartime. A pandemic – during which Will and Kate bolstered national spirit and spoke of resilience, yes – but not war.

All of this to say that things are incredibly tense for people in the Western world right now. Especially for people (cough, Will) who could possibly have to lead a country through (or through recovery from) a war the likes of which his generation has never seen. Let’s remember that Will is second in line to the British throne, and the current monarch turns 96 next month and the first in line is in his seventies and has suffered from two bouts of Covid. It’s very possible that Will could rule in the coming 5 years.

Anyway, during Will and Kate’s March 9 visit to the Ukranian Cultural Centre in London, a pool reporter, Richard Palmer of the Daily Express, was tasked with providing a report and quotes of the event to the rest of the royal press pool. (This allows people at the event to have room to breathe with only one cameraperson, one reporter, and one photographer at the event, instead of dozens all trying to get the same story). As the pool report was circulated, various newspapers started publishing their stories on the engagement. And several of the newspapers’ stories said the following about a statement from Prince William while at the community centre:

Check the part that I highlighted in red. It is a statement, not in quotation marks but attributed to Prince William by the royal pool reporter who was at the engagement. This line alleges that Prince William said that British people are more used to seeing conflict in Africa and Asia than in Europe. The part in quotation marks was attributed verbatim, but the part about Africa and Asia was apparently paraphrased by the reporter at the event.

This “more used to seeing conflict in Africa and Asia” comment started a global firestorm, became a worldwide trending topic on Twitter, and led to questions about the efficacy of royal reporting.

Why it’s bad

If you’re wondering why this attributed quote is so bad, it’s because it implies that William thinks predominantly non-white continents like Africa and Asia are “used to” conflict and war or that those continents find them more “normal” than Europe does. Taken further, this implication suggests that William may think that white people are more peaceful or civilized than non-white people. Which is a pretty horrible thing to say if you’re a regular person, but is potentially politically destabilizing when you’re in the line to the British throne and the continuation of the British monarchy relies partly on people seeing you as a kind, fair, and unbigoted person. The alleged quote also plays on Harry and Meghan’s allegations of racism from senior members of the BRF. Basically, the quote was a gigantic dumpster fire and it was used in dozens of stories by papers all over the world.

The other, less urgent but still important reason that this is bad is that it totally detracted from the reason behind Will and Kate’s engagement – to help raise money for the Ukranian cause. No one was covering the substance of the visit after the attribution came out. They were only following the messiness of William’s potential racist comment.

Allegations of racism and colonialism

Lots of people, including UK and US journalists, immediately took the comments from the royal press pool report as gospel and began criticizing Prince William as a bigot:

This is a pattern that we have started to see especially after Meghan and Harry left their roles as senior working members of the BRF. Reporters and commentators who are critical of the BRF are now tweeting and making comments like this about the UK’s colonial and racist past when faced with reports of current senior members of the BRF saying or doing something wrong. The vast majority of blowback like this came from American outlets and readers, though there were definitely posts about it from the Sussex-friendly UK journalists and readers as well.

Will and Kate are in a bit of a catch-22 on this issue. Of course the history of the British monarchy is full of racism and sexism and bigotry and colonialism. Every institution and/or organization from more than 100 years ago was built on those concepts. Racism and colonialism were ingrained into society, so everything in that society was tainted with those things. That fact is not exclusively the fault of the British monarchy. And I don’t say this to in any way diminish the incredible pain or wrongness of the injustice of the past. I only bring this up to say that cherry-picking the British monarchy for historically perpetuating colonialism and bigotry is a weird move when you could also make that argument about the founding fathers of America, my own government in Canada, or basically any government, institution, or company going into the 1900s or before.

Additionally, while understanding that the BRF was created under a system of racism and colonialism, the vast majority of its current working members are spending a lot of time and effort trying to right wrongs of the past. Whether or not an organization built within an era of racism and colonialism (and capitalism!) can truly be reformed, or whether it should be burnt to the ground and a new institution should be built in its place, is a great question that I don’t have time to get into today. Someone should write a book about it. Regardless, it does appear that Charles, Will, and Kate are trying very hard to acknowledge their family’s past and move the BRF into a more diverse and inclusive future. Also, let’s not forget that the work of Queen Elizabeth’s life has been fostering relationships between Commonwealth countries. Given that, is it fair to call Will a colonizer every six months and bring out that pic of him being carried around while undertaking an official engagement? I’m not sure.

And finally, one thing I take issue with is the lack of consistency in these peoples’ takes. If the British Royal Family is the most horrendous institution imaginable, why were the same people who were complaining now celebrating in the streets when Meghan Markle married into the institution in May 2018?

What now?

There isn’t a clean ending to this story. ITV released video and audio of the actual Will quote, which didn’t mention Africa or Asia. He did say that seeing war this close to the UK was very alien for “this generation” to see, which was still slightly ignorant but not at all like the Africa and Asia comment. Richard Palmer, the cause of this mess, gave a weak apology on Twitter in the passive voice (“a remark was misheard” – My dude, it was misheard by YOU! Just own it and apologize!). The royal press pool didn’t apologize for circulating a damaging and untrue comment that Will didn’t make.

Jake Tapper deleted his Hitler tweet. Nadine White tweeted that she stood by everything she tweeted about Prince William, and then tweeted a thread about how reporting the comment was the fault of the press pool rather than her own. Elizabeth Holmes (the royal and fashion reporter, not the blood fraud lady) apologized for jumping to conclusions and trusting the royal pool. No one took any real amount of ownership for spreading misinformation, or for not questioning the royal pool report. I mean, I questioned it. I immediately posted on Instagram saying that that was a very shocking quote from Will and that it would need to be verified with audio or video in the coming days. If a random person on the internet like me had the critical thinking skills to question it, shouldn’t the people who follow around and write about Will have had the instinct to question it too?

Will and Kate didn’t respond to the situation at all, because they correctly knew that it would have added fuel to the fire. They are now on a royal tour in Belize, where they will happily interact with people of colour and people who are likely Harry and Meghan fans will likely turn the pictures into more “proof” of Will and Kate’s colonialist intentions. It appears that no one learned a lesson and no one will act differently the next time something like this happens. Lather, rinse repeat. What a depressing end to a post! I’m sorry.

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