As the fallout from Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s tell-all interview with Oprah last month continues, news outlets have been reporting that the royal family is considering bringing on a diversity chief. You have to imagine Henry VIII never dealt with this sort of thing (as interesting as that would have been), so there’s virtually no precedent for what a diversity program inside the palace might actually look like. Are we talking about Queen Elizabeth clicking through an e-learning module on an iPad? Prince Charles doing role-playing exercises?
If the reports are true and the palace really is hiring a diversity czar, that person will face quite a challenge. Where would the work even begin? Slate posed these questions to some diversity and inclusion experts. None of them had ever attempted to bring diversity to an institution associated with a literal colonial empire, but they were kind enough to share some thoughts regardless.
Bärí A. Williams, a tech executive and lawyer who has advised startups on matters of diversity, said that, monarchy or no, she’d seen this kind of response to a crisis before: namely, appointing a diversity expert to paper over long-standing systemic issues. “I work in tech, and so the first thing I thought of is, ‘This is very familiar,’ ” she said. “It’s a reactive move instead of being proactive.”
Others felt somewhat less cynical. “Honestly, I thought, ‘Good,’ ” Janelle Williams Melendrez said, of hearing about the royal family’s plans. Williams Melendrez is co-president of Revolve Consulting, a diversity, equity, and inclusion firm. She said it was important for people in the U.K. to see these problems acknowledged at the highest level.
But Williams said this particular situation might require more drastic measures than the usual diversity comms crisis. “I don’t know that I would necessarily start with a diversity firm so much as I would start with someone like Judy Smith, who was the model for Olivia Pope [of Scandal]. You need a fixer. That may be where you start in terms of, how do we do damage control first? And then secondly, how do we demonstrate that we’re trying to really make some changes?”
Y-Vonne Hutchinson, CEO of ReadySet, a boutique consultancy that specializes in diversity, equity, and inclusion, said that if the family is serious—and that remains an open question in her eyes—their first move should be hiring a firm rather than an in-house diversity chief. “A firm provides a different level of support and a different level of accountability. Anybody who goes in as a diversity consultant or gets hired in is going to have a much more difficult time because they’re going to be more deeply embedded and they’re going to be more deeply vulnerable to whims of that family.”
Opinions were mixed on what the scope of a diversity consultant or firm’s work should be. Michelle Silverthorn, the founder and CEO of Inclusion Nation and the author of Authentic Diversity: How to Change the Workplace for Good, said she doubted that one person or one firm would be able to address the family’s internal tensions. “That’s a family relationship and I would hope that whoever they bring in as a consultant encourages them to find a common ground to talk with each other and to work through the interpersonal challenges that they have,” she said. “That is something that a diversity consultant doesn’t fix.” Silverthorn also thought the family’s imperial history would be beyond a consultant’s ken: “Addressing the racism in that past and addressing institutionalized discrimination [associated with] that, that isn’t the work of a diversity consultant either. That is the work of economists and historians.”
But she did think a diversity consultant could have an impact on the staff and culture of the palace nonetheless, especially now that these issues are out in the open. She imagines there are people within the organization who work with the royal family, either as full-time employees or as contractors or volunteers, who “felt heard and who felt seen” while watching Markle’s interview with Oprah, “and who felt that the challenges that she experienced are things that they experienced too.”
Williams agreed that staff training could be useful: “A very targeted, multipronged diversity training for the staff would probably be immensely helpful. My guess is, on a day-to-day basis, they’re making most of the tactical decisions, and the strategic ones are probably coming from the family members.” But her recommendation for the family itself was different: “I think, based off of the allegations we heard in the interview, the family itself just kind of needs maybe a three-day-long workshop on allyship.” Even if older members of the royal family are tough to sway, Williams thinks there’s still hope for the younger generation. “I don’t know that [diversity]’s necessarily something that you’re going to be move Prince Philip on,” she said. “But it could be something you can move [Prince William’s children] George and Charlotte and Louis on.”
But as in the corporate world, such a program will only work if it has the buy-in of the people at the top. “If the leaders of an organization are inside a training but they’re doing their email or they’re on their computer or on their phone, the employees see it right away,” Williams Melendrez said. “It signals to them what’s valued.” Sounds like Prince Charles and the queen need to be at those hypothetical training sessions, with bells on.
Hutchinson said that the royals need to understand that this isn’t just about Meghan Markle—that there’s a compelling and even self-interested case for them to commit themselves to change. “If their primary function is to generate revenue for the state and serve as a unifying figurehead,” she said, “and they’re unable to do that because they don’t understand the multiracial context in which they operate and they exhaust the goodwill of the people, then that’s an existential question.”
Williams Melendrez said her first move, before any training sessions, would be to start collecting data: “I would ask questions about what people know and understand, what their background is, where their feelings are, to determine what the areas of entry are of being able to help people see where similar connections are but also understanding what’s the baseline. Do I need to talk about microaggressions or can I talk about systemic oppression?” What seemed key to everyone I spoke to was determining early on if the royal family is really invested in change or just wants to make the public forget about the problems the Oprah interview raised. “Is it just a PR campaign?” Hutchinson said. “Is it just diversity theater?”
When asked whether they would be interested in taking on the role of Buckingham Palace diversity czar themselves, the experts’ responses varied. “I think if we were offered the chance to do this, we would have a lot of questions,” Williams Melendrez said. “We don’t know what the true investment is. We don’t know who would be involved. We don’t know how much time they were willing to invest.” Hutchinson was less circumspect. “I totally would,” she said, “because it would be the most interesting job in the world.”