In the new Netflix documentary series Harry & Meghan, Prince Harry opens up about his marriage to American actress Meghan Markle and their struggles as a couple in the face of unscrupulous and harassing media attention.
At one point, speaking about the racist undertones of coverage of Meghan and his ability to grasp how bad it was, Harry notes that “we don’t see the world as it is. We see the world as we are.”
This is quite a deep statement, especially from a man who the mainstream media has done their best to portray as spoiled, ridiculous and entitled.
In fact, Harry displays a depth of thought and masculinity that will change many viewers’ minds as they watch this documentary.
And when it comes to this statement in particular, it’s worth breaking down exactly what it means, because Harry’s words have a crucial lesson for all of us about how we see reality and experience the world.
What did Prince Harry mean by this?
Prince Harry is talking about how the world we see is the world we are accustomed to and believe exists, rather than the one that is truly present.
His point is that we are the product of ethnic, social, cultural and familial conditioning that literally shapes how we see and how we interpret it.
No matter how free of bias and unfair judgment we think we may be, we’re all in what Harry describes as a “continual” process of realizing just how much we don’t know about the experience of marginalized groups, other faiths, cultures and the experiences of other individuals.
While this has been portrayed as hopelessly “woke” psychobabble by some on the right and commentators such as Piers Morgan, Harry’s words can also be taken as a call to compassionate action and self-awareness.
After all, in what way, exactly, is he wrong?
Growing up as a rich white member of the Royal Family, Harry enjoyed multiple layers of special treatment.
As a young man he left for Lesotho, Africa in order to get away from the stress of being hounded by the media and listening to everyone predict his doom as a “bad boy.”
However Harry says that despite growing up around the British Commonwealth in countries of all beliefs and ethnicities, he was unprepared to truly grasp the level of bitterness and prejudice underneath the attacks on his mixed race wife.
While believing he understood things like “unconscious bias,” Harry admits that the press’ persecution of Meghan forced him to see a whole new world from her eyes, a world in which she was typecast as a certain person and certain stereotype regardless of the truth.
Watching how many was made to fit a social and ethnic role by the press opened Harry’s eyes to the way that the media and society more largely does this to people based on their backgrounds.
Playing the role the media sets out for us
Meghan and Harry is a documentary that focuses a lot on the role of the media in amplifying conflict and causing problems in order to have something juicy to cover. This amoral and often immoral role is blamed in Princess Diana’s death and in Harry’s spin out as a young man leading to physical confrontations with the press.
Meghan, as well, is portrayed as someone who never knew where she fit in in life and had questions about her “role” as a biracial woman. She was often told she wasn’t black or white enough, and felt confused and jarred by having to occupy some kind of binary role society had set out for her.
As Meghan notes, that’s just not how she sees the world: as different groups divided and defined by skin tone. Harry, similarly, rebelled at a young age from seeing the world based on ethnic and class lines and had many of his greatest experiences in Lesotho and saving elephants.
Meghan has been criticized by the US and British press for being spoiled in talking about her struggles with her ethnic identity, the media hounding of her and the Royal Family’s racist arrogance, but it brings up a reinforcement of what Harry is saying here.
Meghan’s role depends on who is casting her: for example in Suits she played a biracial woman and was a popular member of the cast. In her activist work she is respected and listened to by many feminist and other advocacy organizations aimed at alleviating poverty and disease.
Harry’s role also depends: as a child his job was to shut up and smile when the paparazzi wanted to snap photos. As he grew up his role was supposed to be to marry somebody predictable, white and rich and pop out royal babies while shaking hands.
But he rebelled. And so too did Meghan, in her way, eschewing the life of a TV actress in favor of pursuing the love she felt with a very unique young man with a life few can imagine.
Seeing through each other’s eyes
Just as Harry thought he understood racial issues and prejudice only to come to find it was much more insidious and deeply-rooted than he’d imagined, Meghan came to understand that the fairy tale she’d thought about royal life wasn’t true.
As Afua Hirsch puts it, Harry was “born into a contractual agreement with the British media.”
From the youngest age, his family were basically used as props by the media and their pain and trauma amplified and even sometimes caused by the media in return for readers and clicks. Some of Harry’s earliest memories were never having a moment’s peace as he and his family were followed by members of the press who were part of the rota given priority rights over royal coverage.
As Harry notes in the documentary, titles like “royal correspondent” are tacked onto reporters to lend them credibility when they are, in reality, mostly just gossip mongers who profit off his family’s scandals and misfortunes.
From Meghan’s youngest age, she searched for answers about who she “really” was, being neither white nor black and feeling somewhat out of place in both worlds. Her success at school and later move into a more activist, feminist role only cemented for her a unique identity which came to form her view that things like human rights and the individual surpass racial and socio-economic labels.
Ironically, of course, this formed part of the disillusion which happened once came into Hollywood, where her ethnic uniqueness was either ignored or used as some kind of status.
Once meeting Harry, this escalated further, with her background becoming a core focus of media reports and trying to stir up racism controversies against her, including even lying that she was from the gang-ridden neighborhoods of Compton, California.
Open your eyes
One of my favorite films is the 1997 Spanish movie Abre Los Ojos (“Open Your Eyes” starring Eduardo Noriega and Penelope Cruz.
Without giving away the whole story, it’s about a man who has an accident and wakes up to a reality that’s nothing like what he expected.
The film was made in an English version starring Cruz again alongside Tom Cruise as Vanilla Sky in 2001, one of Cruise and Cruz’s best performances.
The film draws on many themes explored by Calderon de la Barca’s medieval play La Vida es un Sueño (Life is a Dream) which is about how many of us are lost in a reality that’s not even necessarily real.
All too often, we live in a world that’s just blissful ignorance and imagining that we are the stars of a story that’s basically not even happening.
So how do we go about the process of opening our eyes?
So how do we get out of the Matrix of our own reality and the conditioned world that’s been created for us?
How do we see what’s really in front of us in any real way?
In Harry and Meghan, the young prince suggests one method, which is education.
It’s certainly true that learning about history and other cultures is one way in which to open our eyes. So is meeting people from different backgrounds and hearing from them firsthand about their own lives and experiences.
Bringing it down to the individual level can be very effective because when you hear about somebody else’s reality and how larger social and economic and racial factors have shaped that reality you no longer are able to hide quite as securely in your own frame.
This is not just about privileged versus persecuted or wise versus ignorant.
There are all sorts of shades of gray and all kinds of experiences that we may have which don’t fit into any pre-established narrative or framework that the media works out for us.
Netflix mainly focuses on ethnicity and economic privilege in the documentary and Harry’s difference from Meghan in that regard, but it does also touch, for example, on how their experience of being children of divorce ties them together in certain ways.
When it comes to other ways to open our eyes, the list is long. In particular, I’d recommend:
- Travel and volunteering in other cultures and places which are not primarily touristic in nature;
- Learning about other religions, philosophies and faiths;
- Making friends with people of different backgrounds as much as possible;
- Remaining patient about disagreements and clashes you have with others and trying to learn from them;
- Improving your critical thinking skills and asking yourself critical thinking questions in order to probe your own blind spots, biases and learning gaps.
So what is the world in reality?
Of course with Prince Harry’s statement the key question is that if he’s correct then what is the world in reality?
More broadly: what is reality?
Let’s start with what reality is, since that’s the foundation.
The origins of human consciousness and being are something that philosophers and scientists discuss to this day, but for the purposes of this article, it’s clear that reality is a shared framework of observable and repeatedly verifiable facts, experiences, statistics and laws.
For example, gravity appears to be reality as far as we know, because it always asserts itself even in space.
If we all see a pink elephant due to a new chemical in our food, is it real? No, because it is not occurring in physical, three dimensional reality, even though it is indeed a real experience people are having.
This gets to the second part of the question about what the world is in reality, because there are two layers to this.
There is the world in factual reality in terms of its physical composition and facts and figures.
Then there’s the world that we experience, which is at least partly subjective.
For example, I may be a painter living in Manhattan who has a cat he loves and volunteers at the local soup kitchen. I have no kids and have reservations about settling down or having a family due to my parents’ divorce. I consider religion harmful and delusional because it just makes us think we have all the answers and allows other people to control us.
Alternately, I may be the father of five teenagers living in Algiers, Algeria and working as a taxi driver. I believe that religion is the key to a fulfilling and meaningful life because it gives us “rules of the road” and an inspiration that’s not subject to endless relativism. I look up to marriage because my own parents were happily married for four decades before my dad died, building a wonderful life for me and my siblings.
Who of us is “right” and whose perspective is more in line with “reality?”
Arguably, both are correct in that they are perspectives based on real experience.
The key to deriving value and growth is to determine what subjective, individual experiences overlap with important global truths, subjects and developments.
Harry and Meghan shows how one perspective about reality can overlap and clash with another, leading to opportunities for growth and learning.
At the end of the day, Harry’s statement about how we perceive the reality we’ve been conditioned to perceive is an insightful and deep statement that we’d all do well to think about.