A bride’s jour­ney

What hap­pens when a ‘con­fi­dent mixed-race woman’ mar­ries into the royal fam­ily

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY JES­SICA CON­TR­ERA

Race and cul­tural iden­tity run deep in Meghan Markle’s life story.

Meghan Markle was glar­ing at her love in­ter­est. She leaned for­ward, fury clear in her ex­pres­sion as she asked the ques­tion: Was it so hard to be­lieve one of her par­ents

was black? ¶ “You think,” she spat, “this is just a year-round tan?” ¶ He stam­mered. She gri­maced. The open­ing cred­its be­gan to roll. ¶ It was just the scene of a tele­vi­sion show, a few lines from the script of the law drama “Suits.” But Markle would later de­scribe it as some­thing more: the mo­ment she was no longer play­ing the role of “eth­ni­cally am­bigu­ous.” That was the de­scrip­tion as­signed to so many of the jobs for which she had au­di­tioned. Oth­ers asked her to be white, like her fa­ther. Or black, like her mother. ¶ Fi­nally, in “Suits,” she’d been cast to play a char­ac­ter who was not one or the other — but both. ¶ “The choices made in th­ese rooms,” Markle would later write, “trickle into how view­ers see the world, whether they’re aware of it or not.” ¶ Five years after that scene aired, this woman who was grate­ful just to have her bira­cial iden­tity rep­re­sented on cable tele­vi­sion is about to step into one of the world’s most glar­ing spot­lights. On Satur­day, she will marry His Royal High­ness Prince Henry of Wales, better known as Prince Harry — pop­u­lar, gin­ger-haired and sixth in line to the Bri­tish throne.

The hul­la­baloo that pre­cedes a royal wedding is well un­der­way: Pa­parazzi are stak­ing out Markle’s ev­ery move, gam­blers are plac­ing bets on who will de­sign her dress, and bi­og­ra­phers have tracked down ev­ery de­tail of her Amer­i­can past, all the way back to the name of the ob­ste­tri­cian who de­liv­ered her into the world.

For those in­clined to roll their eyes at the fri­vol­ity of it all, the scene ap­pears to be little more than an ex­pen­sive se­quel to the 2011 wedding of Harry’s older brother, William, to Kate; those two could ac­tu­ally be­come king and queen.

But with Meghan Markle, there are lay­ers of his­tory and cul­ture to dis­sect. Ev­ery new de­vel­op­ment in the run-up to her wedding prompts con­ver­sa­tions, think pieces and wishes: Is this a sign of progress in a post-Brexit Bri­tain? Will she re­mind the world that the United States is proud of its di­ver­sity? Is the most fas­ci­nat­ing as­pect of this mo­ment the fact that, un­der al­most any other cir­cum­stances, an in­ter­ra­cial mar­riage would no longer be fas­ci­nat­ing at all?

She is both the hero­ine of a fairy tale come true — Amer­i­can meets prince! — and a spark for a de­bate about the role of race in so­ci­ety. And it is that topic, those who know Markle say, that is far more cen­tral to the story she would tell about her own life.

The chances of a bira­cial, di­vorced, Amer­i­can ci­ti­zen marrying into the Bri­tish royal fam­ily pre­vi­ously hov­ered at ap­prox­i­mately zero/not in a mil­lion years/not over [in­sert name of your fa­vorite monarch’s] dead body. And yet, ask the peo­ple who knew Meghan Markle be­fore she was soon-to-be duchess Meghan Markle what they think of this turn of events, and they will ex­press, again and again, that this is all very un­sur­pris­ing.

“Of course she ended up be­ing a princess,” said Natalie Myre Hart, who spent three years in act­ing classes with Markle at North­west­ern Uni­ver­sity in the early 2000s. “She was al­ways one of those peo­ple you wish you didn’t like be­cause she was so beau­ti­ful and seemed so put to­gether all the time.”

And so goes the palace-pol­ished ver­sion of “Who is Meghan Markle?”: An up­per-mid­dle-class child­hood in Los An­ge­les, where she was the star of school plays, a mem­ber of stu­dent coun­cil and a home­less shel­ter vol­un­teer. Col­lege at North­west­ern Uni­ver­sity, where, quite prac­ti­cally, she ma­jored in the­ater and in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions. A ca­reer in Hol­ly­wood, where she side-hus­tled as a wait­ress and free­lance cal­lig­ra­pher to pur­sue her dream. A two-year mar­riage to movie pro­ducer Trevor En­gel­son that ended in di­vorce — but after that di­vorce, “Suits” be­came a hit, her life­style blog gar­nered a small cult fol­low­ing, and Markle ded­i­cated her­self to in­ter­na­tional phi­lan­thropy.

Nat­u­rally, after her re­la­tion­ship with Prince Harry made news, the search be­gan for the prover­bial spots on the ap­ple. Tabloids found es­tranged half­si­b­lings who called Markle a “so­cial climber,” a friend who took her ex-hus­band’s side in the di­vorce claim­ing she is “cold” and “cal­cu­lated,” and footage of all the raunchy scenes of her act­ing ca­reer (which, ac­cord­ing to one re­port, were care­fully hid­den from the queen).

Be­cause Markle didn’t meet Prince Harry un­til she was 34, there is a whole life of fod­der for roy­als-ob­sessed read­ers and Life­time moviemak­ers to de­vour. Per­haps that is why so much of what has been writ­ten about Markle makes little men­tion of her her­itage.

But when she has spo­ken and writ­ten about her life story in the past, race is front and cen­ter.

“Be­ing bira­cial paints a blurred line that is equal parts stag­ger­ing and il­lu­mi­nat­ing,” she wrote in a 2015 es­say for Elle UK. She has de­scribed how early her aware­ness be­gan: Grow­ing up, strangers of­ten as­sumed her mother, yoga in­struc­tor and so­cial worker Do­ria Ragland, was her nanny. Her fa­ther, a tele­vi­sion stu­dio light­ing di­rec­tor, bought her both black and white dolls, but none of them looked quite like her. When she was 11 years old, her home town be­came a cen­ter of racial un­rest when the of­fi­cers who beat Rod­ney King were ac­quit­ted. Markle has said she came home from school to find a lemon tree in her front yard charred from pass­ing ri­ot­ers.

Markle’s all-girls Catholic high school was a por­trait of di­ver­sity. “I didn’t even know that she was bira­cial un­til all of this came out with her marrying Prince Harry,” said Erich Ale­jan­dro, who per­formed in plays with Markle in high school. “In L.A., we are all used to so many different races, life­styles and creeds. That stuff doesn’t even reg­is­ter.”

At 18, Markle moved from Los An­ge­les to Evanston, Ill., to at­tend North­west­ern Uni­ver­sity. There, her the­ater class­mates re­mem­ber the depart­ment as full of stu­dents who were mostly white and well-off. In her fresh­man year on the cam­pus in Chicago’s sub­urbs, Markle met a dorm mate who asked about her par­ents’ in­ter­ra­cial mar­riage, then told her it “made sense” they had di­vorced when she was young.

“I drew back,” Markle wrote of that mo­ment in Elle. “I was scared to open this Pan­dora’s box of dis­crim­i­na­tion, so I sat sti­fled, swal­low­ing my voice.”

She was both­ered by the seg­re­ga­tion in Chicago’s neigh­bor­hoods and the way that sep­a­ra­tion seemed to ex­ist on cam­pus, too. When the African Amer­i­can friends she made in the first quar­ter of her fresh­man year de­cided to forgo tra­di­tional soror­ity rush and opt for the black soror­i­ties, Markle wres­tled with what to do.

“She didn’t feel like go­ing to the black soror­ity was a ter­ri­bly ac­cu­rate iden­tity for her,” said Liz Nartker, one of Markle’s sis­ters in Kappa Kappa Gamma. “She strug­gled with feel­ing like once she made that de­ci­sion, it felt like a big wall to her in a way. Whether con­sciously or not, she felt like they dis­tanced them­selves from her. . . . That was harder than she thought it was go­ing to be.”

Nartker said Markle lived in the Kappa house for two years, but when her sis­ters moved into apart­ments and houses to­gether for their se­nior year, she chose to live alone. That year, she con­fided in Har­vey Young, a pro­fes­sor who had re­cently come to North­west­ern to teach the the­ater depart­ment’s first course on African Amer­i­can play­wrights.

“She told me just how chal­leng­ing it is to not be fully ac­cepted for all of who you are within a va­ri­ety of spa­ces. It takes a toll,” he re­called. Young, who is black, said Markle’s de­scrip­tion of be­ing wrongly iden­ti­fied as white stuck in his mind: “That sense that you can be in a space and feel ac­cepted, and then some­thing is said, and it makes you re­al­ize oh, you are not be­ing em­braced for who you are en­tirely.”

This hap­pened to Markle con­stantly. Peo­ple would ask, “What are you?” or as­sume she was white. Even her first tal­ent agent, Nick Collins, said he didn’t send her to cast­ing calls for peo­ple of color un­til she men­tioned her black mom.

But get­ting into more au­di­tions didn’t lead to more gigs. As she de­scribed in Elle, be­ing an “eth­nic chameleon” meant she wasn’t white enough for the white roles or black enough for the black roles. In the mid2000s, Collins said, di­ver­sity still felt like a box the in­dus­try was try­ing to check, rather than an as­set to re­cruit.

“If she was hit­ting the mar­ket for act­ing jobs to­day, she would be so much hap­pier now than she was 11 years ago,” he said. “It was re­ally hard for her. She had to work hard not to pun­ish her­self for the things that she wasn’t. It was hard enough be­ing the things that she was.”

Mostly what she was: the girl who was on screen for a few mo­ments, say­ing next to noth­ing. View­ers saw her hold­ing a brief­case in tow­er­ing heels on the game show “Deal or No Deal,” tak­ing a seat on a plane next to Ash­ton Kutcher in “A Lot Like Love” and de­liv­er­ing a pack­age to Ja­son Sudekis in “Hor­ri­ble Bosses.” “You’re way too cute to be just a FedEx girl,” he tells her.

Then, at 29 years old, she au­di­tioned for “Suits.” USA Net­work was look­ing for the girl who could play Rachel Zane, a fire­brand in a pen­cil skirt whom the show’s pro­tag­o­nist would fall for. There was no eth­nic de­scrip­tor at­tached to the role.

“The re­al­ity is that girl would have been played by Jen­nifer Anis­ton 10 years ago,” said di­rec­tor Kevin Bray.

When Markle au­di­tioned, Bray re­mem­bered, there was some dis­cus­sion about what she was. Latina? Mediter­ranean? He told the oth­ers at the cast­ing ta­ble that he could tell she was bira­cial, like him­self.

By the sec­ond sea­son, Markle’s char­ac­ter had a fam­ily his­tory — her fa­ther was a black at­tor­ney.

“I re­call her be­ing very ap­pre­cia­tive that we were hon­or­ing her iden­tity,” said Aaron Korsh, the creator of “Suits.”

As the show found suc­cess, Markle booked speak­ing ap­pear­ances and wrote es­says for women’s mag­a­zines. She started her life­style blog, The Tig, where she in­ter­spersed fash­ion ad­vice with mes­sages about self-em­pow­er­ment and in­ter­views with dy­namic, di­verse women. She told sto­ries about the slav­ery and seg­re­ga­tion ex­pe­ri­enced by her an­ces­tors. She asked for her freck­les to not be air­brushed away.

With ev­ery blog en­try and so­cial me­dia post, more peo­ple were learn­ing her mes­sage: She was no longer the girl who had been afraid to speak up when her her­itage was in­sulted. She was here, she wrote, “To say who I am, to share where I’m from, to voice my pride in be­ing a strong, con­fi­dent mixed-race woman.”

Then came Harry and the Wind­sors and a royal en­gage­ment.

The blog and all of her so­cial me­dia ac­counts were deleted. The archives were wiped. The story of Meghan Markle, as she had writ­ten it, was be­ing erased.

“Harry to marry into gang­ster roy­alty? New love ‘from crime-rid­den neigh­bour­hood’ ” — The Daily Star

“Miss Markle’s mother is a dread­locked AfricanAmer­i­can lady from the wrong side of the tracks.” — The Mail on Sun­day “Harry’s girl is (al­most) straight outta Comp­ton” — The Daily Mail

In the fall of 2016, news broke that Prince Harry was dat­ing Markle. The Bri­tish tabloids were in a tizzy — and were, in some cases, bla­tantly racist. Kens­ing­ton Palace re­leased an state­ment call­ing out the “racial un­der­tones” in the cov­er­age and the “wave of abuse and ha­rass­ment” ex­pe­ri­enced by Markle.

“Prince Harry is wor­ried about Ms. Markle’s safety and is deeply dis­ap­pointed that he has not been able to pro­tect her,” the state­ment read.

How did she feel about all of this? She made no state­ment of her own.

In Novem­ber 2017, the cou­ple an­nounced their en­gage­ment. On­line, the con­ver­sa­tion quickly re­turned to race. Was it re­ally progress to marry into a fam­ily that rep­re­sents colo­nial­ism, to marry a man who once wore a Nazi cos­tume to a party? Would she be marrying into the royal fam­ily if she wasn’t light­skinned? Why was her black­ness be­ing mea­sured at all?

“Can ev­ery­one leave Meghan Markle alone al­ready?” tweeted one de­fender. “She’s mixed, she’s beau­ti­ful, and she’s en­gaged to a PRINCE. She’s win­ning! Quit hat­ing.”

Markle her­self was no longer tak­ing part in the con­ver­sa­tion about her iden­tity. She was start­ing her new life: mak­ing pub­lic ap­pear­ances, sit­ting for photo shoots, don­ning a dress re­ported to cost $75,000, all while look­ing lov­ingly into the prince’s eyes.

Ke­hinde An­drews, a Birm­ing­ham City Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor who stud­ies race in Bri­tain, says that is why Markle marrying into the royal fam­ily isn’t as revo­lu­tion­ary as it seems.

“She’ll be a princess that hap­pens to be black rather than a black princess,” An­drews said. “Is she go­ing to use this plat­form to raise is­sues of im­por­tance to black peo­ple in this coun­try? That would be a black princess. I don’t think the royal fam­ily would al­low it to hap­pen. . . . It would make them too un­com­fort­able.”

But au­thor Margo Jef­fer­son, who is African Amer­i­can, sees Markle’s very pres­ence in Kens­ing­ton Palace as progress. “She has al­ready done race his­tory a real ser­vice,” Jef­fer­son wrote in the Guardian. The ques­tion is what she’ll do next.

“When it comes to is­sues of race, gen­der, sex­u­al­ity and class, how much can Meghan Markle say and do?” Jef­fer­son asked. “How much does she want to say and do?”

In search of the an­swer, royal- watch­ers are dis­sect­ing ev­ery bit of wedding news for deeper mean­ing: the guest list, the mostly black gospel choir, the de­ci­sion to in­clude her mother in her pro­ces­sion to the church.

In Markle’s next role, will she get to be the “strong, con­fi­dent mixed-race woman”? Or must she be the prim, pol­ished duchess tra­di­tion re­quires? She may be hop­ing there’s a way to, once again, be both.

JOHN DLUGOLECKI/CON­TACT PRESS IM­AGES

Por­traits of Meghan Markle from eighth, ninth and 12th grades. Since child­hood, Markle has said, her “eth­ni­cally am­bigu­ous” ap­pear­ance shaped her iden­tity.

IAN WAT­SON/USA NET­WORK VIC­TO­RIA JONES/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IM­AGES NBCU PHOTO BANK VIA GETTY IM­AGES

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle ar­rive at an April memo­rial ser­vice in Lon­don to com­mem­o­rate the 25th an­niver­sary of the mur­der of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager whose killing in 1993 trig­gered far-reach­ing changes to Bri­tish at­ti­tudes and polic­ing; among the gigs that Markle has had is one as a brief­case han­dler on the NBC game show “Deal or No Deal” in 2006; Markle’s most suc­cess­ful act­ing role has been that of Rachel Zane, a para­le­gal turned lawyer in USA Net­work’s “Suits.” Like Markle, the char­ac­ter on the se­ries is bira­cial.

ADRIAN DEN­NIS/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IM­AGES

After Markle and Harry’s re­la­tion­ship be­came pub­lic, Bri­tish tabloids pub­lished com­men­taries with racial un­der­tones.

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