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 a 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 half-siblings 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.”
I was scared to open this Pandora’s box of discrimination, so I sat stifled, swallowing my voice.
Meghan Markle in Elle UK
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 mid-2000s, 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 African-American 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 a 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 light skinned? 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.