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Pauline Nevins: The royal box

Other Voices
Pauline Nevins

I had never watched the TV law drama, “Suits,” so I had no idea who Meghan Markle was. I, and the world, now know she is the young woman who, on Saturday, will marry Henry Charles Albert David Mountbatten-Windsor (aka Prince Harry), fifth in line to the throne of the United Kingdom.

What makes this announcement even more newsworthy than an upcoming marriage of a British prince would be that Ms. Markle is an American, an actress, a divorcée, and happens to be biracial — one black parent and one Caucasian one — like me.

In an interview she gave to Elle Magazine in 2015, a year before she met her prince, Ms. Markle talked candidly about growing up biracial in a non-diverse section of Los Angeles. The article, “Meghan Markle: I’m More than An ‘Other,’” is worth a read.

The Elle article begins with “What are you?” — a question often asked of those whose race is indiscernible. Meghan plays coy. She answers to a “who” rather than a “what.”

“I’m an actress, a writer, the editor-in-chief of my lifestyle brand ‘The Tig,’ a pretty good cook and a firm believer in handwritten notes.” You would think that laundry list would suffice. Instead, there’s always the follow-up: “Right, but what are you? Where are your parents from?” Meghan gives up. “I’m half black and half white.”

I’ve never been asked “what are you” because unlike Ms. Markle, I look biracial. But I’ve been asked where I was from because I have the remnants of a British accent. When I respond that I was born and raised in England, the response is often a squinty look followed by a suspicious, “You don’t look English.” The dark curly hair and brown skin also confuses them. I’ve heard more than one American express dismay after returning from a trip to London where they discovered the place was teaming with “foreigners” — dark-skinned people, in other words. It’s not only Americans who find swarthy faces incongruent with British accents. I have family and friends in England who’ve had difficulty adjusting to a modern Britain that is evolving from a homogenous society to a multi-racial one.

The magazine photographs of Ms. Markle show her coloring to be similar to that of my daughter, Tina, an accomplished environmental attorney. Like Meghan, there’s nothing about Tina’s appearance that would identify her as having African ancestry. In junior high school she was cursed for being “Mexican” by Caucasian girls and insulted for being “white” by Latinas. When she casually told me this one evening, I was furious. But my daughter was amused at being racially undefinable. She found it exotic.

What Tina did not find amusing or exotic happened when she was in high school. The mother of her friend, who happened to be Caucasian, asked Tina, “Why would you tell people you are part black when nobody would know?” The woman was not malicious; she was mystified. She was proclaiming loud and clear that to be part African-American was something to be ashamed of — something to hide if you could.

I was relieved these insensitive episodes didn’t upset Tina. I grew up in an all-white Irish family in an all-white community in England. When kids called out cruel names to me, I was confused and hurt. I didn’t feel different from them. I was surprised each time a person identified me as “colored.” I’ve often read where single-race people think mixed-race children are doomed to grow up confused and conflicted. They may when ridiculed for being different, or forced into a racial category that denies any part of who they are. We’re not born confused or conflicted.

In the Elle article Meghan explains that when completing a mandatory census in the seventh grade, she was faced with selecting an ethnicity box that included four choices: Caucasian, Black, Hispanic or Asian. Because she looked white, her teacher advised her to check the white box. Meghan couldn’t do that — doing so would deny the other parent. She put down her pen. She wasn’t being rebellious. Rather, she felt sad. When she relayed the story to her father, he told her something that she has never forgotten.

Meghan’s father told his daughter that if the situation happened again, she should draw her own box. Apparently Meghan Markle, soon to become a member of Britain’s Royal Family, has done just that.

Pauline Nevins lives in Colfax.

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