In recent weeks, Prince Harry and his bestselling biography Spare have been front and center in the Sussex squad’s campaign to tell all of us how terrible his obviously broken family is. And while I have no plans to read the memoir, I’m glad that Harry has stepped into that spotlight instead of his wife. He’s tough; he can take it. And that’s good, because the reception of Spare and the Sussexes’ Netflix docuseries has not been wholly positive. As outlets like BuzzFeed, the New York Times, and Slate have chronicled, even people who were previously sympathetic to the Sussexes are getting just a little bit tired of the couple’s omnipresence, these days.
All the exposure has hurt their image. Recently, writer Gloria Alamrew tweeted: “I think the sooner we all understand that Harry and his wife are not taking a stance against his colonialist family, but are just upset at not being able to participate in it the way they thought they would be able to… the freer we’ll all be.” The rest of the world may be catching up now, but as some responses to Alamrew’s tweet make clear, Black observers of the Sussexes—even those who steadfastly defend them against their haters—have long had complicated feelings about Meghan Markle. I count myself among that number.
Before that “fairy-tale” marriage, Markle was living a different kind of feminist fairy tale. She was a self-made millionaire, just famous enough, who spent her spare time jetting around the world with her divas, wearing cool clothes, and doing periodic good deeds. Even though she loudly loves her prince and her kids, you can tell—in her interviews and in her Netflix series—that Meghan kind of misses her old life. And why wouldn’t she? Her new life has forced her to face things that she never prepared for. The abuse isn’t her fault, but some of the false notes in her response might be.
A little context here: I am a proud African American woman of a certain age. And I care about the British royal family. Like, really care. As in, I have vivid memories of getting up early to watch Princess Diana’s wedding on a black-and-white television, and a couple years later, of rushing to finish my paper route so I could watch Sarah Ferguson’s. I’ve read thousands of pages of Tudor biographies. And when I traveled to Great Britain, it was just to visit historical sites connected to Elizabeth I, like Hampton Court, Westminster Abbey, and the Tower of London.
At the Tower, I remember being shoulder to shoulder with other tourists, oohing and ahhing over the crown jewels, when I noticed a South Asian family next to me, pointing and smiling at the display. And it hit me. I was someone whose ancestors had their freedom, dignity, and even their lives stolen to build this empire, and I made a special trip to celebrate the thieves.
“What am I doing here? What are any of us doing here?”
That’s the place where Meghan Markle seems to be stuck in her own, more intimate dance with that nation and its history. She’s shocked to discover institutional racism in the very institution that created the most enduring business model for it. And she’s telling us about it. A lot. And while I am Team Meghan, it’s painful, unpleasant, and a bit irritating to watch her figure it out in real time.
It’s not the sadness of her response that’s troubling. It’s the surprise.
Can you believe the police didn’t protect me? Can you believe no one cared that microaggressions endangered my emotional health? Can you believe all these strangers called me nasty names on the Internet? Can you believe my white in-laws wouldn’t stand up to racists who hurt me?
Umm … yes. I’m a Black woman. Are you new here?
And that’s the problem. She is. Meghan is very new to being treated like she’s Black and having to factor that into the way she lives her life. I don’t mean that she didn’t know racism was real or should be stopped. She’s not Stacey Dash or anything. But Meghan Markle’s expectation that a system built on exploiting non-white people would protect her is naïve in the extreme, and a really bad look. Meghan Markle isn’t just biracial, or light-skinned. The reality is that she can—and clearly has—passed for white for her whole life, and that largely defined her racial experience and education before her engagement.
The Netflix series lays it out clearly. Her mother, Doria Ragland, who is Black, talks about how not-Black Meghan looked from the beginning, and how strangers assumed she was her daughter’s nanny. That’s a familiar story for anyone who is part of a Black family with mixed-race people. But lots of biracial kids are clearly Black—Black and something else, but Black—like Barack Obama, or Halle Berry, or Lenny Kravitz.
Not Meghan. The early episodes of the Netflix series include interviews with several people in Meghan’s orbit who had no idea she was part Black until she told them. There’s no indication that she ever denied her heritage. It’s just that she looked white enough that people assumed she was, and so the reality of racism that many Black kids learn in grade school is something she just discovered in her 30s.
But there were ways that she could’ve learned more, and it’s disturbing that it seems Meghan never availed herself of them. Of all the childhood friends, classmates, and girl-squad members who served as Meghan’s character witnesses in the Netflix series, almost none of them were Black. It’s the norm for white people not to have Black friends. And there’s nothing that vouches for the whiteness of Meghan’s world more than that she didn’t seem to have many either.
At one point in the second episode of the series, Meghan talks about how being biracial meant she didn’t feel like she fit in anywhere, and proclaims, “People don’t talk about what it’s like to be mixed race.” Tell me you don’t have a Black friend group without telling me you don’t have a Black friend group!
The person I feel sorriest for in this whole mess is Ragland, who acknowledges and openly regrets that she didn’t do enough to educate Meghan about racism. Having to teach your kids how to survive systemic racism is an emotionally crushing reality for most Black parents. There are all sorts of ways you can try to put it off: move to the right neighborhood, scout out the right schools, keep a very close eye on the books, movies, and media your kid is exposed to. If you play your cards right—and having a daughter, not a son, can help—you might not have to start having “the talk” with your kids until middle school.
But destiny dealt Meghan and her mom an option to pass on those hard conversations, and it’s clear that they took it. And I understand—and even empathize—with Ragland’s choice. If there were a magic wand or a random accident of genetics that would keep anti-Blackness from shaping my kid’s life, I might do the same. Had she not married Harry, Meghan might’ve spent her whole life as a conscious, progressive, almost-white woman, an accomplished B-list actress and internet personality, whose racial identity might have occasionally come up in a celebrity “Little-Known Facts” listicle, but nothing more.
It seems like that was Meghan’s choice, and that’s at the heart of my unease with her. At a certain point, you have to be responsible for filling in the gaps in your upbringing, or owning your decision not to. Meghan could’ve Googled “racism in the British royal family” the way she Googled the words to “God Save the Queen.” Years before she met Harry, she could’ve cultivated friendships and relationships with Black people who might’ve been able to disabuse her of some of misguided expectations that her race would never really matter. But it seems she didn’t.
Meghan still has my sympathy, to a point. She has become an avatar for many Black women like me, who have lived through the “pet to threat” journey, women who believed pro-diversity pronouncements of white-led institutions where we studied or worked, or who thought that we were magical negresses who could guide them into a more enlightened future. It’s humbling and humiliating to be confronted with your mistake, falling for the oldest okey-doke that white supremacist society has to offer. But while it’s disappointing that the royal family turned out that way, it’s hardly a surprise. Except to Meghan.
And Meghan’s persistent, breathless, tearful surprise about her experience—a shock that she expects the watching (and, now, reading) world to share—is the clearest indication that she’s mainly speaking from a white perspective, and to a white audience. There’s not any corner of the diaspora where people wouldn’t have warned her, if she’d ever asked.
I don’t hate Meghan. I wish her a healthy and happy life with her devoted husband, with the safety that all families of all colors deserve. I don’t think she should stop talking about her experience. But I also wish she’d think a little bit more of how she does.