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Prince Harry's girlfriend, actress Meghan Markle, is opening up about her sometimes painful experiences growing up as a mixed-race woman.
In a heartfelt essay for Elle UK, the 35-year-old Suits star says she's often asked every day about her ethnicity. Markle's father is Caucasian and her mother is African American.
"To describe something as being black and white means it is clearly defined. Yet when your ethnicity is black and white, the dichotomy is not that clear," Markle writes. "In fact, it creates a grey area. Being biracial paints a blurred line that is equal parts staggering and illuminating."
Markle recalls how her parents, who are now divorced, made her feel special instead of "different." Still, she remembers feeling deeply conflicted as early as seventh grade, when she couldn't decide which box to check to indicate her ethnicity on a mandatory census.
"There I was (my curly hair, my freckled face, my pale skin, my mixed race) looking down at these boxes, not wanting to mess up, but not knowing what to do," Markle shares. "You could only choose one, but that would be to choose one parent over the other -- and one half of myself over the other."
"My teacher told me to check the box for Caucasian," she continues. "'Because that's how you look, Meghan,' she said. I put down my pen. Not as an act of defiance, but rather a symptom of my confusion. I couldn't bring myself to do that, to picture the pit-in-her-belly sadness my mother would feel if she were to find out. So, I didn't tick a box. I left my identity blank -- a question mark, an absolute incomplete -- much like how I felt."
Markle describes a particularly painful incident in Los Angeles during her college break, when her mother was called the N-word.
"We were leaving a concert and she wasn't pulling out of a parking space quickly enough for another driver," Markle recalls. "My skin rushed with heat as I looked to my mom. Her eyes welling with hateful tears, I could only breathe out a whisper of words, so hushed they were barely audible: 'It's OK, Mommy.' I was trying to temper the rage-filled air permeating our small silver Volvo. Los Angeles had been plagued with the racially charged Rodney King and Reginald Denny cases just years before, when riots had flooded our streets, filling the sky with ash that flaked down like apocalyptic snow; I shared my mom's heartache, but I wanted us to be safe. We drove home in deafening silence, her chocolate knuckles pale from gripping the wheel so tightly."
Later, when she decided to become an actress, Markle quickly found it was difficult finding work thanks to labels calling for particular ethnicities in characters. "I wasn't black enough for the black roles and I wasn't white enough for the white ones, leaving me somewhere in the middle as the ethnic chameleon who couldn't book a job," she admits.
But eventually, she landed the role of Rachel Zane on Suits. Yet, Markle still faced racial discrimination, which became more vocal when they cast African-American actor Wendell Pierce in the role of Rachel's father.
"I remember the tweets when that first episode of the Zane family aired, they ran the gamut from: 'Why would they make her dad black? She's not black' to 'Ew, she's black? I used to think she was hot,'" she writes. "The latter was blocked and reported. The reaction was unexpected, but speaks of the undercurrent of racism that is so prevalent, especially within America."
These days, Markle has learned to embrace being a "strong, confident mixed-race woman."
"So you make a choice: continue living your life feeling muddled in this abyss of self-misunderstanding, or you find your identity independent of it," she explains. "You push for color-blind casting, you draw your own box. You introduce yourself as who you are, not what color your parents happen to be."
"You cultivate your life with people who don't lead with ethnic descriptions such as, 'that black guy Tom', but rather friends who say: 'You know? Tom, who works at [blah blah] and dates [fill in the blank] girl,'" she continues. "You create the identity you want for yourself, just as my ancestors did when they were given their freedom."
Last month, Prince Harry condemned "sexist and racist attacks" on Markle in an official statement from Kensington Palace. The bold statement also confirmed the couple's relationship for the first time.
"His girlfriend, Meghan Markle, has been subject to a wave of abuse and harassment," the statement read. “Some of this has been very public -- the smear on the front page of a national newspaper; the racial undertones of comment pieces; and the outright sexism and racism of social media trolls and web article comments. ... Prince Harry is worried about Ms. Markle's safety and is deeply disappointed that he has not been able to protect her."