Meghan Markle is an actress, model – and next to marry into the Royal family, if we are reading the tea leaves right following Markle’s decision to close down her popular blog The Tig last week.
Perhaps best known for being Prince Harry’s very photogenic bi-racial American girlfriend, Markle, 35, also recently spoke about the drawbacks of being “ethnically ambiguous”.
Of mixed race – her father is white and her mother is African-American – the Suits actress detailed her experiences of confronting casting directors bamboozled by where she fits in the colour wheel, of having her skin tone lightened in photographs, and the frustration of being both too black for some – she has copped nasty, racist abuse online – to “feeling too light in the black community, too mixed in the white community”.
I sympathise with Markle. There is little doubt that her skin tone puts her in the hot seat; last year, Prince Harry was forced into the singular step of having to defend her publicly from racist trolls in an official Kensington Palace statement.
But are there benefits in not being easily racially classifiable? Has it allowed her to land roles closed to other darker-skinned actresses? Does her lighter skin allow her to deflect prejudice to a greater degree, and provide her with a kind of camouflage that helps her “pass” in a society where white – or lighter skin – is still an idealised aesthetic?
As an arts writer, I remember the artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre Stephen Page once telling me how his lighter skin – he’s been viewed as a “yellafella” since his Queensland childhood – helped him land performing opportunities not open to darker Indigenous dancers. American social studies research investigating colourism repeatedly confirm the economic and social benefits conferred by light skin in everything from the labour market to the marriage market.
As Markle can testify, skin colour is a complex thing. It shapes, often, the world’s reaction to you, your own perspective of yourself, even self-worth, in some cases.
Within my own family and my mother’s extended clan, colour manifests itself in interesting ways. My mother was born in Chennai, South India into a Malayalee Catholic family of nine children. Looking at my aunts and uncles, I was always intrigued by their range of skin tones, from my rosy, Russian-looking eldest uncle to my honey-coloured, freckled mother, to a few beautifully dark-skinned younger aunts and uncles.
A bit of digging, and voila – it turns out my late grandmother Laura Landsbeck – nice Indian name, that! – came from Luso-Indian stock courtesy of the Portuguese colonialisation of the south coast of India in the early 16th century. Laura’s mother Jane Andrade had Portuguese ancestry, and her father, Joseph Landsbeck, had some German and Portuguese blood up the line as well, mum says.
This mixed heritage has manifested itself through our maternal family tree in unexpected ways. Grandma Laura was light-skinned. Her children’s complexions a varied. My mother, too, has seen interesting colour variations in her own four daughters. We range from creamy to olive to brown; only one of us is regularly picked as Indian. Like Markle, we are an advertisement for ethnic ambiguity.
I did a quick poll of my sisters the other day, asking them what racial background people think they are. The eldest, born with fair skin and eyes so alarmingly light (blue-grey) that my parents called in an eye specialist when she was a week old, cites everything from Spanish to French. Her mixed-race son is regularly picked as Iranian (on a recent holiday to Morocco, he was also taken for a native). Second sister gets the Mediterranean label too. Her mixed-race twins (dad is of white English ancestry) comprise one “white”-looking child and a more olive sibling. My youngest sister looks like something out of an South Indian temple carving, and is picked, correctly, as of Indian ancestry.
Me? I get everything from Indian to Pacific Islander to East Asian, curiously, to Italian to, yes, Spanish. On a trip to Peru, I was assumed everywhere to be a local. Hola! My twins were of different shades when they were born – one more Anglo-looking after his dad, my daughter a little brown mini-me (interestingly I was once mistaken for their nanny when we lived in New York; my white Australian friend was picked as their mother). As they’ve grown older, skin shades have converged, but there are still differences.
It continues with my mother’s Canadian family – my cousins have Anglo-Indian blood from other branches of the clan, and have bi-racial children with Mexican and German ancestry. So again, there is a rainbow of shades and hues.
So are there benefits in having lighter skin, being more ethnically ambiguous – a better term than ‘mongrel’, I guess – in a Trumpian world where colour and identity are once again on the radar as highly politicised talking points? Does the world really react differently to you depending on subtle differences in pigment?
The annoyances that come with ethnic ambiguity are small pinpricks: being told how “exotic” your kids are, constantly facing tiresome guessing games about your background, having your family subtly assessed by strangers on outings, fielding questions about your racial authenticity.
But on the whole, the world is an easier place for the lighter-skinned: you face less discrimination because you blend in – you are an ethnic chameleon. The further you deviate from an idealised standard of whiteness, the harder it is.
My Canadian cousin, Tina, mistaken for every race under the sun, it seems, says that among things, “in looking ethnically ambiguous, you don’t face the ignorance and stereotypes that people seem to have about certain cultures”.
My second sister and her husband are optimistic about their Eurasian children’s future in Australia: they have the best of both worlds, they think. My youngest sister has a different view. Her German husband is optimistic, but she sees Australia as a place where racism is still alive, where intolerance lurks even under multicultural Sydney’s shiny surface. But then, her experiences growing up here have been distinctly different to the rest of us – she knows, intimately, the hierarchy of colour and the benefits fairness confers, knows the hurt of racial slings in the playground.
But back to Markle and her potential royal elevation. My London-based sister thinks most younger Brits, particularly in multicultural London, have no problem with her racial background. The unease would stem from the rural areas – the Brexit-er demographic, if you will. She offers an interesting slant on the situation: perhaps people are more relaxed about Markle marrying into the family because “it’s not as if she’s next in line to the throne”. No real risk of upsetting the racial cart.
Racism works both ways, of course. Indians are highly conscious of colour. There is the infamous descriptor “wheatish” – code for fair-skinned – that pops up in marriage ads with comical regularity. There is the even more infamous beauty skin treatment Fair and Lovely sold in every Indian grocery story in Australia. There are the admonitions from childhood to stay out of the sun or “you’ll get dark”. The prizing of light skin is evident in every Bollywood movie.
So, yes – the issue of colour certainly goes way beyond simple white and black. I like Markle’s battle cry. You can “continue living your life feeling muddled in this abyss of self-misunderstanding, or you find your identity independent of it. You create the identity you want for yourself”.