The Lady, the African charity worker and the legacy of empire
For generations, the British state has made it clear that it regards those of us who insist that it confronts the legacy of empire and the racism it etched into the DNA of white Britain, as Lefties with an agenda to destabilise the country.
Now and then, however, it is brought face to face with that legacy and reacts as if all was well in the first place and that whatever caused it to take a long look at itself is not typical and down to the rogue conduct of the odd individual.
On Tuesday, November 29, Camilla, the queen consort, hosted a reception at Buckingham Palace, bringing together organisations working to end violence against girls and women. At that reception, a distinguished member of the royal household, Lady Susan Hussey, interrogated one of the guests, Ngozi Fulani, and insisted on being told where she was from.
Who is Ngozi Fulani? Who is Lady Susan Hussey, and why was she so insistent on pinning down exactly where Fulani was from?
According to Fulani and those in her company who witnessed Lady Hussey’s interactions with her, what Fulani experienced as an interrogation proceeded as follows:
Lady Hussey approaches Fulani and moves aside her hair to read her name badge. She asks where she is from. Fulani replies: Sistah Space. Hussey then asks: No, where do you come from, to which Fulani replies: We’re based in Hackney. Hussey continues her questioning: No, which part of Africa are you from? To which Fulani replies: I don’t know. They did not leave any records. Hussey insists: Well, you must know where you’re from. Fulani says: Here; UK. Hussey: No, but what nationality are you? Fulani replies: I was born here. I’m British. Hussey: No, but where do you really come from? Where do your people come from? Fulani says: ‘My people’, Lady? What is this? Hussey retorts: Oh, I can see I’m going to have a challenge getting you to say where you’re from. When did you first come here? Fulani: Lady, I am a British national. My parents came here in the ‘50s when … . Hussey: Oh, you’re from the Caribbean. Fulani: No, Lady. I’m of African heritage, Caribbean descent,, and British nationality.
This was indeed an interrogation by any other name. In fact, it is an interrogation that would have been over the top if Fulani had found herself confronted by an immigration officer doubting the authenticity of her British passport on her return from anywhere.
Once the story broke, two things happened, both of which were entirely predictable. First, the media and the Twitterati immediately reacted as if it were Ngozi Fulani’s fault in causing Lady Hussey to inquire as to her origins in the first place and then making the interrogation necessary by not giving Hussey the answer(s) she expected. Second, Hussey was made into the innocent victim who at the age of 83, and after decades of illustrious service to the late Queen, had been disgraced by falling into a trap that Fulani had laid for her, that being Fulani’s premeditated purpose for attending the reception.
The 83-year-old victim trope is perhaps best summed up by Petronella Wyatt writing in the Spectator on December 1.
‘“Lady Susan Hussey resigned from the Royal household yesterday after 60 years of loyal service to King and Country. Lady Susan, who is 83, has survived world crises, royal scandals and machinations, and the death of her friend Queen Elizabeth, to whom she was a beloved companion and longest-serving lady in waiting. But she could not survive a meeting with the activist Ngozi Fulani and the arbitrary ‘rules’ that apparently now govern 21st-century social discourse … .” Wyatt argued that publicly condemning and dismissing an 83-year-old for showing curiosity about someone’s heritage as the palace did was more unacceptable than Hussey’s conduct towards Fulani.
So there we have it.
No consideration of why Hussey felt entitled to move Fulani’s hair out of the way, rather than saying: Can I ask your name? I cannot see your name badge. There is after all a difference between respect and good manners and entitlement. Moving aside Fulani’s hair immediately established what the power relationship was between the two women.
Fulani, on the other hand is lambasted for causing the 83-year-old to innocently show curiosity about her heritage: by dressing fraudulently, i.e., as an African when she is presumably not allowed to claim that heritage as a member of the African diaspora whose forebears did not elect to be transported to the Caribbean; by daring to give herself an African first name and adopting the name of an African ethnic nationality as her surname, and worse yet, by not avoiding ambiguity by owning and not deviating from the name British imperialists gave to her enslaved ancestors; by assuming that the British nationality she acquired by birth and residence since birth should be enough to save her the indignity of such interrogation; by assuming that she had the right to turn up at Buckingham Palace with her African self and her African attire and expect to be treated the same as any white guest.
One can legitimately infer that if Lady Hussey could treat Ngozi Fulani in such a manner, her treatment of African or/and global majority staff in the royal household is likely to be the same, if not worse, especially as any such staff would be in lowly, non-clerical positions. But were that to be the case, we would not know about it. QE2 saw to it that she and her household cannot be called to account for equality and human rights violations, an exemption that actively gags staff from bringing complaints under any legislation that is in place to protect their rights.
Given the knowledge of black people’s experience of racism in society, for the monarch to use royal privilege to exempt the royal household from measures meant to protect citizens from discrimination and human rights violations is nothing short of a disgrace. It is a disgrace to which successive parliaments and the society that elects them to govern and to safeguard the people have been willing to give free rein. That is the systemic and institutional culture in the royal household that Lady Hussey has inhabited for over 60 years.
No amount of cultural competence training, as proposed by Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality Party (who witnessed the interrogation), could displace that culture, irrespective of whether that training is delivered by the Sistah Space charity as she recommends.
Rather than repackaging the monarchy and rushing to sell it, under new management, to the Commonwealth, the King might try staying at home and attending to the systemic racist culture that was allowed to fester and grow over the last 60+ years, starting with the ruling in the early 1960s that no ‘coloured people’ were to be employed by the palace, except as domestic staff.
Neither seeing off Lady Hussey nor having her apologise in person to Ngozi Fulani will deal with the racism that so defines the monarchy of which Charles is now head.
- Professor Augustine John is a human rights campaigner and honorary Fellow and associate professor at the UCL Institute of Education, University of London.