I generally avoid news about the royals. So it was a real eye-opener to find myself at the centre of a royal story. At a reception on Tuesday to honour those working to end violence against women and girls, I witnessed racist remarks from a member of the royal household directed at my friend and fellow activist, Ngozi Fulani. Lady Hussey’s prolonged interrogation about where Ngozi was really from, what her nationality was and where her people were from, was not – as many people have insisted to me over the past 24 hours – the kind of well-meaning curiosity that all of us experience from time to time (though it’s possible that Hussey believed that it was).
“Hackney” was Ngozi’s answer, but Hussey refused to accept this. Her response implied that Black and brown people couldn’t really be British. It implied that we were trespassing – and it made me reflect on the increasingly hostile environment of this disunited kingdom.
Even so, the media furore feels disproportionate, given the avalanche of huge stories you might expect to be dominating the news cycle. It’s not that this one isn’t serious. Racism always is, which is why I’ve spoken out. But something about this media frenzy feels … off. Even as I write this, interview requests are coming in faster than I can say no to (in one case my refusal was countered with the offer of a huge fee). If you have seen the emergency appeal that the Women’s Equality party launched this week, you will understand how hard that particular refusal was, though it confirmed why my decision had been right in the first place.
The initial calls I received were from journalists not looking for my account, but my corroboration. It took some time to realise that it was the very fact that the incident had been “witnessed” that made it significant, and forced the palace to respond swiftly (and in my view, unsatisfactorily). Unlike when the Duchess of Sussex made her accounts of royal racism, such as the “concerns” that were expressed over how dark her son’s skin might be, the palace wasn’t able to deny or deflect this time. It couldn’t rerun the famous line that “recollections may vary”, because three of us have identical, and identically uncomfortable, recollections of that encounter.
Soon after the first media reports were published, the palace announced that Hussey had resigned. This is a gambit that I have become increasingly familiar with since the Women’s Equality party started campaigning against police misogyny. What I’ve learned is that the “bad apple” narrative is potent not only because it masquerades as taking responsibility without the institution having to do any such thing, but also because it often helps drive a backlash against the “woke brigade” for cancelling yet another innocent. I see that “She’s 83” is now trending on Twitter, imploring us to leave this nice old lady alone, a stance that adds a dash of ageism to the racism that has pervaded much of the commentary.
The funny thing is, neither Ngozi nor I wanted Hussey to receive the grand order of the boot. Ngozi didn’t even name her publicly; it was social media that did this, immediately seizing on the story as another chance to form into polarised rival camps. Instead of stepping down, Hussey should be encouraged to step up, along with senior members of the royal household. This is much bigger than one individual: blaming Hussey risks minimising and distracting from the depth and breadth of racism that is enshrined in an institution that carries the heritage of empire, slavery and inequality (we are their subjects, after all).
Buckingham Palace trumpets its commitment to diversity and inclusion on its website. In a statement on Wednesday, it promised to remind staff of its policies. That’s a big ask when its own annual reports show a lack of diversity among the upper echelons of its staff. The palace’s history is dotted with failures of inclusion. Still, it’s not the worst of the royal courts. Anecdotal evidence suggests that honour falls to Kensington Palace, which didn’t even release this data in its last annual report.
Perhaps a starting point for an institution where staff think it’s OK to touch a Black woman’s hair or question her belonging would be signing up to cultural competence training. I know just the organisation to provide that. Sistah Space, the charity Ngozi runs to support African and Caribbean heritage women affected by domestic and sexual abuse, offers such courses to institutions that don’t know where to begin.
Wouldn’t it be something if Buckingham Palace asked for their help? It would certainly chime with the Queen Consort’s speech at the reception, in which she said that the starting point for responding to survivors of abuse was listening to them and believing them. Perhaps, one day, that principle could extend to Meghan too.
Mandu Reid is leader of the Women’s Equality party