The late queen’s lady-in-waiting has resigned and apologised after a black guest at a reception hosted by the queen consort was left feeling traumatised and violated after she questioned her repeatedly about where she “really came from”.
Ngozi Fulani, the founder of the charity Sistah Space, claimed Susan Hussey moved her hair to reveal her name badge and persistently questioned her over where her “people” came from, despite having been told she was a British national.
A spokesperson for the Prince of Wales, who is Lady Hussey’s godson, said the comments were unacceptable and that “racism has no place in our society”.
The encounter on Tuesday, at a reception on gender-based violence, was witnessed by two other women: Mandu Reid, the leader of the Women’s Equality party, who is of mixed heritage, and another black female charity representative.
Hussey, 83, the widow of the former BBC chair Sir Marmaduke Hussey, had recently been appointed one of the ladies of the household. She is a close friend of the king. Her daughter, Katherine Brooke, has just been appointed as one of Camilla’s new queen’s companions.
Buckingham Palace described the remarks as “unacceptable and deeply regrettable”. Hussey has offered her “profound apologies” for hurt caused and resigned her honorary position with immediate effect.
Fulani wrote on Twitter: “Mixed feelings about yesterday’s visit to Buckingham Palace. 10 mins after arriving, a member of staff, Lady SH, approached me, moved my hair to see my name badge. The conversation below took place. The rest of the event is a blur.”
She then described the conversation:
Lady SH: Where are you from?
Me: Sistah Space.
SH: No, where do you come from?
Me: We’re based in Hackney.
SH: No, what part of Africa are YOU from?
Me: I don’t know, they didn’t leave any records.
SH: Well, you must know where you’re from, I spent time in France. Where are you from?
Me: Here, UK
SH: NO, but what Nationality are you?
Me: I am born here and am British.
SH: No, but where do you really come from, where do your people come from?
Me: ‘My people’, lady, what is this?
SH: Oh I can see I am going to have a challenge getting you to say where you’re from. When did you first come here?
Me: Lady! I am a British national, my parents came here in the 50s when …
SH: Oh, I knew we’d get there in the end, you’re Caribbean!
Me: No Lady, I am of African heritage, Caribbean descent and British nationality.
SH: Oh, so you’re from …”
Buckingham Palace said: “We take this incident extremely seriously and have investigated immediately to establish the full facts. In this instance unacceptable and deeply regrettable comments have been made. We have reached out to Ngozi Fulani on this matter, and we are inviting her to discuss all elements of her experience in person if she wishes.
“In the meantime, the individual concerned would like to express her profound apologies for the hurt caused and has stepped aside from her honorary role with immediate effect.”
The comments were condemned widely on Twitter. Replying to messages of support, Fulani tweeted: “I think it is essential to acknowledge that trauma has occurred and being invited and then insulted has caused much damage.
She wrote: “There was nobody to report it to. I couldn’t report it to the Queen Consort, plus it was such a shock to me and the 2 other women we were stunned into temporary silence. I just stood at the edge of the room, smiled & engaged briefly, with those who spoke to me until I could leave.”
She added: “It was such a struggle to stay in a space you were violated in.”
She told the Guardian the first “no no” was Hussey moving her hair.
“Here I am in this place as part of the 16 days of activism, experiencing non-physical violence – you feel like you have the right to approach me, put your hand in my hair and insist I don’t have the right to British nationality. In a space like that, what do you do?”
She said she had “never felt so unwelcome or so uncomfortable”.
She said: “I was almost forced to say that I’m not really British. I don’t know what she meant by ‘my people’. It was incomprehensible for her to consider that I have British citizenship. When she heard my parents were from the Caribbean she said: ‘Finally we are getting somewhere’ … It was overt racism.
Of Hussey’s resignation, she said: “It’s tragic for me that it has ended that way. I would have preferred that she had been spoken to or re-educated.”
Reid, who witnessed the encounter, said it left the three women “shell-shocked”. They were invited as guests, she said. “We were made to feel in a way like trespassers.
“It was pretty shocking, because we didn’t feel welcome. We didn’t feel that we belonged. We felt our legitimacy in a way was challenged and questioned. It’s the last thing I’d expect when I have been invited.”
She suggested the palace household could benefit from cultural competency training of the sort run by Sistah Space. “You can’t, on the one hand, wang on about the Commonwealth and embracing the Commonwealth family, and yet people like us, the three of us, are treated as if we don’t belong.”
Describing it as an example of “institutional racism”, she said: “They have to take responsibility for it. They’ve got to show leadership. Not only in their own realm, but they have to take leadership for the country and for the Commonwealth they claim to preside over.”
She said: “It’s about the culture within the institution of the royal family. We’ve got a new king now who has a chance to actually signal that he wants to do something better, to do something different.”
It is not the first time the royal institution has faced claims of racism. In their interview with Oprah Winfrey, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex made claims of racism against the family, which were denied by Prince William.