Farrukh Dhondy | Where are you from? UK row erupts on royal racism, abuse
Can we understand an 83-year-old privileged lady being unaware that her attitude and persistence amounted to “abuse”?
“O Bachchoo acknowledge your passion flower
Isn’t just the blossom of a dream.
And though her fragrant presence can empower
You to recollect that theme --
The plot in which you bid her come hither --
The petals of youth inevitably wither
Time is the only endower….”
From Kalam Ki Kahaniyan, by Bachchoo
A right royal row broke out in Buckingham Palace very recently. No, I am not alluding to the fact that Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, have been paid £84 million to “tell their truth” in a three-part Netflix documentary which accuses the royal family of possibly “unconscious racism”.
The reviews of the first two transmitted programmes all seem to say that they are pretty dire and unconvincing. Supporters of the royal family of Britain go further and accuse the documentaries of attempting to pass off cheating footage and Harry and Meghan of whining and lying.
The royals -- King Charles III and the Prince and Princess of Wales -- have declined to comment on the documentaries. It has been reported that they have sent Christmas presents to Harry and Meghan’s children, but not to the parents.
So much for that dispute. The row I was alluding to took place at a reception in Buckingham Palace for people who support victims of domestic violence. The occasion was hosted by Queen Consort Camilla. One of the guests was Ngozi Fulani. She is the founder of a charity called “Sistah Space”, which caters specifically for the women of African descent who are victims of domestic violence.
Ms Fulani, pictured at the event, was dressed in what, to an observer would pronounce African heritage. It wasn’t inconspicuous attire. It was a proclamation of identity and allegiance, just as members of the royal family wear uniforms with medals dangling from them. There is no question of entitlement to such meretricious display of couture or hairstyle, both of which Ms Fulani proudly displayed.
At this occasion, she encountered Lady Susan Hussey, 83-year-old Baroness Hussey of North Bradley, a lady with the “rank” of Lady of the Household and godmother to William, Prince of Wales.
The next day Ms Fulani placed an account of the encounter on Twitter and it went, as they say, “viral”. She said Lady Hussey had repeatedly asked her where she was from. Here’s the precise transcript:
Lady Hussey: Where are you from?
Ms Fulani: Sistah Space.
Lady Hussey: No, where do you come from?
Ms Fulani: We’re based in Hackney.
Lady Hussey: No, what part of Africa are YOU from? (caps as in Ms Fulani’s tweet)
Ms Fulani: I don’t know, they didn’t leave any records.
Lady Hussey: Well, you must know where you’re from. I spent time in France. Where are you from?
Ms Fulani: Here, UK.
Lady Hussey: No, but what nationality are you?
Ms Fulani: I am born here and am British.
Lady Hussey: No, but where do you really come from, where do your people come from?
Ms Fulani: “My people”, lady, what is this?
Lady Hussey: 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?
Ms Fulani: Lady, I am a British national, my parents came here in the 1950s when…
Lady Husssey: Oh, I knew we’d get there in the end, you’re Caribbean!
Ms Fulani: No lady, I am of African heritage, Caribbean descent and British nationality.
Then the storm blew clear out of the Twitter tea cup. Lady Hussey was variously accused of violent racism and directly of “abuse”. The Palace caused her to resign as a Lady of the Household and she publicly apologised to Ms Fulani, who claimed that she felt what victims of physical abuse would have felt, even though there was no physicality in the verbal assault.
Lady Hussey’s persistence is indeed over-the-top and regrettable but, sub specie aeternitatatis, can we understand an 83-year-old privileged lady being unaware that her attitude and persistence amounted to “abuse”?
In a country as vast and diverse as India, almost the first question one is asked by strangers at a gathering is “where are you from?” It puts the interchange in a sort of context. “Ah, you are a Parsi from Pune? I have a lot of Parsi friends… do you know Russi Immoralearningswalla….” etc.
In Britain, which has certainly been demographically transformed into a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-faith society in the last 50 years, it has become customary to ask first-generation immigrants where they come from without any malice intended. So, when I am -- or at least used to be -- asked the question, I would say “India, from Poona”. Lady Hussey, at 83, witnessed the transformation into the present global reality of Britain and her questioning, if not her thick-skinned persistence, is understandable.
Of course, it’s also understandable that the third generation of these new communities of Britain assume their absolute Britishness.
Ms Fulani is not third generation. She was born in Britain of Barbadian parents and was named Marlene Headley. Whether she changed her surname through marriage is not known -- (and I dare not ask). The row and public attention she initiated with her tweet has caused the Charity Commission to begin an investigation into Sistah Space regarding its financial management and organisational setup. Let’s hope Ms Fulani hasn’t, through indignation, opened her own Pandora’s Box.