When it comes to race the British monarchy has proven once again how toxic it is
For Camilla it was her most important engagement since becoming the Queen Consort.
Held during the United Nations’ 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence initiative, the royal had convened over 300 distinguished guests from a cross-section of society, all with the same goals — supporting, highlighting, advocating and finding solutions for an end to violence faced by women and girls.
For an institution that is more often associated with ribbon cutting and pomp, 29 November’s reception was a moment of true substance and grit. It was also a glimpse at how Camilla plans to continue her work in this area now that she is the wife of a monarch — and how the Royal Family sees its role and relevance in modern-day society.
That was, until the next morning. A tweet from guest and charity executive Ngozi Fulani laid bare the reality of being a minority at such an event. A snippet of a five-minute chat with one of the late Queen’s Ladies in Waiting (in her newly appointed role as a Lady of the Household), Susan Hussey, revealed a disturbing inability to accept the Black UK-born charity boss was from Britain. The conversation, which began with the 83-year-old moving the Londoner’s hair without permission (to see her name badge, apparently), quickly escalated to at least seven attempts at making the Sistah Space charity founder admit where she was “really” from.
“Oh, I can see I am going to have a challenge getting you to say where you’re from,” Lady Susan continued in her interrogation, asking once again where her “people” were from. By this point, the conversation was simply a white woman telling a Black woman that she was being insubordinate. Lady Susan would only stop when she got the answer she wanted.
“Standing there in a room packed with people while this violation was taking place was so strange, especially as the event was about violence against women,” Ms Fulani shared in a tweet. “That feeling of not knowing what to do, will NEVER leave me. Almost alone in a room full of advocates.”
The encounter was appalling but, sadly, didn’t shock many. The relationship between royals and racial sensitivity is similar to that of oil and water. Diversity at royal events sounds great, but does it work if the people there aren’t equipped to deal with it? Ms Fulani’s problematic encounter with one of Queen Elizabeth II’s most treasured aides was a reminder that little changes in the House of Windsor.
This time, however, with several eyewitnesses and a named culprit (“Lady SH”), there were no varying recollections to point out or comment requests to ignore. The speed at which the indisputable story spread on Twitter forced Buckingham Palace to handle the matter fast. “Unacceptable and deeply regrettable comments have been made,” a statement read. “We have reached out to Ngozi Fulani on this matter, and are inviting her to discuss all elements of her experience in person if she wishes.” Lady Susan, they add (though not by name), has stepped aside from her honorary role with immediate effect.
Read more: Who is Lady Susan Hussey? Prince William's godmother quits royal role over racist comments
But while their swift response may have put out a small part of the fire, bigger flames still roared. To many, particularly people of colour, Tuesday’s incident was a reminder of the countless times issues concerning race have been pushed to one side by the Palace. It was also a validation of the allegations made by Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex in 2021, who claimed a member of the Royal Family had made racist remarks about the colour of Archie’s skin.
With no royal named by the Sussexes, palace officials did their best at the time to curtail media coverage and public discussion by announcing that the accusation would be discussed “privately” as a family (it wasn’t) before new, negative stories about Harry and Meghan (courtesy of the “palace sources” being quoted) conveniently surfaced in British newspapers.
Though it’s possible that this week’s speedy response may have come from lessons learned (there is, after all, a new head of communications working for King Charles III), you’d be hard-pushed not to believe that it was more likely an attempt at protecting Prince William’s long-planned trip to Boston for his Earthshot Prize ceremony — his first big overseas trip since the disaster that was his March tour of the Caribbean. But the palace’s rush to claim they reached out to Ngozi, who over a day later claims she was yet to hear a word from anyone, is a sign that the Palace may have just been thinking about optics, not humanity. (A Palace source tells Yahoo News that an official has reached out to Ms. Fulani through an organisation she is affiliated with and are still eager to connect).
And with such a long history of ignored racism, commenting on one incident was never going to shut down the bigger discussion anyway.
You see, the royals and racism is a long and problematic history that continues to this day. The grim jokes Prince Philip used to make about “slitty eyes” or Indigenous people were often dismissed as fun gaffes. And in the workplace itself, there was the 1968 memo against hiring “coloured immigrants or foreigners” to some roles in the palace.
More recently, in 2001, a Black secretary of 10 years accused Prince Charles’ valet Michael Fawcett during an employment tribunal of calling her a "fucking n*** typist” in 1996. Fawcett went on to become senior valet to Charles. While the tribunal ruled the allegation was unproven, it should have been a fundamental moment for the palace to become more aware of such concerns in the future.
And, even now, the Royal Family keeps wanting to run away from its historic links to slavery (Queen Elizabeth l sponsoring the blood-soaked voyages of John Hawkins; King Charles II officially starting the transatlantic slave trade and many other examples). At some point they need to admit that this is an empire that has practically been built on racism.
Ultimately, Lady Susan is a product of the environment she served for and lived in for 60-something years. If a supposed expert in royal etiquette and diplomacy is willing to talk to a woman of colour like that in the gentile setting of a royal engagement, what’s said behind the scenes when the cameras are away?
Read more: Lady Susan Hussey row: 'Are we saying that because you're 83 you can’t be racist?'
Previous reports have claimed that, during her time as a working royal, a “difficult” Duchess of Sussex turned down the opportunity to be mentored by Lady Susan on the “complexities” of royal life. Given what Meghan experienced within the royal institution (there are a number of claims that have yet to be aired publicly), can one really blame her for not being attracted to the offer? After all, even putting race to one side, this is the same Lady-in-Waiting who, per sources, would privately make disparaging comments about Meghan, and Princess Diana allegedly “couldn’t stand”. If in just a few minutes Hussey could make a group of accomplished and upstanding Black women feel like “trespassers”, then imagine what months of guidance could have been like for a biracial duchess.
Despite the concrete proof of her behaviour, it hasn’t stopped Lady Susan’s friends and certain palace courtiers from sharing opposing views with various outlets. One pal told a tabloid she was simply trying to put Ms. Fulani at ease at the reception, while a palace staffer blames social media for pushing her out of her honorary role. In some ways, I share with them a disappointment at Hussey’s departure, albeit for a different reason.
Because if the Palace’s reaction to racism (when not ignoring or denying it) is to flick away the culprit like a leaky fountain pen, how can anyone actually learn anything? Their claim that staff will be “reminded of the diversity and inclusivity policies” is all well and good, but what about actually teaching them—and the family members—what racism is, how it can be avoided, how to understand it, how to see it through the eyes of others, what unconscious bias is…
As I post this, the first trailer for the Sussexes’ Netflix docuseries has just been released. Over six episodes, Harry & Meghan will tell the story of the couple's courtship and royal life through the lens of the media and difficulties they faced. Racism and racial bias—particularly in press coverage (which the Royal Family never spoke up about)—plays a significant part of it. The show, just like Harry’s book, has Palace staff worried about more accusations coming their way.
Last week, I wrote about King Charles “acknowledging the wrongs” that shaped the pasts of South Africa and Britain during President Cyril Ramaphosa’s state visit. Once again a senior royal had danced around the uncomfortable conversation of the monarchy’s colonial and imperial past rather than properly acknowledging it. We face the same issue with racism.
Ownership of the issue needs to go further than a statement and a prayer that the story will disappear quickly. It’s time to reflect. No more false promises (remember the diversity tsar?), no more trying to silence those who speak up about these issues, no more boasting about championing diversity in the workplace (when almost zero of the staff hired are in senior positions). Face the problems, own them and—most importantly—educate yourselves.
Because if King Charles truly wants to show leadership and modernise the monarchy, then acknowledging the institutional racism within it is the only way forward. Turn it into an institution that, even at its very foundations, can be anti-racist, stand for racial equality and truly embrace and respect people from every walk of life. Otherwise, we’re going to find ourselves back here again very soon.