Misinterpretation is not racism

It is extremely unlikely that Lady Sarah Hussey meant any offence when she asked Ndozi Fulani where she came from at a Buckingham Palace reception last week. She was helping the Queen Consort entertain her guests; a role she has been playing for decades having been Lady in Waiting to the late Queen, and was simply taking an interest in her guest by way of conversation. It is perfectly normal to ask someone about their background in such situations. The late Queen did so constantly and indeed liked to be briefed in advance about whom she was going to meet.

If someone asks me where I come from I simply say Croydon. If I want to extend the conversation I say my mother was Welsh and father born and bred in Oxford. Still further back my ancestors were a mixture of immigrant Vikings, Normans and Saxons. To be able to say my parents came to this country from Barbados but that I was born here and am now a British citizen, as Fulani (born Mary Headley) could have done, would be much more interesting. Why couldn’t she have just said so nicely and politely? Ancestry is a very popular subject. The BBC has a whole series devoted to it. Nobody accuses them of racism.

Much has been made of how Lady Hussey pressed the point after an initial hostile reaction, but she would naturally have wanted to clarify the situation after being taken aback.  Unfortunately it only made the situation worse, but how was she to know that? More likely Fulani was deliberately milking the situation as she appears to be making something of a career for herself insulting the Royal Family. According to returns to the Charities Commission her charity was set up in 2018 and has received £350,000 since then, but has not made any significant disbursements to anyone other than Ms. Fulani herself. The Palace should strengthen its due diligence procedures. Then she really would have been excluded!

Most of us do now know that black British citizens are peculiarly sensitive on this point. I myself have had the same experience and we learn that way. We are not mind-readers. I now avoid asking that question of black people, but that is my choice as a matter of individual moral sensitivity.  Racism is defined in the dictionary as the belief that some races are inherently superior to others. Absolutely nothing in what Lady Hussey said indicated she ascribed to such a belief. Fulani simply misinterpreted the conversation – quite possibly deliberately.

We had the same situation arise in The Duchess of Sussex’s interview with Oprah Winfrey where she revealed that “questions had be asked about Archie’s skin colour”. Note, she did not say that “concerns had been raised …..”, which is what the media invariably reported. It is perfectly normal for prospective relatives to speculate about an unborn child’s characteristics and, for example, which parent they might more resemble. In the case of mixed-race parents skin colour is an obvious interest.

It is highly regrettable now that the Palace has caved in to the criticism and thrown Lady Hussey to the wolves. If anything Ms. Fulani owes Lady Hussey an abject apology for the distress she has caused. The late Queen would am I sure have shown much more backbone. She might have issued a statement along the following lines:

“It is with deep regret that we have learned of a substantial misunderstanding last week between a member of the royal household and a black guest at a reception here at Buckingham Palace. The guest is claiming she had been subjected to racist questioning. Opinions on this may vary but may I take the opportunity to reassure our black community that no offence was intended and that we value highly the involvement of black people in British life today.

Misunderstandings are commonplace in life, particularly where people of different backgrounds come together. Let us all learn from such experiences and always try to understand the other person’s point of view. I am sure we can overcome such differences and see the good in others, as well as the shortcomings in ourselves, and that way develop peace and understanding amongst us all.”

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