Updated: Dec 4, 2022
I cannot say if this happens to black people the world over, but in Britain, white people will ask black people where they hail from within minutes of meeting for the first time. And no matter how I say plainly that I was born here, the very next question is, ‘Where do your parents come from?’
'Almost British-Revisited' p.202 Nairobi Thompson
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I wrote this paragraph in 2008. Yet here we are some 14 years later, and this comment is making national news because a member of the Royal Household Lady Susan Hussey repeatedly asked Ngozi Fulani where she came from. (Ngozi Fulani: Lady Susan Hussey's race comments were abuse, says charity boss - BBC News.) Ngozi was invited to Buckingham Palace as the founder and Chief Exec of Sistah Space, the only domestic abuse charity in the UK that caters specifically for women and girls of African and Caribbean heritage.
This week she attended a reception that was part of the United Nations' 16 days of activism against gender-based violence. It kicked off on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and will run until 10 December, Human Rights Day. What was supposed to be an opportunity for solidarity for the cause, to network and maybe even to get a little healing by being in a positive supportive space, became an abusive situation for Ngozi and her colleagues.
Within minutes of arrival, she was approached by Lady Hussey who immediately invaded her space by taking hold of Ngozi’s Locs and moving them out of the way to see Ngozi’s name tag. Surely a polite enquiry as to a visitor’s name should have been the appropriate response to not being able to see a name tag. But instead, there was this invasion, this brazen assertion that she could touch Ngozi like she was rearranging trinkets on a sideboard!
Lady Hussey demonstrated a level of entitlement and arrogance in assuming she had the right, had latitude to wilfully touch someone in a personal place without their permission. This gesture was not one of affection, reassurance or an attempt at a welcome - it was an invasion of personal space. In some places this is considered assault. And before people think I'm exaggerating just imagine Ngozi cutting through the crowd and making a beeline for Queen Consort Camilla; then immediately moving Camilla's hair about. I'm pretty sure that close protection and security teams would have been on it! And do you remember the fuss that was made when 1st Lady Michelle Obama 'broke protocol' and 'touched' the Queen with a gentle arm on her back, and the Queen reciprocated... (Michelle Obama Speaks About the Time She Touched Queen Elizabeth (businessinsider.com). But the level of fuss about protocols being broken was insane. I'm juss sayin'...
When I heard this part of Ngozi's story, I was pretty disgusted and wearied by this pervasive practice of dehumanisation. There is a very long history to be told about our hair and perhaps I will do this in another post. But for now, I will remind people that the styles we wear have their basis in denoting our lineage, our social and marital status, our wealth, our history. Just like the Scottish tartans denoted different clans and an English Coat of Arms denoted family descent and alliances, our hair styles denoted our various identities... and not forgetting that our hair is physically attached to our person! This is one of the reasons why, when my ancestors were enslaved by Europeans that our heads were shaved. It was one of the first dehumanising acts of many, after capture. It was a very visual, traumatic and immediate 'binning' of our identities (Who Decided Black Hair Is So Offensive Anyway? | Glamour). It was an unmistakeable and forceful assertion of dominance over us.
But let’s just look at what else we’ve had to put up with for centuries regarding our hair:
Our hair has been legislated against (Tignon Laws: The dreadful rule that banned black women from displaying their hair - Face2Face Africa) because white women were jealous of our fashion sense and upset that white men found us attractive!
Our hair has been ridiculed and seen as dirty – I’ve lost count of the many times a white person has asked me if I can wash my hair – I mean seriously! (Do Black People Wash Their Hair Everyday? How Often? (curlcentric.com)
We’ve been told that our hair is ugly ('Black women have been told their natural hair is 'ugly' for centuries. I want them to show it off' - MyLondon).
We’ve been told our hair (and how we manage it) is unprofessional (Six black women detail horrific discrimination they have faced over their hair | Daily Mail Online) and been fired for wearing our hair naturally.
We’ve been pressured to assimilate and meet western standards (Why women are fighting back against hair oppression - BBC News) and threatened with consequences.
Our hair has been politicised, compared to Brillo scouring pads (remember them) and pubic hair! (Why Is Black Hair Still Being Politicised In 2021? | Glamour UK (glamourmagazine.co.uk). These comments invariably tend to be made in front of other people causing great embarrassment.
And yes, even in the 21st century our young girls and boys are being sent home from school and having their education disrupted because of school policy that targets the way our hair grows naturally! (Pupil repeatedly sent home from school over afro hair wins £8,500 payout | The Independent | The Independent)
This little list hasn’t even scratched the surface of what we face throughout our lives. How about minding your own business sitting on the bus and feeling as if something is in your hair only to find the person behind you touching your hair. Or being at work and colleagues simply inviting themselves to touch your hair! (Do have a look at my ‘Staple Stanzas’ poetry page and see my poem entitled ‘My Hair, My Rules’).
Suffice to say our hair and the alienation, trauma and embarrassment we’ve suffered is an emotive subject for many.
Ngozi had to suffer the indignity of this invasion of her person by someone who should have known better but obviously given her years, privilege and seniority didn’t have to do better.
As if that wasn’t enough, having ascertained her name by touching and moving Ngozi’s Locs, there was no ‘Ooooh Ngozi… that’s a beautiful name...’ oh no! The offence and invasion was followed by another offence and more intrusion.
This is what Ngozi posted on twitter afterwards:
Just mind-numbingly incredible! ‘Which part of Africa are YOU from?’ 'Where do your people come from?'. Shaking my head.
The Palace responded by saying: "We take this incident extremely seriously and have investigated immediately to establish the full details. In this instance, unacceptable and deeply regrettable comments have been made… 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…”
First off why is Lady ‘Chatty’ not chatty enough to apologise for herself? There is clear evidence of her chattiness and ability to ask and keep asking questions but when it comes to the apology… Oh that’s somebody else’s job. Oh the joys of having convenient protocols to hide behind. And this Palace spokesperson couldn’t even name the person who was expressing ‘profound apologies’ and cites them as ‘…the individual concerned…’. Well, I don’t know about you but I’m not feelin’ dat apology.
Ngozi has to speak for herself, but Lady Hussey has all these people speaking for her – more privilege. Moreover, we have the 'framing' of this as a solitary incident – errrmmm it’s the incident that we know of! And when I consider how determined she was to get the answer she wanted, it strikes me that she is well versed in pressing for what she wants - in whatever way she sees fit. She was after all the late Queen's 'number one Head Girl.' Let's not forget as Queen Elisabeth II's Lady-in-Waiting, one of her closest confidants and William's (The Prince of Wales, and next in line to the Throne) godmother, she had some sway! She was not an underling who lost her footing having become overwhelmed in an unfamiliar, high-pressure environment. She was an established 6-decade serving, honorary member of the royal household having stood alongside the late Queen in countless official outings. I think 60 years working in the same environment is ample time to observe the protocols for how to respectfully interact with others - but that's just me.
Other aides are focussing on the selfless unpaid service Lady Hussey gave to the Queen – but failing to mention people holding such positions typically don’t get paid because they are often from ‘wealthy, noble families’ (Who is Lady Susan Hussey? Why did she quit Buckingham Palace? | Metro News).
Of course, we know she has since ‘stepped aside’ but to do what? Does she have a country estate to retire to as Susan Katharine Hussey, Baroness Hussey of North Bradley; fifth and youngest daughter of the 12th Earl Waldegrave; sister of the 13th Earl Waldegrave…probably. I think I’m going to have to re-read my blog on empathy because I’m running a little low.
A spokesperson for Prince William additionally said that 'racism has no place in our society.' I keep hearing this, but we keep finding it! When I'm off on my travels and my suitcase is full i.e., there is no space in it for anything else, I have never arrived at my destination to find the thing that could not fit, magically appearing in my suitcase. If there is no place for racism in our institutions, then why do we keep finding racism in our institutions - does it have a secret lair! Maybe the honest response should be that there is currently (and unacceptably) plenty of space for racism in Britain and there needs to be commitment to a clear strategy for rooting it out.
The response from some however is not the honesty that I'm talking about. I'm at a loss as now we have to additionally listen to people getting upset because Lady Hussey is being vilified for a single misstep after years of loyal service. And not forgetting that she is 83 years old - like getting old makes you racist?! All of a sudden, the generational power and privilege that she leaned into when she challenged Ngozi’s lived experience... is gone...poof! And she has become the victim. The person suffering loss – not Ngozi or her colleagues or the rest of us who are offended by extension. Lady Hussey is the one suffering and we need to give her a break!
There are even some people accusing King Charles' aides of moving with ‘indecent haste’ in announcing Lady Hussey’s departure (Lady Susan Hussey will be 'mortified' at causing offence with her remarks | Daily Mail Online). But what about Lady Hussey’s ‘indecent haste’ to devalue Ngozi’s identity as not being truly British?! Where is their outrage over that? Lady Hussey was not uncomfortable in having this conversation - she was pressing Ngozi for the answer she wanted. People who are uncomfortable don't normally 'press', they avoid. Lady Hussey was oblivious to or discounting of Ngozi's discomfort and this is what speaks to a deeper culture within the Palace, our institutions, our society where causing harm to black people, homing in on our existence as a negative or something suspect, and thinking nothing of it - is acceptable normalised behaviour.
So much so there is no shortage of people I've never heard of ready to shift the focus to Lady Hussey's faithfulness to the royals and the devastation she must be experiencing. Petronella Wyatt who apparently is close to the royals and has known Lady Susan since she was 18 has been reported in Yahoo news as saying, 'poor Susan Hussey is 83... [this] must be the first time [Hussey] has ever offended anyone... [and] this will ruin her life.' Keep CALM and CARRY ON... All is not lost - the legacy continues because Lady Hussey's daughter 'Lady Katharine Brooke is a close friend of the Queen Consort, and has just been appointed one of Camilla’s six new Queen’s Companions' (Camilla scraps ladies-in-waiting in modernising move - BBC News). I guess Lady Hussey will still be able to pop into the Palace for a spot of tea and crumpets when her daughter has a lunch break or perhaps to see her godson, Prince William?
Rolling my eyes!
Ngozi told Lady Hussey that she came from Sistah Space... from Hackney... from the UK... born in Britain... She said she was British... She said she was a British National... and it still wasn’t enough until Ngozi mentioned her Caribbean parents. Lady Hussey ground Ngozi down until she could confirm that whatever claim to Britishness Ngozi had, it was not valid – at least not in the Palace where she was invited to attend.
I applaud Ngozi for speaking out and standing firm in clearly and unequivocally stating that what she experienced was abuse and it was racism. That’s her lived experience - and it was unacceptable that she was invited to a place where she should have been safe - and she wasn't.
Where do you really, really come from? Nunya... Nunya business.
Nairobi Thompson Blog (c) 2022