At the end of November, the scourge of racism confronted Britain yet again.
Lady Susan Hussey, a ‘palace aide’, also godmother to Prince William, was embroiled in a controversy over asking Ngozi Fulani, a British woman of Caribbean heritage, where she was ‘really’ from during an event at Buckingham Palace, to which Fulani had been invited. Reportedly, Lady Hussey also touched Fulani’s hair, tucked it away to get a closer look at her name badge and then repeatedly asked her ‘where are you from, where are you really from’, till Fulani gave an answer Lady Hussey was apparently satisfied with.
This is not the first time a member of the British elite has faced a controversy centred around their attitude towards racism. Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s interview to Oprah Winfrey in March 2021 laid bare a facet of the ‘firm’ that few had borne witness to in person but many had suspected. Coming on the back of ‘Harry & Meghan’, a documentary that released on December 8, the timing could not have been worse for the British royal family.
Having spent some time in the UK, I present here my impressions of ‘racism’ and ‘otherness’ I encountered in British society. Before that, let me concede that there is much I learnt during my stay there and have many fond memories of meeting and spending time with, being helped by and befriending ordinary British people that remain unsullied.
The overwhelming feeling I had while in Britain was that the attitudes and behaviour of people with regard to racism depended on their station in life. A large majority of British people, like people elsewhere in the world, are busy worrying about and working towards meeting their daily expenses. Be it the stupendously high energy costs, the expenses incurred on commute to and from work or meeting health needs through an overburdened NHS, there is much apart from racism that occupies a lay person’s mind on a daily basis in the UK.
However, when they see so-called ‘immigrants’ (a majority of them British-born and raised) leading more financially-stable lives and being more upwardly-mobile than the average white British citizen, it fuels a resentment that can be understood if not be reconciled to. During my time in the UK and extensive travels across the country, from the cold, windy Orkney Islands in the far north to the salubrious south-west of England, I was privy to the curiosity, warmth and a fondness for distant India that people I met and interacted with let on.
Even though the staff at my University was careless about their utterances and acts coming across as racist and the authorities I interacted with appeared to not give much thought to the same, for every such person I met atleast two others who were diametrically-opposite in their behaviour and belief.
I remember clearly the concern writ large upon the face of a local Scots woman when she found out I was attempting to climb the Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British Isles, on my own. I recall fondly the advice offered by a middle-aged British man when he found out I was climbing solo and the genuine joy on the faces of a father-daughter duo saying ‘Well done!’ when I reached the summit of Ben Nevis. Then there was the kind man at my backpackers’ hostel in a small Scottish town, who dropped me off at the train station in his own car when my taxi did not turn up on time. I also remember the coffee shop manager in Inverness, who offered me a free gift card after apologising for the obnoxious behaviour of a posh local couple who hurled racist slurs at me and wanted me to ‘go home!’
There was racism, yes. But it was limited to figures of authority, people in positions of command and a few random bad apples who could affect your life in some way and hence, you had to always bear that in mind while interacting with them. My guess is that the people in power know racism is an easily-conjured ghost which can be used to distract the common Briton and take their attention away from the more pressing issues of energy costs, food prices and health worries.
In my humble opinion, the working class (of Caucasian descent) in Britain is repeatedly presented with the boogeyman of ‘otherness’ when the time seems ‘right’. When both major political dispensations fail to bring any lasting change into the lives of this section of society, they resort to this convenient if flawed ‘plot’ and the abomination called ‘institutional racism’ is its close cousin.
Can’t pay your energy bills on time, or at all? No quick appointment with your GP? Need to follow a vegan diet but cannot afford it? Blame the Asians ‘taking our jobs’, ‘immigrants’ and even ‘state-financed’ single mothers.
Whichever political dispensation comes into power in the UK, it never seems to make life easier for the working class. From the Thatcher era to Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn and the subsequent Cameron-May-Johnson-Truss debacle culminating in the appointment of Rishi Sunak (of Indian heritage), no political party seems to succeed in making the lives of the common people better, even marginally.
What the powers-that-be realise very well and use to the hilt is the latent resentment among the working class towards those in the higher strata of society, ethnicity notwithstanding. If that means fuelling that discontent for people of a certain colour, class or heritage, so be it. Even though many may realise that they are thus being manipulated, it does take away attention from the real issues for a while and that respite seems to keep the status quo intact.
It is this that eats away into the coherence of the fabric of British society. It is also very easily contrived, almost on demand. It’s something that the people in positions of power, authority and privilege understand very well and exploit conveniently.
What Lady Hussey reportedly said to and how she behaved with a British woman of non-Caucasian descent becomes easier to grasp when viewed against the above background. That’s why speaking up against racism — in any degree, form or measure — is so important. It calls out racism for what it is — a convenient boogeyman, brought out from the attics of power, dusted and dressed up as befits a particular occasion, to distract attention from the real, pressing, critical issues of everyday life.
In such a scenario, the question of where Ngozi Fulani ‘really’ comes from fades into oblivion and where she and others like her are headed becomes more relevant.