When Ngozi Fulani shared her experience at Buckingham Palace on Twitter, it did not surprise me at all. As a Black student at the majority-White Durham University, the question of where I come from is never too far away. The answer of North London doesn’t tend to get the same reaction as Cameroonian and Jamaican from fellow students!

But back to Ms Fulani. 13.3K replies and 20.7K retweets later, there seems to be a divide between those who believe Lady Hussey’s questioning was racially abusive and those who believe it was innocent curiosity. In my opinion, labelling this troubling question as ‘racist’ or excusing it entirely is a quick fix to a deeper, more systemic issue concerning Britishness and belonging.

Does the silence say it all?

The media’s reaction following an incident often indicates its significance. In this case, accusing the late Queen’s former lady-in-waiting of racial abuse is no light matter. And the reaction was predictably explosive.

The ensuing public frenzy surrounding what happened at Buckingham Palace feels slightly off-putting, in a way I can’t really put my finger on. Perhaps this is because the altercation between the two women is almost being treated like a criminal case. Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) and witness to the ‘interrogation,’ has revealed that she has received swaths of journalist calls asking for her corroboration in this incident.

The evidence presented to ‘the jury,’ including such things as Lady Hussey’s age, simple human curiosity and a lack of political etiquette, form part of a dense web of explanations to excuse this behaviour. And maybe this is all valid and true. Indeed. it’s more plausible that no intentional malice was ever intended. Instead, Lady Hussey’s comments simply reflect a misunderstanding between the two women due to her advanced age (she is 83), and her lack of political know-how. The fact that Ms Fulani was dressed in traditional African attire, couldn’t have helped matters either.

The reason I have said ‘maybe’ is because Lady Hussey herself has remained silent on the matter.  Ultimately, she doesn’t really need to say anything. The monarchy is one of, if not the most, treasured institutions in the UK with 55 per cent of adults and 83 per cent of Conservative supporters believing it to be good for Britain. One of its biggest threats, however, is racism. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that its most ardent supporters, such as the right-leaning media, have formed an automatic defence system to protect its credibility. The result is that Ms Fulani’s equally valid and acute accusations of racial bias have all but been cancelled.

For Lady Hussey, saying nothing has worked in her favour. She hasn’t faced further scrutiny to help us understand her motivations for saying what she said. Instead, her almost stoical silence has fuelled cries against the pervasiveness of cancel culture and wokeism. Meanwhile, Ngozi Fulani now stands accused of race-baiting and having a chip on her shoulder.

Although Lady Hussey may not have intended any harm by her persistent ‘interrogation,’ this does not make the exchange that took place at Buckingham Palace any less racially inappropriate. Failing to acknowledge that ‘where are you from’ will likely carry baggage for someone like Ms Fulani (and Black people in general), represents a woeful lack of empathy when it comes to understanding the Black-British experience. When put into context, the seemingly innocuous question draws on potential insecurities of belonging and who gets to be ‘British.’

Feeling vs ‘being’ British

The definition of ‘British Citizen’ has changed in recent years. The 2021 census shows that, whilst the population of non-White ethnic groups has increased since 2011, the White population has decreased by 4.3 per cent since 2011 — albeit still remaining the ethnic majority. Despite this, London, Manchester and Birmingham no longer have White British majorities.

With British society becoming inherently more multiracial and multicultural, one would assume that fitting in becomes easier. But that would be an oversimplification. There remains a crisis of belonging amongst ethnic minorities, especially within the Black community.

The institutions that uphold British society and culture continue to be overwhelmingly White and often promote a sense of Us (the White ‘ingroup’) and Them (the minority ‘outgroup’).

Beyond the education system’s and the curriculum’s shortage of Black British role models, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) politicians make up only 10 per cent of MPs. Resultantly, subsequent policies may not reflect Britain’s increasingly multiethnic society. Similarly, there is a significant lack of BAME representation in journalistic media — perhaps explaining why 78 per cent think that the media portrays ethnic minorities in a way that promotes racism.

When you can’t see yourself, or only see yourself negatively, in the institutions that are designed to reinforce Britishness, it makes you question whether you really belong in this country. Even if you are British, you may not feel it.

When Ngozi Fulani entered Buckingham Palace, an establishment built upon centuries of slavery and colonisation, she likely already felt out of place. To then be asked, on one of your first encounters: ‘where do your people come from?’ arguably only confirmed the sense that one doesn’t quite fit in. In that particular context, Lady Hussey saw Ngozi Fulani’s skin colour, assumed that she wasn’t British, and didn’t stop until she reconciled her cognitive dissonance: ‘Oh, I knew we’d get there in the end, you’re Caribbean!’

Generally, asking where one is from can be a good icebreaker when getting to know a person. But given British society’s increasingly multiracial status, friendly curiosity must be tempered with cultural awareness and historical empathy.

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