Following a terribly ignorant interaction at Queen Consort Camilla’s event that was made public, a senior royal aide has stepped down from her position. Ngozi Fulani, the founder, and CEO of Sistah Space, an award-winning London based charity that supports women and families affected by domestic violence, shared a transcript on Twitter of a conversation that she had with Lady Susan Hussey, Prince William’s godmother. Lady Hussey relentlessly probed Ngozi with seven “colonial” questions to decipher “where do your people come from?” and touched Ngozi’s hair without consent.
Lady Hussey has not yet directly apologized to Ngozi, and Buckingham palace has merely issued a statement, feigning what seemed to be some reassurance: “all members of the [h]ousehold are being reminded of the diversity and inclusivity policies which they are required to uphold at all times.” Perhaps they need less DE&I training and some more history lessons.
In parallel, I started a new job this week in further education and have had similar interactions with staff members. Though the tone of the conversations was pretty innocent, and there were no malicious intentions, my colleagues could not understand why my family would choose to leave the scenic paradises of the Seychelles and Barbados to come to dreary England. Now, I must admit these questions took me back a little, especially the “were you born here?” (yes, I was, and so were both of my parents, English is the only language I speak, and I’ve never been to Barbados and I was seven the last time I visited the Seychelles).
I thought to myself I could perhaps forgive them for not knowing that the Seychelles was a colony of the French (named after French minister of finance, Jean Moreau de Sechelles) and then the British, and it has no Indigenous population – enslaved people were taken there to work on cotton and coconut plantations. But surely they know the history of the countries in the Caribbean, like Barbados? Most of us from the islands are not Indigenous; our ancestors were trafficked there from Afrika.
Nonetheless, I tried to explain that my family from Barbados (British citizens at the time of travel) were encouraged to come to Britain to work to help rebuild the country after WWII. As for an island like the Seychelles, the limited land available is being steadily bought by foreign investors, usually for various luxury tourist endeavors. Moreover, colonial islands used as plantation systems were never meant to sustain the populations they currently, and more importantly, are projected to hold. Barbados is the most densely populated country in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), and both the Seychelles and Barbados outrank China (excluding the territories of Macau and Hong Kong stood alone) in terms of population density. It is also no surprise that people leave these islands for work in the Western world; after all, the economic prosperity enjoyed by countries like Britain was built off of the labor of their enslaved island colonies.
Whether or not the intention behind these questions is well-meaning, it is tiresome for those who “don’t look British” (read White) to have to answer. Moreover, given the history of the numerous colonial nations that many of us “come from,” it is somewhat triggering to have displayed this historical amnesia that so many people seem to possess right in front of us.
I think these interactions should remind us of two things. Firstly, it does not matter how many generations we have been here for; as long as our skin is not white, we will never be viewed as “true” British citizens. As Ahmed wrote recently for MIP, “One could be born in Britain, reside in Britain, marry a Briton or have a British passport, but as long as you are Black, your nationality will always be questioned.” Secondly, if we are not careful, the history of how the Western imperialist project reshaped the geography of the globe’s populations will be (white)washed away from collective memory.