London (AFP) – The timing could not have been worse for Britain’s royal family, not long after one racial reckoning involving Prince Harry and ahead of a new publicity blitz from the maverick “spare heir”.
Harry’s elder brother Prince William — the heir to the throne — has been forced to part ways with one of his godmothers after she used racially charged language to a black British woman at a palace reception on Tuesday.
King Charles III moved rapidly to evict Lady Susan Hussey from the royal household after the hurtful exchange was revealed on Twitter by Ngozi Fulani — while William and his wife Kate were flying to Boston.
When Hussey started to quiz her about her origins, the UK-born Fulani said she tried to give the 83-year-old courtier the benefit of the doubt.
“But it soon dawned on me very quickly that this was nothing to do with her capacity to understand,” the charity campaigner, who works with survivors of domestic abuse, told BBC radio on Thursday.
Hussey repeatedly asked Fulani where she was “really” from, refusing to accept her explanation that she was British.
“But this is her trying to make me really denounce my British citizenship,” Fulani said, as many other Britons of colour shared similarly demeaning experiences on social and traditional media.
It is the most serious controversy yet since Charles succeeded his mother in September. Hussey was not just any courtier — she was at Queen Elizabeth II’s side for six decades.
But she was unceremoniously dumped as Charles and William moved rapidly to draw a line under the row, earning plaudits from some black commentators.
Labour MP Diane Abbott, the first black woman to sit in the House of Commons when she was elected in the 1980s, said it was “really shocking” that a black Briton’s identity could be interrogated in this way.
But she told Times Radio that Buckingham Palace had made “progress” on race issues in the past 10 years.
Back then, “they would have said she (Fulani) was oversensitive and just dismissed it”, said Abbott.
The palace appears to have taken lessons on board particularly since last year, when Harry and his mixed-race wife Meghan accused an unidentified royal of racism with regard to their unborn baby.
Then, William retorted: “We are very much not a racist family.” But the family said the matter would be dealt with “privately”.
The royal household has also begun publishing data on the ethnic breakdown of its staff, admitting it has more to do to ensure due representation.
Yet from their new lives in California, the duke and duchess of Sussex have been portraying themselves as modernising outsiders who tried to take on a reactionary establishment.
Ironies abound as the feuding brothers both find themselves on the US East Coast — with no plans to meet.
William is set to award an environmental prize in Boston inspired by former president John F. Kennedy’s “Moonshot” ambition in the 1960s.
Next week, Harry and Meghan are due to attend an awards gala in New York held by the human rights foundation of Kennedy’s brother Robert.
His daughter Kerry Kennedy says the couple will be recognised for taking a “heroic stand” against “structural racism” within the British monarchy.
But for their critics, Harry and Meghan are cashing in after quitting royal duties. A new Netflix documentary is imminent, and the prince’s autobiography “Spare” is due out in January.
UK public opinion had been turning against them, at least until the row over Hussey erupted.
When Meghan entered the family, the lady-in-waiting was assigned to educate her in royal protocol, a role that Hussey also served for William and Harry’s mother Diana.
Meghan rejected the offer, according to one biographer.
“The stifled horse laugh you can hear emanating from California is the noise of a duchess trying not to guffaw ‘I told you so’,” commentator Trevor Phillips — a former head of the Commission for Racial Equality — wrote in The Times.
There is further irony in the row erupting in the week that saw new data from the 2021 census confirm that Britain is more racially diverse — and less Christian — than ever before.
Charles himself has a lifelong commitment to multi-culturalism and religious diversity while the government is led by the country’s first prime minister of colour, Rishi Sunak.
Phillips added: “A mindset that colour codes British identity is not just distasteful and anachronistic, it is unambiguously racist.”