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  • Paul Coulter

When is a question abusive?

One of this week’s major news stories in the UK has been the interaction between Lady Susan Hussey – an 83-year-old long-standing member of the royal household – and Ngozi Fulani – founder of the charity Sistah Space and activist against domestic violence – at a reception in Buckingham Palace. British-born Fulani reported on Twitter that Lady Hussey had asked her a series of questions about her origins, apparently not being satisfied with being told she was from the UK. [i] Within hours of the events being reported, Lady Hussey had resigned from her role – a decision supported by Prince William.[ii]


Reactions to the story have been varied. Some have said Sarah Hussey was “thrown under a bus”,[iii] unceremoniously dumped by the Palace without due process after decades of service. Some have excused Hussey on the basis of her age, suggesting it was merely insensitivity from an older generation less accustomed to engagement with people from different cultures. Fulani, however, has said that this suggestion amounts to ageism, since people of all ages can be guilty of racism and can learn to act in culturally appropriate ways.[iv] Indeed, Fulani claims that Hussey’s engagement with her was “abusive” and an example of “racism” and that she felt “trapped”, verbally “attacked”, and unwelcome in a space that should be safe for everyone. She claims that this was no isolated incident but an indicator of “institutional racism” in the monarchy.


How are Christians to think about these issues?


As I begin to respond I must acknowledge that as a white, middle-aged man living in a place like Northern Ireland, I cannot claim to have often been on the receiving end of racism. Not often, but I have had some experience of racism against me when I worked primarily among people of a different culture. To a lesser degree, as a Northern Irish person working in a UK wide role, often interacting with English people, I have experienced some level of prejudice, unhelpful assumptions and mockery of my accent (try saying ‘film’ with an NI accent in England and see what happens).


More significantly, my wife is from a different ethnic group and my children have mixed ethnicity. I often feel like I, through the wonderful blending process of marriage, have become at least partly Chinese and wish others could see that without me having to tell them. My wife has often experienced comments from people in Northern Ireland, especially elderly people who she serves as a doctor, that are insensitive or even openly racist. She does not complain about this but I know vicariously what it feels like to be misunderstood and unfairly judged.


What I do not understand either personally or by close association is the unique experience of people whose ancestors were victims of the transatlantic trade in slaves. The horrific abuses those people experienced and the legacy of disadvantage meted on their descendants for so many generations is outside the experience of my people relating to the English or Chinese people interacting with people in Northern Ireland. Where there is a history of dominance and oppression from one people over and against another, people who are in the privileged group should be extra sensitive to those who have been on the underside. I suppose that is true of the English relating to my people (Northern Irish), but to nowhere near the degree it is true of upper-class English people like Lady Hussey interacting with people of African-Caribbean descent.


As reported by Fulani, the way Hussey spoke to her makes uncomfortable reading. At the least it seems insensitive and intrusive, not least because it reads as though Fulani did not want to say more than what organisation she represented and, perhaps, where she was born. The fact that Hussey reportedly touched Fulani’s hair to get a clear view of her name badge also sounds inappropriate. We have not, to my knowledge, heard from Hussey what her memory of the encounter was. Nor do we know the tones of voice (did one party or the other sound aggressive or defensive?) or the wider context (was it noisy and hard for the older lady to hear what was said?) Given this, I cannot make an independent judgement on the rights or wrongs of the conversation, but as it is reported in print, it certainly does not sound good.


I tend to agree with Fulani that age is no defense in such situations. Older people may be less understanding of appropriate ways to discuss race and ethnicity, but what is wrong is wrong, whatever the person’s age. To determine whether Hussey was guilty in this case of what she has been accused of, however, is not possible without knowing more than we do. What was her intent in asking the questions she did? Is there any other evidence that she is truly racist as opposed to merely insensitive? Does what she did truly amount to abuse or an attack?


I tend to think that the accusations made by Ngozi Fulani seem excessive. Abuse is a serious word that should be reserved for actions that are deeply traumatic from people who clearly have power over another. Fulani was not in a vulnerable position at the time of this incident and what was said to her was not clearly damaging in itself, whilst it was clearly distressing. Being offended, or even hurt, is not the same as being abused. When we lose the distinction between these categories, we risk diminishing the trauma that genuine abuse inflicts on people. I also struggle to see how Fulani can be so sure that this incident proves that the Palace is institutionally racist. I am not saying that it is not. I just don’t see the clear evidence that it is.


Considering Susan Hussey, I do feel some sympathy for her. Not in the interaction with Fulani – as I said, I feel ill equipped to judge that fairly – but in the swiftness with which she has been labelled racist and removed from her position. To be clear, it seems that she removed herself (resigned), but William’s endorsement of her decision and the swiftness of it all seems to indicate that she was either pushed or given the impression that she could not stay. Is this really fair for someone who may well have spent a lifetime doing good (I say ‘may well’ because I do not know). Would it be fair to dismiss an employee in other settings for a similar issue?


When is a question abusive? I suppose some questions could be, if they are part of a wider picture of undermining another person so they doubt themsselves (as often happens in domestic abuse) or if they are truly an interrogation. Thinking specifically of questions about a person's ethnic heritage, we must certainly recognise why that might be a sensitive topic and no one should feel pressured to have to reveal what they do not want to. I don't think that makes a series of questions abusive in itself, though. More importantly, I fear that we could end up in a place where people cannot ask what may be an appropriate, even helpful question. I want people to ask my mixed-ethnicity children about their heritage. I think that's helpful because it will help people understand them better and may show a genuine interest in them.


I like to ask people who are obviously from other ethnic groups whether they were born in the UK and, if so, where their family came from. I would not ask they way Susan Hussey apparently did and I hope I do it sensitively, but I am fascinated by people's stories and as a lover of cross-cultural engagement, I hope to learn by listening. When I read the comments around this news story, I fear I may end up being inhibited from doing so. I think that would impoverish me and only deepen divisions between diverse cultural and ethnic groups. I do not say that to defend the reported interaction in this case, but from concern about the apparent lack of nuance in what is being reported. It is not easy (for some more than others) to navigate any conversation with sensitivity, especially with people who are significantly different from us. We all need to be patient, to assume the best and to be open to correction when we get it wrong.


Another factor in this whole story that saddens me is the role of media, especially of the so-called ‘social’ variety. Perhaps Fulani felt she had no avenue of recourse through official channels, but was it fair of her to go so quickly to Twitter? As a leader in a charity, should she not be more measured in her comments? Is the media hype over the issue also at risk of stirring up racial tensions to a point that may cause more harm? I am certain that the UK is not free of racism and that inequalities persist along lines of ethnicity. We have come a long way (as the high approval ratings for our first Asian Prime Minister indicate), but we have not arrived yet. In this context, it seems to me that we all need to speak in measured ways, reserving judgment, seeking clarification before we make pronouncements and accepting apologies.


This leads me to my final thought. In our relations with one another we need much grace. As I write, I feel the pang of wounds of past times when others have jumped to judgement of me or when I have been the recipient of low level discrimination. I know, too, how easily I could do the same (and I realise I may even have done so without knowing – if so, please contact me!) But in those pangs, I am learning to appreciate God’s grace to heal and to understand what it means to share in the sufferings of my Lord, who was abused more than I will ever understand.


The deeper the pain, the more grace is required. And the bigger the distance between people, the more likely it is to be needed. In a fallen world of suspicion, distrust and downright hostility, we need people captivated and transformed by God’s grace who will be filled with heavenly wisdom and so become peacemakers (James 3:13-18).


Lord grant me grace to guard my heart and my tongue.

May I speak words of comfort and encouragement.

May I be patient in seeking to understand others.

May I be slow to speak and slow to anger.

May I be quick to apologise and to forgive.

Make me a peacemaker, full of heavenly wisdom and overflowing with heaven’s love.

Free me from bitterness or insensitivity.

Open my eyes to my blindspots and to the hurts of others.

Show me in Christ, the One who is for all peoples, the light that brings life so that I can learn to love others as you love me.

In Jesus’ name,

Amen

[i] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/ngozi-fulani-lady-susan-hussey-racism-b2236786.html?r=17226 [ii] https://www.tatler.com/article/lady-susan-hussey-resigns-amid-race-row [iii] https://www.express.co.uk/news/royal/1703867/lady-susan-hussey-royal-racism-row-king-charles-prince-william-royal-news [iv] https://www.express.co.uk/news/royal/1704274/royal-racism-row-lady-susan-hussey-ngozi-fulani-offer-to-meet

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