The Prince of Wales told me I dont look like Im from Manchester. If this is how he thinks, he shouldnt be the next head of the Commonwealth, says novelist Anita Sethi
I fulfilled Prince Charles this week at the Commonwealth People’s Forum at which I was a speaker( on a day whose itinerary was entitled Politics of Hope: Taking on Injustice in the Commonwealth ). It was part of the buildup to the Commonwealth heads of government meeting, the summit of leaders of 53 countries representing more than 2 billion people.
I shook the prince’s hand with my right hand. In my other, I was holding a copy of an anthology, We Mark Your Memory: Writing from the Descendants of Indenture, in which I have an essay published. I told him that my mother was born in Guyana and that the anthology had collected concealed histories of indenture.
” And where are you from ?” asked the prince.
” Manchester, UK ,” I said.
” Well, you don’t look like it !” he told, and laughed. He was then ushered on to the next person.
Although I have experienced such off-the-cuff, supposedly humorous, commentaries before, I was stunned by the gaffe.
Prince Charles was endorsed by the Queen, in her opening speech to the heads of government, to be the future head of the Commonwealth: it’s her” sincere wish” that he become so. That the mooted next leader of an organisation that represents one-third of the people on countries around the world commented that I, a brown female, did not seem as if I was from a city in the UK is shocking.
This is exactly why some people, including the prince, urgently need a history lesson about immigration, the British empire, the Commonwealth and colonialism. Because I do look like I’m from Manchester, actually- a city in which many people of colour have been born and bred. Growing up in Manchester, and going to school in Rusholme, a multicultural area in that city, I remember being taught nothing in history lessons about the Commonwealth( I have four different Commonwealth countries in my heritage ). If such vital knowledge was more ingrained there would not be so much combating racism and ignorance.
Whatever the prince meant or didn’t mean in our fleeting encounter, since it happened I have been through all the feelings- from shock to humiliation to fury. Most of all, I feel angry that there could be such casual ignorance in the corridors of power, an ignorance that also pervades society- not least because some British people of colour invited here have been threatened with expulsion. They don’t look like they are from here, according to some.
So what does a British person look like? A British person can look like me. A British person can have black or brown , not only white, scalp and still be just as British( this shouldn’t need to be put forward in black and white ). I could have proven that I was born in Manchester and that I am British, as I had my passport in my handbag- I’d needed it to get through the venue’s security.
Yet I can’t tell Prince Charles exactly where I am from originally- that old chestnut. Why? Because the British destroyed much of the evidence that my ancestors were shipped over from India in the 19 th century to toil for the empire as indentured labourers on sugar colonies in the Caribbean.
I have been to the National Archive in Georgetown, Guyana, to search for my ancestral history and stared down a gaping hole where records of lives “shouldve been”. The British destroyed so much that could properly explain and proof our identities.
Of course, allegations of racism are not new for the royal family. The Duke Of Edinburgh has induced numerous contentious commentaries; and only last year Princess Michael of Kent wore a blackamoor brooch while meeting Prince Harry’s fiancee, Meghan Markle.
We need to skip a generation so that Prince Charles does not become king of England or head of the Commonwealth, and these privileges pass to leaders more enlightened( don’t forget, the role of head of the Commonwealth is not hereditary ).
I have a message for Prince Charles. Your Royal Highness, you asked me:” Where are you from ?” To accommodate a phrase from the late Ambalavaner Sivanandan: I am here because you were there.
* Anita Sethi is a writer and has contributed to the forthcoming anthology, We Mark Your Memory: Penning from the Descendants of Indenture
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