This blog was inspired by two events that occurred this Autumn. Both raised issues about words, not those written in poems or books, or even in science, but those used as people speak with one another. But the events had something else in common, rather than touching on words used in everyday conversation, both raised issues about the use of words to abuse – one relating to racism, the other to sexism – and, arising from this, about the use of words to put things right.

The more high profile event occurred at a reception at Buckingham Palace convened to raise awareness of violence against women and girls. Lady Susan Hussey (see illustration), a Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Elizabeth II was amongst those in the welcoming team. At one moment she met a group of women amongst whom was Ngozi Fulani (see illustration) who, in 2015 founded Sistah Space, a London-based domestic violence charity for African-Caribbean women. 

The meeting started badly when Hussey flicked Ngozi’s hair aside to read her name badge. Then the conversation itself went very wrong. Here is a report of what was said as recalled by Ngozi and her colleagues. 

   Susan Hussey: Where are you from?

   Ngozi Fulani: Sistah Space.

   SH: No, where do you come from?

   NF: We’re based in Hackney.

   SH: No, what part of Africa are you from?

   NF: I don’t know, they didn’t leave any records.

   SH: Well, you must know where you’re from, I spent time in

     France. Where are you from? 

   NF: Here, the UK.

   SH: No, but what nationality are you?

   NF: I am born here and am British.

   SH: No, but where do you really come from, where do your

    people come from?

   NF: ‘My people’, lady, what is this?

   SH: Oh I can see I am going to have a challenge getting you

    to say where you’re from. When did you first come here?

   NF: Lady! I am a British national, my parents came here in

    the 50s when…

   SH: Oh, I knew we’d get there in the end, you’re Caribbean!

   NF: No lady, I am of African heritage, Caribbean descent and

     British nationality.

   SH: Oh so you’re from… 

For me, Hussey’s approach beggars belief as first she belittles and then makes blatantly abusive racial comments and poses racially abusive questions. It is difficult to understand how Hussey did not see the hurt the guests must have felt and stop her tirade sooner. Even more worrying, no one listening interrupted. But failure to intervene, thus letting the abuser continue is commonplace and tackling such inertia was a key focal point of the second event – the UK Government’s ‘Enough’ campaign. 

‘Enough’, was first launched in the Spring but I only learned about it when I read their widespread posters on London’s buses and underground trains after a relaunch in October. The primary aim of the campaign, which I see as magnificent, was to stop acts of sexual abuse against women and girls and to this end, as wall as the posters they used social media, videos, hand-outs, learning aids, and a superb website to make people aware of the many guises in which such abuse presents. With great skill, the campaign gives details about groping, flashing, catcalling, unwanted touching, stalking, inappropriate sexual threats together with controlling and coercive behaviour, and with each example there was a second set of messages – “We all have the power to end violence against women and girls but it’s important we know how to speak up and act safely when, as bystanders, we see it happening”. At some stage most forms of sexual abuse also involve abusive words said in public and it is a duty of those who overhear to intervene; doing nothing simply colludes. Our role, as witnesses, is to challenge the perpetrator, to support the woman being abused or report the incident to others better placed to help.

Personally, when I witness abuse, I now intervene, and the campaign has given me added encouragement. However such interventions are always spontaneous and the approach chosen may not always be optimal. As a medical student, I openly challenged a consultant. His bullying treatment of one of my co-students had driven her to tears and, without a moment’s forethought, I told him that his behaviour was unacceptable and that he should “Never again bully someone like that”. As I was speaking I wondered whether perhaps it would have been better to stay silent but it was too late, my intervention was almost over. As it turned out Rosemary thanked me and I never saw, nor heard of the surgeon bully again.

A proverb tells how  “Words Have Power, Use Them Wisely”.  Nowadays, that ‘power’ is often extended to causing abuse, and ‘wisely’ must now include using words to speak out on behalf of others. Had there been prompt intervention at the palace, Hussey’s diatribe might never have become headline news! 

Postscript. On the day before this blog was published, Susan Hussey met and apologised to Ngozi Fulani for her racist outburst and the distress it caused. Hussey will now embark on a racism training programme. A chance for some wise words!

The illustration, shows a composite photo of Lady Susan Hussey (on the right) and Ngozi Fulani (on the left).

For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Rohan and Vivien.

8 thoughts on ““Words Have Power, Use Them Wisely”

  1. Totally agree, Joe. Before I retired, I was an English teacher, and spent my life trying to get my students to understand the power of the words that you use, and how you use them. For me, the Hussey conversation was made worse because of her patronising, colonial tone; people do need to think a lot more about how they come over to others.

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  2. This event has created lots of debate about racism, arrogance and kindness, and more interestingly the nature of the reporting of the interaction.

    Calling out and challenging sexism and misogyny is far easier than calling out subtle or overt racist behaviour and words, often with the excuse that challenging racism is more ‘complex’.

    The feelings of disempowerment and hurt when no one says anything, will continue despite any acknowledgment or apology after the insult.

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  3. Dear Joe,
    What an important opinion piece you have written. I think many of us have to come to terms with and fully recognize innate racism we may not even think about. One of my black colleagues has described an unrecognized xenophobia, particularly when one is raised in a monocultural society. Once racism is recognized one is able to manage it. Reading back-this sounds like a lecture!
    Love

    Robin

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    1. Dear Robin, Thank you for your comment with its observations. In terms of sexism and racism the UK is slowly getting better but there is still a long way to go. I suppose the environment for change in Australia is rather different. Love, Joe

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  4. Hi Jo
    I would like to think I accept people irrespective of race
    However I am fascinated with ethnic faces. 2 days ago I met about 8 people over 2 hours, and during our conversation politely asked their ethnicity ( no one seemed offended). There was a Chilean, a Nepalese, a Thai, a Samoan, and his partner from Papua Guinea, as well as a Maori and a couple from NZ they were enquiring about a flat I was renting.
    ( the first 2 have now signed up)

    Probably a different group to your side of the world
    Seemed quite diverse for here.

    I do hope I do not offend anyone they were all smiling so probably not.

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    1. Dear Heather, thanks for you comments. You raise an important cultural issue. I am not sure whether, in the UK, you would ask applicants from where they come. It would be argued that their origins have no relevance to their being lodgers. Love, Joe

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