LONDON — Prince William and Catherine, Princess of Wales, traveled to the United States for the first time in eight years hoping to highlight a young, vibrant British monarchy capable of taking on the biggest problems plaguing the modern world. Instead, a growing controversy out of Buckingham Palace threatens to overshadow their first overseas trip since the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
The royal couple arrived in Boston on Wednesday for a three-day visit that ends Friday when they announce the winners of their Earthshot prize, a worldwide competition aimed at discovering ways to safeguard the planet and fight climate change. The couple attended the Boston Celtics-Miami Heat basketball game Wednesday night, sitting courtside with Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and Massachusetts Gov.-elect Maura Healey (D).
The White House announced that President Biden plans to meet William and Catherine on Friday when he is in Boston. Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday that officials were finalizing the details of the meeting.
But even before William and Catherine landed, news was spreading that Lady Susan Hussey, William’s godmother and a prominent lady-in-waiting to his grandmother, had resigned her role within the royal household. Hussey stepped down a day after she reportedly pressed a Black British guest at Buckingham Palace about where she was “really from.”
In announcing Hussey’s resignation, Buckingham Palace issued “profound apologies for the hurt caused.” A spokesman for the Prince and Princess of Wales told reporters that he was “was really disappointed to hear about the guest’s experience at Buckingham Palace.”
“Racism has no place in our society,” the spokesman said. “The comments were unacceptable, and it is right that the individual has stepped aside with immediate effect.”
Ngozi Fulani, a British activist and head of a domestic abuse charity, was at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday for a reception to raise awareness about violence against women and girls. She tweeted afterward that a palace staff member, whom she identified only as “Lady SH,” came up to her and repeatedly asked her questions, including “What part of Africa are you from?” and “What Nationality are you?”
When Fulani insisted she was “born here and am British,” the woman allegedly followed up by asking, “But where do you really come from?”
Mixed feelings about yesterday's visit to Buckingham Palace. 10 mins after arriving, a member of staff, Lady SH, approached me, moved my hair to see my name badge. The conversation below took place. The rest of the event is a blur.— Sistah Space (@Sistah_Space) November 30, 2022
Thanks @ManduReid & @SuzanneEJacob for support🙏🏾 pic.twitter.com/OUbQKlabyq
The back-and-forth felt like “an interrogation,” Fulani later told the BBC. “You’re trying to make me unwelcome in my own space,” she said, describing the line of questioning as a form of “abuse.”
It’s the latest race-related controversy to envelop the Firm, as the royal family is known in Britain. The speedy response to the incident, with Buckingham Palace saying that Fulani’s complaint was “investigated immediately” and that the royal household member involved had “stepped aside from her honorary role with immediate effect,” suggests an awareness that it cannot afford another blowout scandal.
Last year, Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, told Oprah Winfrey in an interview that before the birth of their first child, Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor, the royal family expressed “concerns” in “conversations” with Harry “about how dark [Archie’s] skin might be.”
The couple also accused the palace of maintaining a chummy relationship with British tabloids, refusing to defend Meghan against coverage that was “inciting so much racism” and not helping her when she was in emotional distress. This environment, Harry and Meghan suggested, contributed to their decision in 2020 to “step back” from their roles as senior members of the royal family and to move to North America. They now live in California.
The relationship between the couple and the rest of the royal family has been fraught ever since, though they reunited earlier this year for the funeral of Harry and William’s grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II. But William and Catherine’s visit to the United States is likely to put the relationship between the brothers — and their spouses — back in the spotlight. British media outlets have reported that Harry and William are not expected to see each other while there.
The timing is a challenge: Harry and Meghan are about to release a Netflix documentary series that has raised questions about whether the couple will make further allegations of racism within the royal family. The trailer for the series, “Harry & Meghan,” was released Thursday.
And next week, they are also scheduled to receive an award from the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights foundation. They were named recipients of the Ripple of Hope prize in October and were celebrated by the foundation’s president for having the “moral courage” to publicly call out the “structural racism” within the monarchy.
“They went to the oldest institution in UK history and told them what they were doing wrong, that they couldn’t have structural racism within the institution; that they could not maintain a misunderstanding about mental health,” Kerry Kennedy, one of Robert Kennedy’s surviving children, told Spanish publication El Confidencial’s “Vanitatis” section, according to a translation by Insider.
British media outlets seized on an awkward parallel: Just a few days earlier, William and Catherine are set to have their own event with members of the Kennedy family, when they host the awards ceremony for the Earthshot prize — which was inspired by John F. Kennedy’s famous moonshot speech — in partnership with the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.
Karla Adam contributed to this report.