OH dear, you see it’s not an unfamiliar question.

Where are you really from? It’s just that this time, it’s hit the headlines. A royal confidante, a member of the hallowed inner circle. A godmother to a future King. And only now it’s a question to be discussed? No. It’s not a new question.

My father was asked that in Edinburgh in the 30s after he’d spent a night in the cells. The morning after, he gave the sheriff his Edinburgh address, his student digs address. But he had to answer more fully and confirm he was really from “British India”.

He and his fellow “British Indian” university students (non-drinkers) had previously patronised a milk bar but that evening they’d arrived to find a notice: “no dogs, no Indians”. I’m neither advocating nor condoning violence, but really what would you have done?

So, they overturned some tables and chairs, milk was spilt, sugar scattered. Were they jailed? Oh no, in a further show of assumed superiority, they were let off with the instructions that when they went back to their homes in British India, they were to tell families and friends how tolerant, how forgiving Britain was. There was no question of my father and his friends staying, it just wasn’t the done thing, was it? Far less marrying and staying!

But rushing forward from the past, there’s a lot of excusing going on. I’ve even heard the episode being dismissed as a clash of cultures (but not cultural racism?) or it being seen as an age thing.

No, me losing my reading glasses three, four times a day (not yet found in the fridge) is an age thing. Shakespeare wrote about seven ages, but nowadays, it’s more like four: young and school age is too young to know any better or understand: youthful and you’re inexperienced, hot-headed, easily swayed. Moving on to something like middle-aged that’s when you’ve lived a bit, you’re open to listening, changing your ways, hopefully for the better, even atoning for youthful indiscretions. But old age? Hey anything goes: you’re entering your dotage, you’re from a different era. Different times, different standards?

It’s downright insulting to claim that age is an excuse for racism. Neither is it a passport nor a get-out-of-jail-free card. Nor should all older people be considered one mass, especially when attempting to offload the indefensible. We can, we do learn: we can, we do change.

Irony was in overdrive in The National on December 1 with the article referencing that incident and the report from the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights on the failure of anti-bullying policies to address racism. Policies are well and good when in place: enacted, monitored, reviewed, updated, regulated. You know: there for longer-term benefit and constructive change.

We know that societal discrimination is formed through inequitable systems reinforced by discriminatory beliefs and practices. Move on to structural racism, and here you find the connections and interconnections across and through society and its institutions. This enables those very discriminatory beliefs and practices to become the accepted norm. But it takes time, across institutions, across society itself. It takes a hierarchical system to be in place and functioning: know your place, and it really is so much better when you have someone beneath you to look down on!

The royal family has headed up hierarchical Britain for centuries, with previously absolute power and now through deference to historical anachronisms. But still they exercise power. Powerful enough for the National Archives to show that Buckingham Palace has negotiated controversial clauses that exempt the King, his household, from the very laws that are meant to prevent both race and sex discrimination.

For me that exemplifies much of what is wrong within our society. Power and wealth enable corruption: and too frequently disguise it. But it was ever thus. And for those of us expecting to thrive and survive within a democracy? Well, democracy’s a bit of a tattered fig leaf at the moment.

Selma Rahman