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What is a 'lady-in-waiting,' the royal role at the center of a U.K. racism scandal?

As the "racism row" scandal envelops the United Kingdom, those following along from across the pond might be wondering — what the heck is a "lady-in-waiting," anyway?

For starters, a bit of context: Lady Susan Hussey, late Queen Elizabeth II's longest-serving lady-in-waiting, generated quite a bit of backlash this week after asking U.K.-born Ngozi Fulani, a Black woman, something to the effect of "Where are you from? Where are your people from?" The interaction, which took place during a Buckingham Palace reception for activists working to end violence against women and girls, was "like an interrogation," Fulani said.

"I have to really question how this can happen in a space that's supposed to protect women against all kinds of violence," she continued, speaking with BBC Radio. "Although it's not physical violence — it is an abuse." Hussey has yet to comment on the incident, per The Washington Post, but the palace has said "the individual concerned would like to express her profound apologies for the hurt caused." She resigned from her post on Wednesday.

But what exactly is the function of the role from which she resigned, you might ask? Well, a lady-in-waiting is "a woman attending a female member of the royal family," who is also often "responsible for accompanying them on public engagements and helping them complete tasks," Sky News reports. The role, which dates back to the Middle Ages, is honorary, suited for highborn women, and typically unpaid — Hussey, for her part, did not receive a salary and instead assisted the queen "out of loyalty," Sky News writes.

At least five ladies-in-waiting served the late monarch during her reign, with Hussey being "quite possibly" her favorite, the Post notes, considering she "held the title of 'Woman of the Bedchamber,' which effectively means she was the queen's right-hand woman." 

Now that the queen has passed, however, her remaining ladies-in-waiting have become "ladies of the household," and will now assist King Charles III, Sky News notes. Otherwise, Camilla, the queen consort, has eschewed the conventional ladies-in-waiting tradition and opted to appoint five personal assistants dubbed the "queen's companions," instead.