Scotland as an anti-racist utopia is a politically charged narrative, while in reality, the country's minorities are struggling from structural racism.
In 2015, a black man died in police custody in Scotland. Six police officers were seen pressing their weight onto Sheku Bayoh’s body as he lay on the ground. The hospital report revealed 23 injuries. His family say the police gave them changing and conflicting reasons when informing them of his death. In 2018 Scotland’s chief prosecutor decided against charging any of the officers involved. Over the past five years, the family, their legal team and campaigners have argued Bayoh’s race played a role in his unnecessary death. Now a recently begun public inquiry aims to find out if that was indeed the case.
Courtney Stoddart, a 26-year-old Scottish Caribbean poet, performed in the play Lament for Sheku Bayoh at the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival.
“He was a black man and treated with a certain kind of contempt and disregard because of that. The press and police were heavily complicit in invoking colonial black stereotypes of masculinity and imposing them upon him in order to ‘monsterise’ him and make him appear less human, which of course only adds to the already existing perceptions of black men as angry and dangerous”.
Seven months prior to Bayoh’s death Scotland was in the global headlines as it sought independence from the United Kingdom. In the run up to the referendum the argument was made by secession supporters that Scotland was more tolerant, socially just and liberal than the rest of the UK. Statements like “we don’t do racism here” were posted on social media and chanted at rallies.
Yet, Stoddart’s personal experiences counter that widely believed narrative. “When I was four I heard my mum being called a f****** black bitch in McDonald’s. Around the same age a man once shouted on the street while we waited to cross the road: 'look at the monkeys with their bananas'. When I was around 14 people would shout ‘black bastards’ up at the windows of our flat and the windscreen of my mum’s car was smashed in on numerous occasions”.
To this day, in the era of Black Lives Matter, she still encounters racism. “The cashier in the shop asks everyone how they are but they don’t ask me, or they’ll attempt to serve the person behind me as though I’m invisible. I sometimes go to parties and I’m the only black person there and the only person made to feel unwelcome”.
Despite this and the rise of racially motivated hate crimes, since the 2014 independence referendum the narrative of Scotland as an almost anti-racist utopia has gained further ground as a second referendum is sought. Dr Maureen McBride is a Research Associate at the University of Glasgow. “This is partly because Scottish nationalism is understood and portrayed to be of the 'civic' rather than 'ethnic' variety - anyone who chooses to live in Scotland is entitled to consider themselves Scottish, so this notion of inclusiveness is of course not entirely a myth. But this masks the reality that black, Asian and minority ethnic people in Scotland experience structural discrimination and everyday racism”.
Many Scots compare their government’s attitude towards immigration to that of the UK’s and use this as a barometer for arriving at the conclusion that “we don’t do racism here”. Over the past few years the right-wing UK government in England has been ramping up its anti-immigration rhetoric and deporting long- settled Caribbean migrants. Meanwhile Scotland’s government has welcomed thousands of Syrian refugees and wants to remain in the EU, independent of the UK, to allow freedom of movement in and out of its borders- embracing rather than stigmatising poorer eastern European migrants, as has happened south of the border.
Yet numerous surveys, reports and investigations over the past ten years have shown ethnic minorities in the land of tartan suffer numerous disadvantages including lower employment rates, discrimination at work and under-representation in parliament and public bodies.
“It’s very easy for white liberal ‘progressives’ to normalise their utopian perspective because there is such a small black and brown population here, that if you don’t know these people closely you may assume your own world view is correct”, Stoddart argues. “The idea of Scottish exceptionalism is regularly purported here and it is embedded within institutions and therefore the wider community. I also think the institutionalised lack of awareness of Scotland’s participation in the Transatlantic slave trade allows white Scots to perpetuate this narrative”.
Too much focus on skin colour
In 2018 most victims of hate crimes in Scotland were Catholic. Many members of this religious group in Scotland are of Irish origin. Jeanette Findlay is chair of Call It Out- an anti-Irish racism and anti-Catholic bigotry campaign group. She feels the Scottish government is failing to acknowledge the abuse her community has long suffered. “At the moment they are taking all their advice from people who are embedded in critical race theory so that means it’s all about skin colour. They aren’t acknowledging us, the ethnic Irish.
“Whenever they talk about us it’s through the framework of sectarianism, not racism: so we’re not Irish we’re Catholic and even then we’re not just Catholic- we’re part of the sectarian problem of Catholics versus Protestants where they wrongly see us more as an equal part of the problem than as victims, which the statistics show we overwhelmingly are.
“We arrived in this country in big numbers during the famine years: 1845-52. We suffered huge poverty and were treated horrendously with a lot of racism since then but of course Scottish nationalists don’t like to talk about that.
“They present themselves to the world as this welcoming nation where everyone is equal and treated well. The Irish Catholics give the lie to that. Maybe that is why the government is uncomfortable dealing with us. It’s not as bad as it was in the past but there is a veneer of anti-Catholic bigotry anti-Irish racism which stretches across the social spectrum of Scotland”.