Racism and the Scottish Referendum

In the run-up to the referendum,  a lot has been written about anti-English feeling among some Scots. This has taken a number of forms, including Alistair Gray’s (and others) comments about “settlers,” incidents of verbal abuse during campaigning and rants against “Westminster.”

However, another type of racism has barely been mentioned in referendum coverage. It is the racism by white Scottish people against people who are of black, mixed race, Asian or Eastern European origin. Would independence make things better or worse for them?

At 3% of the population, people of Asian descent make up the largest ethnic minority in Scotland, and like the predominant Scottish ethnic group, it seems they are divided in opinion with prominent Scots Asians in both sides.

Looking to find articles about the feelings of Scottish-Asians about the referendum, I was surprised that, apart from one short video by the BBC, most coverage seems to come from abroad. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. We white Scots are good at denying that racism exists here. It suits us to talk about a multi-cultural society, and to say we are all-inclusive. It suits us to point our fingers at someone else. It shouldn’t. I don’t think any of us – and I include myself in that – can pretend we’ve never had a prejudiced thought.

My children went to a primary school where roughly a third of pupils were Muslim. These pupils were a mix of British-Asian, Asian and North African. A teacher once explained to me that some of the Muslim pupils came to that school from other catchment areas because of racist bullying in their own.

It’s easy to distance yourself from racist bullying and to say, “I’d never do that.” However, there’s a more subtle form of racism that pervades our culture.

Leila Aboulela, By Vaida V Nairn [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Leila Aboulela, By Vaida V Nairn [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s the kind of internalised racism that makes a head-teacher cross a crowded school canteen and drag a small child away from her sister because junior lunchtime is over. This small child, new to our country, barely spoke a word of English. She was crying and wanted to stay with her older sister. My daughters, who witnessed the incident, were shocked, as was I when they told me. To my shame, I did nothing about it, other than tell one or two other parents who said it was up the girls’ parents to complain.

This subtle internalised racism is also why a mixed-race friend of my daughter is regularly asked, “Where are you from?” When she replies, “Scotland,” the next question is, “But where are your parents from?”

The writer, Leila Aboulela, is originally from Sudan but has lived in Scotland for many years. I first met her in Aberdeen years ago, when we both took the same Creative Writing class. Several months ago, in an interview in the New York Times, she said, “I am not particularly reassured about an independent Scotland’s commitment to an inclusive, multiracial, multicultural society.”

She’s not alone in feeling that disquiet. A woman of mixed-race origin, who wishes to remain anonymous, recently told me of her fears that racism could get worse with independence. This is her experience:

From what I have seen growing up in Scotland and having a Scottish mother and foreign father, as well as many foreign friends, and having the experience of living in an affluent part of Edinburgh and in a socially deprived, I found it very difficult at times and quite embarrassing especially when in company.

Although one group is more subtle about their views, the other will make it very clear in usually an obnoxious small-minded way.

Even to this day, it goes on, not just with the people I know personally, but stretching now to the Polish (or any Europeans) apparently taking jobs, just because they have a strong work ethic (mainly due to them not having such a comfortable safety net to be privileged to fall back on like we do).

I have also heard many nasty hostile things said about the English even though Scots are very welcomed in England which I’ve experienced personally.

A few months back, I was with a lady wearing a full abaya with her face covered. I walked around Edinburgh with her, showing her the sites as she was just visiting the city briefly. It was the first time I had spent time with someone in public wearing this and I don’t think Scotland was the best place for it.

I couldn’t believe some of the comments from people, it shocked me. Granted the media hasn’t been very kind to those choosing this attire, but surely people can rise above the stereotypes.

I don’t want to say too much on this issue of race as I find it incredibly hurtful (much more so when I was a child) but now I have surrounded myself with open minded people and most of my friends are from outside of Scotland, so it doesn’t affect me as much anymore.

I love Scotland and Scottish people (half my family are Scottish!) But more education and acceptance is required.

photo by Ambro via Freedigital photos

photo by Ambro via Freedigital photos

Are these two women right to feel wary? Will we get more education and acceptance, whether or not we stay in the UK or leave? Do we, the white Scottish ethnic majority, have the will to make the changes to our thinking required for all of those in minorities to feel safe? If as the SNP plan, our population increases through more immigration, what sort of welcome can immigrants expect? From the way anti-English sentiment has been increasing lately, I’m not too confident it will be a good one, whatever colour the immigrant’s skin. I hope I’m wrong, whatever way the vote goes.

In an article in America Aljeezra, one man says, “Our community is four times as likely to suffer from discrimination. “You’re a Muslim, ‘a black bastard,’ and I’m not ready to take that anymore.”

He thinks that voting yes is the way to stop that, but doesn’t explain the reason for his optimism. In the same article, another man says it won’t make any difference either way, and that, “You have to accept the truth. They’ll always call you Pakistani first.”

This is sad indictment of Scotland. It breaks my heart to read comments like that. It breaks my heart to see that Anas Sarwar, the Glasgow-born MP for Glasgow Central who is active in the Better Together campaign, was served an “eviction notice” by some nationalists, telling him to go home after the referendum. This is what he wrote on Twitter:

More education and more acceptance are needed. Not at some time in the future, not for some of us, but now and for all of us. More compassion is needed too.

We can’t wait till after the referendum is over to respect each other. It needs to start now.


  1. I’m British, live in Italy, have done for the most part of 38 years, have two adult Italian sons but every single day of my life here, one, or two Italians, indeed anyone living in Italy, ask where am I from. No, where was I born. It’s annoying. What they are saying is, ‘I can see you aren’t from here, basically you are a foreigner’. I have to answer them. I’ve tried not answering them, but it’s so rude. I’m so upset most times and have to hide it. The inquirer means no real harm, just wants to confirm that we aren’t really on the same foot, can’t share the same Italian feelings because mine are a different set of foreign feelings. “I can tell by your accent that you aren’t from here”, throughout Europe this subtle ignorance is how it goes. I’ve accepted that I live like a foreigner here, whether I do or not.
    I lived in England for a few years recently, watched TV, listened to the radio, led a normal English life and was delighted to observe how this subtle racism is less rife back home, towards people from far flung fields. Not towards myself of course, because I was ‘home’. Britain is better generally at integration, at the awareness of the need not to be racist (with lots of exceptions and ignorance )- aside from the constant nationalistic English -Irish, English -Welsh, English -Scottish hostilities!

  2. Another thought provoking post. I have only ever lived in England though for the first years in rural Hampshire and as an adult in Bristol briefly and London for 30 years. It took my parents until their 60s to understand the irrelevance of ‘foreign’ and a lot of friends from Hampshire never have. It’s predominantly white and traditional and adjustment takes time and, in my experience, actually living together. In London racism is rife but it takes many forms and works in ever direction; I work in a youth club and the issues you describe are particularly acute between those of a Caribbean heritage and those of an African heritage and then between East African heritage and west African. However mix the groups and soon enough the specific racism dies to be replaced by other groupings. The rise of UKIP worries me since they do best in areas with little penetration by other groups be they European or from elsewhere and whether first generation immigrants or born and breed British but clearly of a different heritage. The smallest UKIP percentage share of the vote in the recent Euro election was in London at 13% which maybe says something about what happens when you throw people together – or maybe it says something about the economic success of London compared to the rest of the country though London has the largest inequality gap as the borough I work in shows me only too well. Fingers crossed you are still part of the UK come Friday morning. We all need each other.

    1. Author

      Geoff, you make many important points, including that it goes in every direction.
      I had not realised that UKIP do best in least mixed areas, though I did know they had a lower percentage in London. You are most likely right that it is because the population is more mixed, and so more tolerant. A friend of mine heard a UKIP member on the radio (possibly even Farage) and when asked why they did less well in London, he replied that it was because people in London were better educated!
      We have a UKIP MEP in Scotland, because they got around 10 – 11% n the Euro elections.

      Thanks for adding your experience to this post!

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