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.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:
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:
To the Nats who attempted to serve me with an “eviction notice dated19th” tonight – this is my country, I’m not going anywhere #indyref
— AnasSarwar (@AnasSarwar) September 12, 2014
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.