The extrajudicial killing of George Floyd has served as a moment of reckoning for racial justice across the United States. It has spawned a wave of protests and riots across the nation and led to calls for an overhaul of policing. These protests have taken on an international angle with large scale protests reported across the western world, with cities such as London, Paris and Auckland confronting their own systemic racism. From a purely Scottish point of view, it would be easy to dismiss racial inequality as a sickness of other nations. “We vote for progressive policies, how can we be racist?” I hear you say, whilst failing to understand the racism that is ingrained in our culture.
While we do (in the main) vote for progressive policies, this is no antidote to the inherent and systemic racism that our country is built upon. This convenient lie that we tell ourselves is a direct result of failing to understand our own role in the atrocities committed by the British Empire, and aims to absolve ourselves of any blame in these crimes. The blame is frequently passed on to England and England alone, whilst not recognising Scotland’s own enthusiastic role in Empire. A history has been constructed, particularly in the past forty years, to work in tandem with civic Scottish nationalism. This history portrays us as another colonial subject that has been subjugated through violence when in fact, we were loyal and willing participants. Not only is this insulting to those who did actually suffer under the brutal Empire, it dispels any accusation of racism or notion that we ourselves are partly to blame for the horrors carried out in name of King and Country.
One of the best examples is found in Jamaica, where large parts of the population are descended from slaves and as such took on the names of their former owners. Jamaica is the country outside of Scotland with the highest proportion of Campbells per head, despite being on the other side of the world. Akala, who has gained influence recently for his ways of communicating postcolonial theory to a wider audience, is actually called Kingslee James McLean Daly. You could be forgiven for thinking Warren Weir was a taxi driver from Aberdeen rather than a Jamaican Olympic medallist. It’s time to stop kidding ourselves that we have not benefitted from the Empire; these names are the legacy of slavery, when Scottish slaveowners were some of the richest men involved in the trade.
As legacies go, our haunting past can be found a lot closer to home than we would like to admit. A hugely popular video has been released by Celtic fans renaming the streets of Glasgow that currently take on the names of some of the men who accrued great personal wealth through slave labour. Glasgow’s main thoroughfare is named after Andrew Buchanan, a tobacco lord who made his fortune off the back of slaves. On top of this, he has a bus station, a shopping centre and a high school in his hometown named in his honour. Glasgow was the “second city of the empire” and it is no coincidence that its decline overlapped with decolonisation. The same applies to Dundee, which relied on the Empire for its lucrative Jute mills. Stories like Buchanan’s are symptomatic of a culture that has failed to have hard conversations about its past. This narrative that we are free from blame in Empire has enabled a culture where casual racism and xenophobia goes unhindered. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone in Scotland who hasn’t grown up hearing or using a litany of racist phrases for the Chinese takeaway or the corner shop, phrases that weren’t taken to task for a large part of our recent history.
This culture has manifested itself in our institutions with the same predictable results as America. Sheku Bayoh was a man who came from Kirkcaldy, barely thirty miles from St. Andrews, yet very few of us would have known his name prior to the recent protests. Bayoh was spotted walking home in the early hours in the morning, allegedly with a knife (that was never found). He was intoxicated but making his way home. He had a job and his family. For the majority of us, being a bit daft with a drink in us might result in a fine or a night in the cells, but for Sheku, he paid with his life. He was detained, handcuffed and eventually suffocated. Over the course of this ordeal, he suffered more than two dozen injuries to his neck and face and was restrained by nine police officers. Police initially claimed he had brandished a knife towards them (which was disproved by eyewitnesses) and it was eventually found that one officer at the scene had a history of racism and domestic violence. Would this ever be the case for a white man in the same situation? Would nine officers be needed to restrain a five-foot ten white man? Attitudes towards black people inform the way they are policed, and this has resulted in the death of a man who did little wrong.
The obvious way that we can begin to fix these issues is through education. Whether it be anti-racism classes or changes to history curriculums, we must change the inherent attitudes that pervade our society. In the most part, they are borne out of ignorance rather than malice. Because we as a nation have decoupled our history from that of Empire, we believe ourselves to be immune to such backwards views – when this couldn’t be any further from the truth. We need to accept that we were not the colonial subjects at the mercy of big bad England, but their partners in crime.