Friday, 14 July 2017

Can we talk about racism?

For my Daily Record column

Can we talk about racism? It’s awkward, I know, given that 96 per cent of the Scottish population, and so this readership, is white and doesn’t feel that affected. Also, I bring centuries of my own white, male privilege to the table.

But Tory backwoodswoman Anne Marie Morris has done us a favour and loaned the platform to talk about racism in 2017. 

The deplorable MP managed to perfectly combine the combustible elements of Brexit and casual racism by describing a “no deal” EU exit as “the nigger in the woodpile”.

All white liberals were offended, though I was more astonished that no one at the public meeting Morris spoke to called her out.

But black friends weren’t shocked. “That’s life,” a pal told me the next day.

Even if explicit racism is not in your face, and in the main it is not in cities like London, it is the low hum, lived experience of hundreds of thousands of Britons made to feel different, and judged differently, because of their skin colour.

In Scotland we try convincing ourselves we don’t have much of a problem with racism, perhaps because we’ve spent the energy of generations just facing up to our sectarianism.

But Scotland, like every other part of the UK, has a racist heritage.

The next time you walk up Buchanan Street to Glasgow’s Queen Street station take a good look at the Gallery of Modern Art.

Enormous as it is, the gallery didn’t go up as a civic building. It was the private town house of a Glasgow tobacco trader, our nice way of describing the people who built the city on the back of the triangular Atlantic slave trade.

That’s history, and this week people under 40 needed “n***er in the woodpile” explained to them.

It used to be commonplace and it stems from runaway slaves in the United States. Like “being sold down the river”, it is one of these outdated phrases with resonances of the past.

No one needs lessons in how unacceptable the n word is, though for some reason other terms still appear to be debatable.

Only last week I was lectured by a Scottish exile on how “Paki” is a perfectly acceptable description of anyone with Asian and Glaswegian roots.

“We always called them Pakis, they called themselves Pakis, it is the Paki shop and no one is offended,” insisted this cultural expert, repeating the word, I suspect, to bait me. Drink was involved, I wasn’t going to argue.

“Am I being very politically uncorrect?” asked my tormenter.  

“It’s worse than that,” I replied. “You’re showing your age.”

It is worse than that. While words are weapons, and offensive, they are only the surface of the problem.

Theresa May this week postponed the publication of an “explosive” report on race in Britain which records stark differences in the way people are treated by schools, hospitals, the police, courts councils and employers.

The data shows a middle-aged white person with cancer gets better treatment than someone who is black.  

Yet we persist in seeing race in terms of minority communities not fitting in, despite the fact that most of us will simply never feel what it is like to have to censor yourself to fit in.

In frustration, Reni Eddo-Lodge has written a book on this lack of understanding. It’s called: “Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race”. 

She said: “Racism is about discussing white identity. It’s about white anxiety. It’s about asking why whiteness has this reflexive need to define itself against immigrant bogey monsters in order to feel comfortable safe and secure. Why am I saying one thing, and white people are hearing something completely different?” 

Racism isn’t a problem for black or asian Scots, they just deal with the effects. It’s the other 96 per cent of us who have a problem with it. Awkward, I know. 

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