The killing of George Floyd by police in Powderhorn, Minnesota, has led many to evaluate racism not only in the US but closer to home. Journalist Olivia Otigbah writes about growing up in Newcastle and Edinburgh, and speaks to seven young black and minority ethnic people about their experiences of racism in modern Scotland.
Growing up mixed-race in Newcastle, a predominately white city, I always felt a little different. You see, I am one of just 14 per cent of the British ethnic population.
I often hear statements such as, “Britain isn’t that racist”, which seem to forget that our country was an integral part of the slave trade, from 1567 up until its abolition in 1834.
Even today, while slavery may be abolished, racism continues towards ethnic immigrants arriving in the UK.
While the level of racism people experience is varied, some people have been subjected to extreme race hate crimes. They include Joel Nwokoye from Kirkcaldy, where black father Sheku Bayoh was killed by police in 2015.
Writing about his experiences on Facebook, the 30-year-old says he was often singled out at school because he “was the only black face talking in a sea of white”. He also says his family home in the Fife town was “terrorised” by racist children.
“We used to get called ‘jungle bunnies’, have eggs and rocks thrown at our house and car. My mum got spat at and was called the ‘N-word’ at least once. It got so bad that my Dad had to bribe the leader of the racists, Andy, to keep his gang away from the house,” Joel explains.
Shaheeda Sinckler, from Edinburgh, has had similar experiences with racism. The 24-year-old recalls when she and family members were spat at and physically assaulted.
“When I first relocated [from London] the area we lived in wasn’t exactly welcoming. I had racial slurs directed at me, our car was spat on and my [white] stepdad was headbutted in a shopping centre for being visibly Muslim,” she says.
Shaheeda was born in London and lived there for the first eight years of my life. She says moving to Edinburgh was a “massive culture shock”.
“My parents converted to Islam and my mother wore a hijab, so we were easily identifiable, which added a new layer of ‘otherness’ to the mix.”
I can empathise with both Joel and Shaheeda. The first time I realised that I was ‘different’, happened after the British National Party knocked at my door to promote its latest campaign.
On being greeted by a small child with an afro, the men looked uncomfortable. My mum freaked out, thrust their leaflets back at them and angrily slammed the front door. I didn’t understand why, as they seemed friendly enough – why was she so irritable about a seemingly innocent visit?
“Olivia, they are a racist political party,” she said, visibly upset. “They don’t represent black or ethnic people. We don’t need anything from them.”
On moving to Edinburgh, I was desperate to fit into my new environment. Within a few months, though, I was called “Bush” because my hair was frizzy, or “Camel” because of my skin tone, coupled with my plaited hairstyle.
As a pre-teen myself, I dismissed these comments as ‘kids just being mean’. It wasn’t until, following recent events, I reflected on this time, and realised this was racism and had affected my self-esteem.
More than 20 years later, I watched in horror as another unarmed black man, George Floyd, was killed by police officers on the streets of Powderhorn, Minnesota. The killing of the 46-year-old came just weeks after another black male, Ahmaud Arbery, 25, was also gunned down, while jogging in the Satilla Shores neighbourhood of Georgia.
The UK has had its fair share of unlawful killings, but the recurrence of aggressive police conduct in the US has caused mass outrage and sparked mass anti-racism protests across the globe by the Black Lives Matter campaign – including here in Britain.
But does racism happen less in the UK, or are we just more ignorant about what racism entails? As more people took to social media to share their stories in the wake of Floyd’s killing, I realised I wasn’t alone in having suffered racist abuse.
Phrases such as the “P*** shop” had been forbidden in my vocabulary and household, but for one Pakistani man these racist slurs were part of everyday life.
“Being called a P*** was normal for me, so I would just ignore them,” the 29-year-old says on condition of anonymity.
“The only time I did get shocked, was when I was at an interview and the owner of the business said, ‘this is a small office and at lunchtime, I don’t want you to make the office smell of curry.’ I wanted this job role, so I kept my mouth shut and took the job. He made other comments, but I’d laugh it off.”
Eventually he resigned from the post.
Another speaking out is Liam Nelson from London, a 24-year-old who was raised in Edinburgh.
He says: “From a young age all I wanted to do was fit in, so when comments were made and names were thrown, I brushed it off. I tried to join in on the joke. Recent events have made me realise that this whole process of being moulded by society is just so wrong.”
“This brushing off has affected my confidence and the way I interact with people more than 10 years later,” Liam adds.
Echoing this experience is Arooj Farooq from West Lothian; she even resorted to joining in with racist comments towards herself, to try and cope with the slurs.
“When I was younger I’d try and make a joke of my own culture, a joke of slurs because I thought if I make a joke of it, then no one could make fun of me – and it would just be like they were all laughing with me,” 23-year-old Arooj says.
“As I got older, I realised I’d been doing things like lying about what I had for dinner because I didn’t want my friends to think I ate curries every day. It got to a point where I started questioning, who am I doing this for? That was my coping mechanism.”
According to the Home Office, in 2018-19, there were 103,379 hate crimes recorded in the UK – a 10 percent increase compared to the previous year. Furthermore, since 2012-2013 the figures have more than doubled from 42,355. The report also revealed that 78,991 hate crimes, were race-related, accounting for three-quarters of offences.
In October 2019, more than 80 experts signed an open letter warning that understanding of race and racism in Scotland was “rolling backwards”. The letter was signed by academics, lawyers, and activists, including human rights activist Sir Geoff Palmer and lawyer Aamer Anwar, and representatives of the Edinburgh Caribbean Association.
In the letter, they expressed concern over “a trend in Scotland that seeks to silence the voices of people who face colour-based racism”.
As a mixed-race woman, Saorsa Treanor, 25, from Edinburgh, has sometimes felt racially profiled from both white and black groups, after being brought up in a predominantly white community.
“As a mixed-race Scottish female being raised by a white mother, I had a slight identity crisis,” she says. “My white friends would refer to me as ‘black’ but to black people, I ‘wasn’t black enough’. I felt out of place and uncomfortable, sometimes I still do.”
When Saorsa was in high school, she began straightening her hair to “fit into the social standard of beauty” and draw less attention to herself. She remembers one day when, aged 16, she couldn’t be bothered to straighten her hair, so went to school with it natural.
“I was swarmed with people patting my head, ruffling my hair, and pulling my curls. Even though I know it was coming from a good place, I felt like an animal in a petting zoo,” she explains.
For some, direct racism wasn’t prevalent but with continuous attention drawn to her nationality, Zara Chatir, from Edinburgh, began to resent her ethnic heritage.
“Although I never experienced outwardly racist remarks growing up, it was the little things, like the hesitancy of teachers before pronouncing my name on the class register that reminded me that I was a little different,” the 23-year-old says.
“For years I would hate my surname and wish I had a more normal name. At times, my friends and I would say ‘half-cast’ as a joke – none of us understanding or realising how problematic this is.
“I’d also describe Morocco as near to Spain instead of just saying North Africa – because I didn’t want to be associated with my Moroccan ethnicity.”
So, what do the subjects of this article feel authorities could do to educate people on racism and promote more diversity in society?
“The most important thing is for the government to include the following topics in school curriculums: Britain’s role in colonisation and Britain’s participation in the Slave Trade for example,” Saorsa says.
Shaheeda shares a similar opinion: “I think we need to have more education that provides positive role models in history and present-day that are people of colour which isn’t intrinsically linked to racism.
“Include writers that are people of colour in your English curriculum, explain how some parts of Africa’s decline was due to colonialism – create a more balanced view, dismantle ideas of Eurocentric superiority.”
Liam would like to see more support for ethnic children growing up in British communities.
“Ethic children in white communities should be offered support on how to move forward in society but hold on to their roots. Those who are entrusted to protect us should not be so quick to follow the stereotypes invented by the past,” he says.
“All authorities must look to learn from the past and look to the future so that history does not repeat itself.”
Photos supplied by interviewees.
Featured image thanks to Socialist Appeal, CC BY-SA 2.0