Hey everyone. How many times have you heard someone say I’m not racist but. I think I can say with a significant degree of certainty you will have heard it more times than you’ve had hot dinners. It is in my opinion essential that we challenge racism everywhere we find it and on Thursday night I was invited to an event has given me the tools to do just that.
As someone who has always been a committed supporter and member of the trade union movement I have always believed that knowledge is power so when I got the chance to attend an anti-racist event which had that as its working title to celebrate Black History Month I naturally grabbed it with both hands.
I was invited to the event through social media by fellow member of the yes campaign and fellow member of Women for Independence Sukhi Kaur. The event challenged our existing preconceptions of racism through discussion and group work and was a highly educational and informative evening.
Hosted by the Unite trade union the night started with those attendance being asked a series of questions where we were asked to move around the room I stand next to the sign which said yes, no or don’t know. This produced some very lively discussion and in a room where there was a mixture of races and cultures the divisions were not as clear cut as some people who like their stereotypes would like to think.
The First question was on arriving in Britain immigrants should be made to learn about British culture. This split the room with a roughly equal number saying yes as said no. Of those who said yes they should, the main reason included was this would help there integration in to the country and in to the wider society. Of those of us who said no and that included me a key reason was to challenge the idea that there was one defining British culture. As one woman said what is British culture what does it actually mean? My take on this idea is that there is no such thing of as a united British culture as it is based around shared experiences and community identity. Therefore since we are all members of many diverse communities we all have many strands to our cultural comfort blanket there can be no uniquely British culture. After all, we in Scotland are often reminded that its One Scotland Many Cultures so by my logic the same comment must also apply to Britain unless the message contained in that statement is just a slogan designed to keep we colonials in our place.
One of the most challenging questions was do white people experience racism on this question I was the one of the few to say to yes they do. My reason for this is because I know at first hand that Anti-Irish racism is one of the biggest problems facing Scotland. This is a very serious issue for our nation and needs to be addressed not ignored and swept under the carpet. This is particularly true in Glasgow and the West of Scotland but it is a Scotland wide problem and it needs to be tackled as racism rather than labelled as sectarianism. When I raised this as an issue I was told that this was prejudice and maybe even discrimination but it wasn’t racism. How I managed to keep my cool in this situation I do not know but as I said if this isn’t racism tell me why pro British supporters were singing the Anti-Irish famine song to those of us who support independence in the square the night after the referendum. This was a blatant display of Anti-Irish racism rather than Anti-Catholic sectarianism. I justified this comment by saying that Scotland has reasonably large Italian, Lithuanian, and Polish communities the vast majority of whom are also Roman Catholic and nobody sings any songs about them. Only the Irish, it seems are singled out in this way.
Recent examples of this racism include being told that Gaelic in Scots or Irish was feinian writing and when I suggested that if Princess Kate should give birth to a royal princess she should call her Siobhan or Shannon I was told by what looked a mature woman in her late middle age that we couldn’t allow that as it had to be a protestant name.
These to me were examples of unionist imperial racism nothing more and nothing less and anyone who says otherwise is indulging in a self deluded fantasy. Yes I know the event was primarily focus around issues around the BME community but we cannot afford to allow other types of racism to go unchallenged to do so would be to go against the whole idea of equality and would effectively say that some acts of racism were more important than others.
Another question which provoked a lot of interesting discussion was did we think that traditional muslim dress was oppressive towards muslim women. Again opinion was split on this one with one young asian women making the case that she thought it was oppressive because it was often will of the family that young women should dress in this way rather than choice of the woman herself. It was however pointed by another woman that different muslim countries have varying degrees of liberalism on this issue. For example, Abu Dhabi is far more liberal minded on the dress code than Saudi Arabia where women can be punished for not wearing traditional attire or Afghanistan where they could be killed for this type of disobedience. Therefore it would be dangerous to stereotype all muslims as one group.
Speaking as the only trans woman attending the gathering I said that it was only oppressive if it was not the women’s choice to wear it and as someone who was used to having people judge my appearance I have never let their often ill considered opinions get in the way of my style and I’m sure no matter what they choose to wear today’s Scottish asian women will not let others make their personal choices for them.
Language was another topic which provoked an interesting discussion and particularly around people speaking in their own tongue. Perhaps the best comment regarding this came when someone said that when we hear someone speaking Spanish or Italian we find it exotic when we here an Asian speak in their language we view it with suspicion and think I wonder they are saying about me? This is a classic case of double standards and shows why we need to change our attitudes and embrace difference rather than mock it. By doing this and celebrating the diversity it provides we can go a long way to building a better fairer society.
However it was perhaps fitting that the question which generated the most comments was has political correctness gone mad? One women said that it had and gave the example of a friend of hers who had lost their job as a waiter because he referred to someone as the black gentleman rather than African-American. Whilst this is quite clearly ludicrous, other examples like for example not using the word blackboard illustrated the need for what I call not political correctness but political accuracy much more clearly and directly.
After we had debated all the questions on our list we were split in to four groups where we were encouraged to discuss our personal experience of racism in the workplace, come up with ways of challenging it and see what role trade unions can play in helping to empower us in this struggle.
Everyone in our group had experienced racism to some extent and a couple of participants had known it at the sharp end of discrimination with one being set unrealistic targets which were way above those set for their colleagues and they had no realistic chance of ever achieving. This led to the person concerned losing their job a job to which they have now been reinstated thanks to Unite.
Another member of our group said that they know of someone who had lost their job for making a racist remark which though they did not hear it three colleagues did and as the company had a zero tolerance policy on racism the person concerned quite rightly in my view had to go. The same person also said that they were the only black employee in a workforce of 300. This is something which I have to say I find quite shocking as I believe people should selected for jobs on merit and not ethnicity.
Though not in paid employment I said that as someone co-ordinates a spoken word event and takes a creative writing group I had to be seen to take a tough line on any form of prejudice and this was brought home to me a couple of months ago during our summer break when one of the less intellectually capable members of the writers group made an inflammatory and in my view racist remark about the situation in Palestine and Glasgow city council’s decision to fly the Palestinian flag over the city chambers on her facebook page. This I have to say is one of the very few decisions this card carrying member of the SNP has ever given her full support to the Labour council. However this was not shared by the person on the rant who called both the Palestinian flag and the city council shitty and said that they had been considering voting yes in the referendum they were now more likely to vote no as they by which I think they meant the SNP government were a bunch of dunderheids who would get us in trouble before you can say och aye the noo.
I put it to the group that this was not only racist against Palestinians and Muslims as Islam is the dominant faith in that nation it was also racist against Scotland as it reduces our nation to a stereotypical caricature.
As for how I dealt with it I said that since it had occurred during the break I decided not to put up a comment on her page ripping in to her ill thought out argument but to wait until the group when I could have a wee private chat thus not giving her a chance to play the victim as that is a role in which she revels.
I corrected the person concerned by saying that she should not use stereotypes and reminding her this was not the first time I’ve had to pull her up on this issue. I also said that this was a really stupid way to make a decision on the referendum as Glasgow council was controlled by the Labour Party whose leadership was encouraging their supporters to vote no and if she was making a decision based on this issue then should be voting yes. To say she looked confused would be putting it mildly and as for how she voted in the referendum I would bet my mortgage on it being no because she has a very stereotypical view of both Scotland and the world.
When it came to how the union could help with the situations described by our group and the others it was generally agreed that resource packs and information sheet on busting the myths and the stereotypes they create would be highly beneficial as would training days and seminars to cover the topic in depth. Also just talking to people on a one to one basis on the appropriate use of language would be a good way of dealing with situations as and when they arise. It would be good if when on hearing friends or colleagues making what we perceive to be a racist comment to challenge them by saying things like are you sure about that? or would you be surprised to know that? Doing this would possibly make them think twice before believing racist assumptions.
At the end of an excellent, enjoyable, and interactive night I had made many new contacts and more importantly comrades who will join me in the fight against racism and will not rest until it lies defeated in every corner of our land and is banished from all aspects of our lives. Then and only then will we as Scots be able to claim that Jock Tamson’s Bairns really do welcome everyone as part of a brave new Scotland which is not only tolerant of others but accepts them as part of a socially and culturally diverse nation.
Love And Best Wishes