Two days after Scotland voted decisively to remain in the EU, a Scottish Sikh woman was told to get off the bus and go back where she came from. ‘I thought where should I go back to? Glasgow, where I was born?’
She laughs as she tells her story. But she looks closer to tears. No-one had spoken in her defence as the bus continued on its journey through the most culturally diverse part of Edinburgh.
‘This is where I belong,’ she told the workshop group around her at a recent community discussion event in Leith. ‘I never thought I would meet this kind of racism in Scotland. Over the border maybe, but not here, never here.’
She gets the warm sympathy she deserves – after all this is an event called Side by Side, which has gathered to explore potential for creative community collaboration; to form a foundation for a community manifesto no less. And Mrs S (she would rather not give her real name) is an inspiring example of what so many women from ethnic minority communities are contributing to local life: colour, food, art, music and a vibrant sense of community. But the episode is causing a poignant flashback for me.
A story very like this was one of the main reasons for the first community discussion event I helped to organise eleven years ago, almost to the day.
‘Can We Listen To Each Other?’ was a Leith Open Space multicultural event aiming to bring together minority ethnic communities experiencing exactly such hostility on buses and in the streets of Scottish towns and cities in the aftermath of the London bombings of 2005.
A welcoming nation?
In a chilly, echoing space at the top of Ocean Terminal, overlooking a steely grey Firth of Forth, another Asian woman told her story of intimidation. This time it was a Scottish Muslim businesswoman who described how she had been subjected to silent aggression in the Princes Street branch of Boots. After the event the Open Space team wrote to the then managing director of Boots in Scotland. To her great credit she acted immediately, decisively and constructively. A personal apology was sent to the woman concerned, lets call her Mrs M, (who also received gifts of compensation). Equally important, a training programme was put in place to improve Boots intercultural understanding.
What would be similarly appropriate reparation in Scotland 2016? Scotland prides itself on being a welcoming nation, a safe haven for refugees, open to all comers, eager for the talent and skills of immigrants, celebrating the rich diversity of cultures that they bring.
And in many ways we do all those things. The Side by Side event in a converted church next to Hibs Stadium contained many people representing the very best of Scottish open-mindedness. But we have to acknowledge that there are places where refugees, migrants and immigrants are treated with wary suspicion and some with downright hostility and violence. And not just ‘visibly different’ citizens like Scottish Sikhs and Muslims. East Europeans are often subject to abuse when their language or accents trigger a reaction.
Side by Side participants also heard from a young community policewoman who described her efforts to work with a Muslim family targeted by a gang of young white Scots, throwing stones at their windows and racist insults when they came out to protest. ‘In some ways it’s not real racism,’ she told us, ‘These kids are just repeating what they hear the adults round them saying. If they get a chance to talk and think about it, their attitudes can change.’
These are local issues with national and international reverberations in the era of simmering discontent skilfully stirred by populist opportunists such as Trump and Farage. That lends all the greater importance to this week’s Casey report highlighting the failures of successive UK governments to encourage social cohesion and integration. Many places, says Dame Louise Casey, have failed to keep up with the ‘unprecedented pace and scale of immigration’.
No space for complacency
It seems to be a greater problem south of the border but Scotland has no reason to be complacent. Police Scotland reports no increase in hate crimes following Brexit. But such crimes often go unreported (Mrs S didn’t even attempt to tell the bus driver).
Community cohesion is a key issue for the Scottish Government’s Race Equality Framework launched early in 2016. The Coalition for Racial Equality (CRER) provided evidence for the need to tackle racism and promote equality in stark terms.
Racism and prejudice are still significant issues in Scotland, and represent a disproportionate amount of the hate crime cases dealt with through the Scottish criminal justice system. CRER
These are serious concerns for a small nation which has become visibly more diverse since that first Open Space event a decade ago. Although only four per cent of people are from minority ethnic groups in Scotland – compared with fourteen per cent in the rest of the UK – that’s double the number of the 2001 Census. In Glasgow it’s twelve per cent compared with Edinburgh’s eight per cent and Dundee’s six per cent.
If you are lucky enough to live in or near a multicultural part of the city you will enjoy the colour, aromas and vitality of the streets and cafes – you can travel the world without leaving Leith, or even strolling very far down Leith Walk. But that’s not to ignore the challenges for communities and social workers in an age of funding cuts and shrinking public services. Even the most innovative community enterprises find it hard to keep going with severely reduced council funding.
Ours seems to be a staunchly European capital – while Edinburgh voted 74% for the EU, Edinburgh North and Leith voted 78% to Remain. Yet, reading the humbling stories of voluntary groups working hard to assist integration, I am shocked to see one Polish support group refer to the high suicide rate among Polish people in Scotland.
What is to be done?
What, then. should be our response to individual stories of hate crimes and abuse? The event, hosted by Labour councillors, was attended by our local SNP MSP, Ben Macpherson, and Greens (for all I know there were LibDem and Tory voters in the workshops too).
So we can start by lobbying both Scottish Government and the Labour/SNP led City Council to find cross-party ways of supporting and funding ethnic minority groups in their heroic work. (We might also reinstate the multilingual welcome in the Scottish Parliament which is now restricted to English and Gaelic – although there are more Polish than Gaelic speakers in today’s Scotland). And then it’s up to each and everyone of us to keep eyes, ears and minds open to the great opportunity of social and cultural integration.
Featured image: Sikh Pipe Band from Malaysia on visit to Edinburgh (courtesy Punjabi Junction).