The Black Lives Matter movement reverberates in every country. How might it affect political life in Scotland now?
We are facing arguably the most important election since the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. Yet in more than 20 years Scotland has produced no Black MSPs and very few representatives from Asian or other ethnic minorities. Local councils are no better. Despite constituting 4% of the population, no Scottish MPs, just 1.6% of MSPs, and 1.2% of councillors are from a non-white minority ethnic background, says the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights (CRER). Why? What are the obstacles? At the end of Black History Month, Agnes Holmes reflects on her own experience as a Black woman in Scotland.
It is good that there are some ethnic minority people standing for the 2021 Scottish Parliamentary elections. I hope they are standing in seats they can actually win.
I recall taking part in Scotland’s first ever Public Life/Political Mentoring Scheme with much excitement. The programme was launched by Linknet Mentoring in 2008 as part of their mission to empower minority ethnic communities in Edinburgh, Lothians and Fife. It enabled me to enhance my knowledge and understanding of local and national government at first hand. Mentored by an MSP, I had the opportunity to observe the roles of public persons and how they work.. Unfortunately this was a first and last opportunity. Once completed, the programme did not continue – primarily because Linknet were unable to get further funding.
As a member of the Labour Party, I went on to put myself forward as a candidate for local government. The process seemed straightforward enough, after it was explained to me. Of course I experienced some nervousness when it came to the selection interview. However I gave it my all. And It was splendid to hear I had been accepted though, sadly, a change in personal circumstances prevented me from going forward when the elections came up.
Racism and mental health
There are many different obstacles preventing Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people from taking part in public life. Racial micro-aggressions (those loaded questions and comments: ‘Where are you from?” “You speak good English”…shop assistants following you round the store…) are discouraging and can prevent many from getting involved. This has certainly been among the reasons for not putting myself forward – especially after observing the continual abuse and threats experienced by ethnic minority politicians such as Diane Abbott and Dawn Butler. Even with good, strong support networks, one still has to think about one’s health and wellbeing. The link between racism and mental health is becoming more widely acknowledged.
“At the most basic level, racism still exists in Scotland because white majority ethnic Scottish people are viewed as ‘normal’ in comparison to ‘other’ ‘diverse’ communities. Someone doesn’t have to feel hostile towards people from a minority ethnic group in order to have racist attitudes or to act in a racist way. The fact that Black and minority ethnic people are constantly treated as being different, even if several generations of their family have been born in Scotland, means that they face racism to some degree throughout their lives.” Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights
For positive change to be attained, there has to be a fundamental change in of political systems, beginning at local government levels. For local government to have an impact which permeates into national government ALL people need to be fully engaged and involved in the issues which affect our lives. The CRER lists ten key issues: racist murders, racist violence, poverty, unemployment, public sector discrimination, employment discrimination, education, elected office, housing and prejudice. There has to be a genuine and continuous engagement of BAME minority ethnic people in the places where they congregate. Politicians must become aware of what is happening in their local, diverse communities and the concerns they have. It is simply not good enough – indeed it is discourteous – if politicians are seen only when it is election time.
Unsupported and unvalued
Tokenism often discourages minority ethnic people from actively getting actively involved in politics. When I was Chairperson for the Africa Centre Scotland, I made sure many MSP’s became aware of a significant research report undertaken by the African Community in Scotland. The consultation identified a need for additional community support across a wide range of areas and highlighted key challenges facing the African and Caribbean community, including the need for improved representation, tackling discrimination, improving access to health services and providing equal access to employment opportunities.
However, the Africa Centre was considered to lack the necessary resources to meet these needs. Despite community backing, the centre closed its doors due to lack of funding. It was a sad time for people of African heritage, making them feel unsupported and unvalued in spite of their many contributions to Scottish culture, society and the economy.
When the Scottish Parliament marked its 20th year in 2019, I became aware that they were planning a year of events to celebrate. As a member of the African Caribbean Women’s Association I made contact asking if we could get involved. The assumption seemed to have been already made that what we were going to do was perform.
What the African Caribbean Women’s Association wanted was to hold a roundtable discussion event titled “Scottish Parliament 20th Anniversary – African Caribbean Women’s Perspective”. I never heard back from them. Why send such negative messages to Scottish people of African heritage?
‘It starts with me’
Social and economic inequalities are very real among in ethnic minorities in Scotland. The racism that they experience deters people from fulfilling their potential. Not just in towns and cities. Racism in rural areas is another issue not widely discussed that needs to be tackled. We need demonstrable change. The attitude and mindset of “It Starts With Me” should be everyone’s call to action.
In 2020, Black people should not have to feel and act like they do not belong here. They need to be confident that they can be involved in all spheres of Scottish life. There is a need for systems change that truly works for the diverse populations of Scotland.
There is an economic cost to racism as stated by the World Economic Forum, “Systemic racism is a global problem. It is real, and there is a robust moral argument for addressing it. However, one factor that is often ignored in this critical conversation is the broader economic dimension. Because it prevents people from making the most of their economic potential, systemic racism carries significant economic costs. A less racist society can be an economically stronger one.”
As Black History Month ends I urge my fellow Black people to become better informed with up-to-date facts and data across Scotland. After all, as Amnesty emphasises, we all have a shared history: “Black History is History”. Working together, we must publicly and loudly hold Scottish politicians to account. With Black candidates standing for election we can play a part in shaping the political agenda. In the months ahead it will be interesting to see what kind of reception they receive and how they are treated as they go about campaigning. And if they can win, we have much to gain.
Featured image: ‘I can’t breathe’ from a series of photographs by Jamal-Yussuf-Adelakum for #BlackLivesMatter exhibition in Edinburgh