On Race and Privilege in Scotland

Now that the spotlight is again shining on racism and privilege in our society, I wanted to share with you some musings about my own experience as someone of mixed Chinese heritage, and more generally the issues which I’ve been reflecting on.

Thankfully, I haven’t been the victim of out and out racism in quite a few years, something which I have always put down to my white-ish appearance which allows me to pass. But in recent years I’ve become pre-occupied with micro-aggressions, something which all people of colour will have experienced at one time or another. Like when you try to bring up the issue of race with a white friend or ally and are met with a defensive attitude and the inevitable “but not all white people are racist”. Or the constant “where are you from” (the answer which is always Glasgow), inevitably followed by “but where are you really from”. Or the slightly more sinister arguments which I’ve had online and in person as to whether it’s acceptable to call your local Chinese takeaway ‘the Chinky’ (it’s not, by the way). Lastly, the paranoia you feel after you’ve received particularly aggressive service from a worker and don’t know whether this is because of race or something else. This one seemed to happen more when I was living in France, where I lost count of how many times I was asked to empty my shopping bag by a security guard. While these experiences might seem innocuous or harmless, for me they’ve hurt just as much as full-blown racist incidents. The effect has always been to ‘other’ me, as somehow I don’t belong in the community. Some incidents have served to minimise or deny my own experience, which anyone who has been the victim of harassment or assault can testify amounts to secondary victimisation.

I can’t begin to imagine the anguish which the black community are feeling right now after what has happened to George Floyd in America, and here in Scotland with Sheku Bayoh. As a person of East-Asian heritage, I’ve never felt the same threat of violence from police in Scotland. I have however been feeling more scared recently after reading about incidents of hate crime and violence against Chinese people in Glasgow. There is a false perception that in Scotland we are somehow more tolerant and inclusive, but sadly that’s not always been my or my family’s experience. Mum, who arrived in Glasgow in the 70s from Hong Kong, recounts the horrific abuse she suffered in the southside together with her Jewish and South Asian friends. There is a stereotype that Chinese people in Scotland are a quiet minority who just want to get by and not cause trouble. There’s even a Chinese maxim to this effect. I see this attitude with my mum and aunts, all of whom constantly complain of racist attitudes in their workplace but who would never ever consider reporting it. They just see it as part and parcel of everyday life. It’s that same attitude that means that the East Asian community in Scotland are without any vocal community leaders; no one to raise awareness or shout about injustice.

It’s true however that we do live in a completely different society from that which my mum grew up in. We have more legal protections, and with social media we have become more conscious of the experiences of different minorities. Our understanding of different cultures is generally not limited to knowing a couple of dishes off the takeaway menu, or having a Pakistani shopkeeper as your only Asian friend. We can’t however continue to ignore or tolerate the existing structural issues in our society, like sub-standard housing and low-paid jobs, which disproportionately affect BAME groups. We can’t ignore or tolerate the abhorrent hate that continues to blight some communities, particularly Roma people in Govanhill. And lastly, we can’t ignore or tolerate the fact that in many industries (including my own, law) there are few, if any, BAME representation at senior level. We need to do better. I have massive respect to friends and allies who are helping to shine a spotlight on these inequalities in our society. I hope that in the coming months, I can continue be able to have frank conversations with white friends and allies, without the word ‘but’ featuring in a sentence, without caveat or repercussion.