2007 - 2021

Solidarity Requires Facing up to Uncomfortable Truths

As part of our Cultural Landscape and Power series Talat Yaqoob explores the need to improve the teaching of history in Scottish schools about Britain’s colonial past, and other uncomfortable truths we must face in this process.

The Black Lives Matter movement is too important to be shrunken down to a binary debate, however many continue to try. Multiple (predictable) commentators and those in decision making positions have attempted to reduce the significance of the historic global protests into a back and forth on whether slave owners and racists should continue to have a presence across the skyline of our cities and towns. Too many Twitter spats and poorly thought through columns have dedicated their time arguing about whether Churchill was a racist. For those of you wondering, the answer is yes and you can easily do a little research of your own to understand why. The almost laughable rationale for keeping slaveowners and racists celebrated in stone and bronze is to “teach us about our history”, quite frankly the toppling of one in Bristol taught more people about slaveowners and Britain’s history overnight than the entire collection of statues across the UK has probably managed in a year.

Our cultural landscape does need to change, and we need to rethink who in Scotland is currently celebrated. But to do the Black Lives Matter movement justice and to be competent allies, we need to do so much more. For a start, we need to drastically improve the history education in our schools. I took history to Highers level – I learnt more about racism in America than I did on Britain’s role in the slave trade and as coloniser. As someone with South Asian descent, as someone with a grandparent, uncles and aunts lost as a consequence of Britain’s colonising, this is, put simply, whitewashing. Education is devolved in Scotland, if we want to show respect beyond rhetoric for the Black Lives Matter movement, we could do something about this now. We could embed a more honest narrative not only in history classes but also through English, the arts and more – by centring the analysis, writing and creativity of Black voices.

This is not the time for Scottish exceptionalism. To say we are not as bad as others is not good enough (it’s also not accurate). We are not looking to beat the lowest bar; we should be striving to create the very best Scotland for all. That is not easy, it shouldn’t be easy, because it needs to disrupt systems and the status quo. It requires genuine self-reflection; it requires investment and it requires real redistribution of power. In over 20 years of devolution there has never been a Black MSP of any gender and there has never been a woman of colour election to the Scottish Parliament. There have been 4 men; all from South Asian backgrounds. Yes, we do not have a large BAME population in Scotland, but if we just take a representative approach; we should have had 12 women of colour in the 21 years of devolution. We have had zero. This is just one example of the consequences of the multiple barriers that exist which prevent women of colour, particularly Black women, from having access to power and decision making.

The honest narrative needed is not only in Scotland’s education system or Scotland’s political system, for some of us it is even closer to home. There is a racism problem within the South Asian community. Yes, we are at the receiving end of racism on a daily basis, but too many of us are perpetrators of anti-black, racist attitudes and behaviours. As a Pakistani-Scot, it is my responsibility and the responsibility of others from my community, to hold South Asian culture to account for the discrimination that exists within.

An example of how deeply this is embedded (and often purposefully forgotten) can be seen in the history of one of the world’s most celebrated civil rights activists, Mahatma Ghandi. Ghandi worked for a period of time in South Africa, and during this period prioritised the safety and emancipation of South Africa Indians to the detriment and harm of the Black community, in his writing he referred to black South Africans as “kaffirs” which is a racist slur and declared that Indians were “infinitely superior” to Black South Africans. This is only one example, across the history of South Asian countries, there are more, although from less notable figures. These are uncomfortable truths we must face.

Within the South Asian community there is a disturbing idea that “whiter is better”, paler skin is considered more attractive and even to some more trustworthy. Today, an example of the deeply embedded anti-black thinking can be seen across Asia’s shopping malls and salons. The highest selling cosmetic product across South Asian countries is skin lightening and bleaching creams – globally the industry is worth £4 billion, there are currently over 50 different brands of skin lightening creams available in Pakistan, and in recent years backlash by feminist and anti-racist campaigners caused a brand to remove its product’s slogan which was “we can make the whole of Pakistan white”. It may seem minor to be talking about beauty products, but the reality is that this is one example of how deeply a preference for “whiteness” is embedded. Therefore, it is not surprising that the darker your skin, the more difficult your experience within the South Asian community. Indeed, within the Scottish South Asian Muslim community, many Black Muslims report feeling excluded and discriminated against by our Mosques – simply for their race. Shouldn’t that feel painfully familiar? Why on earth are so many of us perpetuating the same dangerous, racist behaviours that we have been at the receiving end of? Many of us Muslims seem to have conveniently forgotten that according to scripture, the first person trusted to recite the Azan (the Islamic call to prayer) was Black; Bilal Ibn Rabah.

The South Asian community, and in particular the South Asian Muslim community in Scotland, has to reflect on its behaviour, and consider all the ways that the “whiter is better” branding sold by skin lightening creams has seeped into our communities and consider how we can do better as allies to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Comments (16)

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  1. Ian McCubbin says:

    Sorry but this is one aspect of history imported in the culture of that south east Asia country.

    Scottish history has been Anglified with the wiping out of Highland and Lowland white slavery and exporting of people to colonies.
    There has also been the erasure of ethnic cleansing of Highland population by land owners condoned and encouraged by the Bristish state to fund sheep farming and grouse moors.
    The church 15 miles north of Lairg is testiment to some 200 lives murdered by the Duke of Sutherland in horrific circumstances of being burned alive. I think this and similar incidents need taught in schools 1st then bring in some of the issues around immigrants plight.

  2. Roger says:

    Interesting, there’s a tendency to look at BAME as a monolithic grouping & ignore the issues you highlight in discriminatory attitudes, I didn’t know about Ghandi’s attitudes & language for example. However it strikes me this is not dissimilar to the attitudes within Scotland where I would argue we have the almost schizophrenic situation of having been coloniser & colonised. Here for example we haven’t got a tradition of teaching our own history adequately or at all, in fact I’d argue many Scots run away from it preferring the comfort of the myths promulgated by the Victors (ie The British state), recent revelations ignored for many years by the academic establishment about the post 1746 British Military occupation of Scotland being a case in point. It strikes me teaching the realities of slavery & Colonialism also involves coming to terms with all the rest of our history too, warts & all.

    1. Hi Roger – thanks for the comment – yes that’s the point of our Cultural Landscape and Power series to look beyond the issue of (just) statues at our complex history in light of the black lives matter global protest. That’s why we are delighted to publish Talat and her perspective.

      1. Roger says:

        Thanks, I didn’t realise it was part of a series – I’m now of course going to have to go away & read them all

  3. Daniel Raphael says:

    As usual, wonderful writing and truly informative content on Bella. We can–must, will–do better, whether it be in the UK, Scotland, US. We really don’t have a choice, if we want to survive. There is the expression “the long march through the institutions,” expressing the continuity of struggle over time and societal dimensions. Well, our struggle now, which has been made global in multiple ways, requires a quick march through revolutions…because our problems won’t be solved by the usual band-aid approach, and because the consequences are final. Racism-militarism-capitalism-sexism-ecocide is the chain that must be irrevocably broken, not just shifted a bit. As has been noted, “nature does not negotiate”; for us to meet this issue–THE framing issue of all time–we have to, must, “live together as brothers [and sisters] or perish together as fools” (Dr. King). We can’t keep destroying/attacking/persecuting each other, and simultaneously survive. All our strength is required to achieve even the minimum to stave off nature’s solution to our foolishness.

  4. Duncan Macniven says:


  5. Duncan Macniven says:

    At no time have I picked up on comments by our politicians or anyone else that we are exceptional, or better than others. However if you are taking the views of the knuckle dragging fraternity into account, and you attend football matches you will hear it and see it.” WATP” They screech whilst singing abour being up to their knees in Fenian blood. Those statue defenders who seek to establish their WASP cult through out these islands and who are backed up by an act of Englands Parliament. This is often labelled as “Scotlands shame” by the Chatterati as they sup their lattes in soot polluted street cafes, the faux trendy European look does not sit well in Glasgow or Edinburgh. Unless you like being asked if yer “awright” by people with no teeth and bad hygiene. The correct label is of course Englands shame.

    1. florian albert says:

      ‘At no time have I picked up on comments by our politicians or anybody else that we are exceptional, or better than others’

      You must have missed the government led campaign branding Scotland as ‘The Best Small Country in the World.’

      For me, the most significant aspect of that idiocy was that so few people objected to it. Alex Salmond, to give him his due, binned it on becoming First Minister.

      Jack McConnell, the ‘brains’ behind that campaign, has now resurfaced to advise Nicola Sturgeon on Scottish schooling.

      1. Absolutely disgraceful Florian, elected politicians trying to talk up Scotland in a positive way. Thank you for drawing our attention to this outrage. Of all the things going on in the world you are quite right to focus your energy to such a terrible action.

        1. Arboreal Agenda says:

          That’s a bit harsh. I mean almost any nationalist cause almost by definition is one that uses exceptionalism as a means to justify itself. In the case of Scotland and the Union, one of the key rationales for leaving it, is that Scotland is exceptional, socially and politically, from the norm of the Union*: it is an exception now so great that it can no longer sustain its membership without even more harm to itself than has been done all down the long years, because Scotland has always been different. But the point is there is by no means anything necessarily wrong at all with such exceptionalism, quite the opposite perhaps.

          The problem is with the word in that it used simply to dismiss any cry for being different as bad. It is arguably what Unionists will do all the time: you lost, get over it why are you so different you can’t just accept it now etc. But there is nothing intrinsically wrong in claiming difference, so there’s nothing wrong with not accepting the result of the indyref1 and carrying on pointing out the differences that have not gone away. But I think it disingenuous to say that isn’t one of the pillars on what Scottish nationalism is built on.

          Thinking a place / country *better* than another is something different to me.

          I thought the article very thought-provoking and very well said, but words like exceptionalism seem to be used without any real thought as to what they are actually referring to.

          * Exceptionalism: the condition of being different from the norm.

        2. florian albert says:

          I do not think that we elect politicians to ‘talk up Scotland in a positive way’. Similarly, Boris Johnson talking up England/UK is widely – and rightly – ridiculed.
          As the economist, Professor John Kay pointed out, it is for visitors to Scotland to complement Scotland, rather than arrive here – as happened – and be told by their host how wonderful the country they are coming to is.
          Do you think that the slogan, ‘the Best Small Country in the World’ was accurate or ridiculous ? I go with the latter.

  6. Stephen Cowley says:

    This could be designed to blind-sight people. The author says: “according to [Islamic] scripture, the first person trusted to recite the Azan (the Islamic call to prayer) was Black; Bilal Ibn Rabah.” Well, he himself seems to have “forgotten” that Mohammed owned and traded slaves after he moved to Medina and described Satan as looking like a black man (in Ibn Ishaq). There are hundreds of Hadith about this. Jesus on the other hand preached the freedom of the Gospel and this was preached to the Ethiopian (Acts 8.27-39).

    The author says that “in his writing he [Ghandhi] referred to black South Africans as “kaffirs”. He “forgets” that this is the Muslim word for a non-believer. If he is so opposed to slavery, where is his condemnation of Mohammed?

    1. Daniel Raphael says:

      Why do you refer to the author as “he”? It makes one wonder about the accuracy of the rest of what you’ve written.

  7. Justin Kenrick says:

    Great piece (and fantastic graffiti in the photo)

    I think it cuts to the core of the task* which is to not only identify how the divide and rule system oppresses us, but how it can turn us into part of its oppresive process.

    Some of the comments talk of the need to look at colonisation of the Highlands, and that’s right but that’s not something to look at instead of looking at systemic racism, it needs to be looked at as part of the process through which people were torn from their land here and used to colonise others elsewhere.

    The fact that some of those from colonised countries have come to make their life here enriches us. We need to stop a system that is driving us to ecocide by prioritising profits for the few over the well being of all. It’s the same old colonial system and continues to use divide and rule to plunder its way blindly to oblivion.

    1. Justin Kenrick says:

      Just seen this useful point from Kenan Malik, and would be interested in Talat Yaqoob’s thoughts on it:

      “Politics has always relied on symbols, rituals and performance. Today, though, it can feel as if politics has been consumed by performance. Consider the way that we now talk more about “white privilege” than about “racism”. The problem of racism is primarily social and structural – the laws, practices and institutions that maintain discrimination. The stress on “white privilege” turns a social issue into a matter of personal and group psychology.”

      ‘White privilege’ is a distraction, leaving racism and power untouched

  8. Alex Kashko says:

    Racism, and preference for whiteness seems widespread. In the Philippines anyone with brown skin is considered ugly, in Thailand people make money from selling penis whitening operations.

    I speculate, idly this may be explained by Jung’s theories. I also recall reading of one “primitive” tribe considered white people to be made from all the elements the creator found useless and to be useless.

    I have read of Indian racism directed agains west Indians, Brexit has highlighted white-on-white racism and, while I look white my surname has given rise to comments: at an Interview I was aked “are you a British citizen?” something on the application form, at primary school I was bullied because of my name, and in secondary school I was told by a teacher that the way I wrote showed English is not my native language ( I was born in London).

    The Scottish clearances seem to me to be white-on white racism directed by the (originally Germanic) lowlanders against the Gaelic Highlanders.
    It is as much cultural conflict as racial.

    I also feel that the current talk of racism is a distraction (squirrel) from the way the moneyed classes control us and look down on us: There are quite a few rich coloured Tory MPs who are as xenophobic, if not racist, as any member of the EDL.

    Money turns you white.

    Black lives should only be a start.

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