The horrific murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of US police has been nothing short of an earthquake. We are still feeling its reverberations play out across western society, but there is no doubt it has been a potent and profound wake-up call (albeit one that is long overdue).
The overriding message from the brave communities of colour, fighting one pandemic during another, has been clear: it is not enough for us to simply be “not racist,” we must be “anti-racist.” We must be drivers and allies in dismantling the systemic racism that still exists within Scottish society. To remain silent is to be complicit in an oppressive status quo.
For me and many others this has sparked an ongoing process of self-reflection. What do I take for granted in my life that people of colour cannot? When has my white privilege afforded me advantages over others? When have I ignored opportunities to speak out against actions I had perceived to be racist?
Sometimes I have reached uncomfortable conclusions. Nevertheless it is vital to ask these difficult questions.
I believe it is incumbent on wider communities to engage a similar period of reflection – especially those like Shetland which lack diversity.
Issues of race may not seem as pertinent here on the surface, however brushing them aside can do nothing but breed ignorance and lead to actions which hurt the people of colour who live in Shetland, our friends and neighbours.
When we see resurfaced images of blackface from birthday busses or from Up-Helly Aa squads, disproportionate in Shetland, we must question why some believe this behaviour has been acceptable to engage in in the 21st century and why it has not been called out more emphatically.
I have seen increased conversation about the latter issue on Facebook during the past couple of weeks, including certain individuals who argue that because these portrayals do not have a malicious intent (they are a “celebration” of Black culture or “just a laugh”), there is no reason for any offence to be taken.
However, current and former members of our community, people of colour, have responded to say how uncomfortable and alienated they felt watching these acts take place.
The long, painful history of blackface, where white performers would demean black identity for comic effect – reinforcing white superiority – is well-known.
It is not the intent of your actions that matters, it is the impact. This is another lesson that has become very apparent and it is why we must listen to each other.
Education is the answer. I learned next to nothing about black history in school, so I only developed a more specific knowledge of racial issues down south when I was much older.
Our schools must make a concerted effort to diversify the curriculum, including topics which are difficult to broach. It is also my view that bus operators should exclude those who engage in blackface from boarding their vehicles and that, from now on, Up Helly Aa committees should enforce permanent bans on any minority of squads who might attempt to engage in this behaviour. It is vitally important that children and young people no longer see this in action.
In many respects, Shetland is an exemplary community, sincere in its aspirations to be a welcoming place for everyone. It is time we reflect these values by reflecting on where we can be better.
Levenwick & Leith, Edinburgh
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