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Community / Motion lodged at Scottish Parliament calling for end of ‘blackface’ at Up Helly Aa festivals

Lerwick Up Helly Aa said it would also not tolerate ‘blacking up’

A HIGHLANDS and Islands MSP has lodged a motion in the Scottish Parliament calling for the “immediate and permanent” end of ‘blackface’ in Up Helly Aa squads.

Green MSP John Finnie also showed his support for the new Shetland Staands Wi Black Lives Matter group.

The Bressay, Delting and Cullivoe Up Helly Aa committees have all spoken out against ‘blacking up’ in squad acts after 20 year old Ellie Ratter, from Brae, wrote to all festival committees asking them to ban “blackface and other racial discriminating face coverings”.

Late on Thursday Lerwick Up Helly Aa joined those ranks and also declared that blackface would no longer be tolerated.

Green Highlands and islands MSP John Finnie has lodged a motion in the Scottish Parliament calling for the end of ‘blackface’ in Up Helly Aa squads.

Finnie said that “blackface has a long history of being used to dehumanise and humiliate black people and should have no place in modern society”.

“I accept that there is likely no malice intended when it used at the festival, but when it comes to this practice that simply doesn’t matter,” he added.

“The use of blackface at a major community event excludes Shetland’s BAME residents and visitors.

“I urge the Up Helly Aa organisers to take this moment, when marginalised people around the world taking part in the Black Lives Matter movement, to ensure that this practice comes to an immediate and permanent end.”

Finnie’s motion has  so far been supported by MSPs Mark Ruskell, Patrick Harvie, Stuart McMillan, Ross Greer, Richard Lyle, Rona Mackay and Mark McDonald.

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart said earlier in the week that “seeing blacked-up faces at some local events needs to be a thing of the past”.

Labour MSP Rhoda Grant. Photo: Shetland News

Highlands and Islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant meanwhile said she “totally supports a change and the banning of using blackface in the future”.

She added: “That the people in Shetland are now looking at this and fighting for change is an example to every community to do the same. Change only happens if we all look to our own behaviour and see it through the eyes of others.

“Things we do without malicious intent can have a negative impact on others and we need to understand this. This highlights the need for better education on racism.

Grant also said Labour would press the Scottish Government on the teaching black histories through the curriculum.

Shetland Islands Council chief executive Maggie Sandison, meanwhile, believes that the local community “uniting against racism and injustice” is an “example of really good citizenship”.

Shetland Staands Wi Black Lives Matter was set up to create a “collective voice that can address and hopefully change the underlying racism that exists here”.

SIC chief executive Maggie Sandison.

The group has organised a walking event on Saturday (13 June), with a presence in communities from Unst to Fair Isle, while the following weekend a separate peaceful protest organised by different folk is set to be held in Lerwick.

An open letter has also been written which will be sent to Sandison which says Shetland “must strive to not only claim to not be racist, but to actively become anti-racist”.

It has been signed so far by well over 100 people.

While the letter has not yet arrived in Sandison’s inbox, she said she “welcomes that our community is uniting against racism and injustice”.

“That’s an example of really good citizenship. We want our citizens to be involved in shaping how our community is in the future, and also I suppose talking to us about the types of services we should provide to the community in the future.”

She added that the council as an organisation are committed to fulfilling its duties under the equalities act 2010.

“We promote equality and inclusion within our organisation and we look at the impact of the decisions that the council takes on inequality when we’re making those decisions,” Sandison said.

“In terms of the council, clearly we have a commitment to diversity, inclusivity and tolerance and any form of racism and discrimination is unacceptable.

“We have policies that are designed to promote a culture of opportunity for everyone and we actively take action if anybody discriminates or harasses anybody in the organisation.

“Racism is a disciplinary offence and it would be considered as a possible hate crime if it occurred within the council.”