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Shetland Lives / ‘We just want to be treated equally and respectfully’

One of the many folk who took part in the recent Shetland Staands wi Black Lives Matter event was 83-year-old William Hopkins from Bigton, who was raised in the US and was involved in civil rights marches. Here he and his daughter Yvette share what the movement means to them.

William Hopkins, who was raised in the US but now lives in Bigton.

“ONE time we were at the beach in Virginia, and they had a barrier which separated blacks and whites from each other. We were all playing in the water and one kid said to me, ‘don’t all the water flow in the same place?’”

William Hopkins, originally from the US, was one of over 80 people who took part in the Shetland Staands wi Black Lives Matter walk in the small village of Bigton earlier this month.

He is no stranger to using his voice against racial discrimination, having taken part in marches for the civil rights movement in the US, which mainly took place in the 1950s and 1960s.

The 83-year-old is now settled in Bigton, where he calls home alongside his Shetland wife, but he grew up in Richmond, Virginia.

He said there were “some hard experiences” there – including having to walk through “all the white neighbourhoods to get to our black school, past all the statues”.

The Black Lives Matter movement has gained renewed focus in recent weeks following the death of George Floyd in the US while being restrained by police.

An estimated 2,000-plus people got involved in the Shetland Staands wi Black Lives Matter event, while around 200 folk took part in a peaceful protest walk in Lerwick at the weekend.

In pictures: Shetland staands wi Black Lives Matter

Hopkins said when he was growing up in the US, police were well respected.

But with the advent of officers carrying guns in public, things started to take a turn for the worse, he said.

“I was never concerned or afraid of the police,” Hopkins said.

“Now whenever I go back to America, when I see a policeman I tense up.

“Somewhere over the period of years, police moved from a period of high respect and you felt safe around them, to a place where you were afraid of them. I think that came back because all of a sudden they started wearing guns and all this equipment.”

Hopkins, who had a career in the US military, said he feels a number of people don’t understand the meaning behind the Black Lives Matter phrase.

“It’s not about other folk’s lives not mattering, it’s about black lives that are being abused and taken out by the system,” he said.

“Police brutality exists because the politicians allow it. They pass laws and the rules in the system that don’t punish.

“When I was involved in a civil rights march, it wasn’t that I wanted to take over your right, I wanted to be included in your right.

“I want to be included in the good schools, the good neighbourhood, the good health systems. It’s not about blacks wanting more. We just want to be treated equally and respectfully.”

Having a wife from Shetland meant that Hopkins was a regular visitor to the isles – often stopping off here while moving around countries across the world for his work – before settling in 2003.

“For my daughters this is home – Shetland’s always been a place everybody wanted to come to,” he said. “It was always planned that we would come home.”

“Here in Shetland I have never experienced any kind of racial experience,” Hopkins added, although he said he witnessed blackface being used at his first Up Helly Aa in Bigton.

“Shetland is the most welcoming place that I’ve ever been to. I don’t see a conscious problem in Shetland. If it’s an unconscious problem, I don’t know. I don’t see a conscious problem.”

Yvette Hopkins.

Hopkins’ daughter Yvette also lives in Bigton after similarly settling in the isles following a life on the road in the military.

She, as well as other family, took part in the well-attended Bigton Shetland Staands wi Black Lives Matter event.

“Bigton is a very close knit community and supportive of one another,” she said.

“The SSBLM [Shetland Staands wi Black Lives Matter] walk was exhilarating for the community on several fronts. As a community that socialises frequently, the SSBLM walk was the first time we have seen each other as a community since lock down.

“Secondly, the SSBLM walk was centred on an issue which demonstrates that Bigton, and Shetland, are also a global community that wont stand for systemic racism. I am proud of the demonstrative turn out, but then again, I am always proud of the Bigton community.”

Yvette believes the opportunity to have your voice heard is always there, “but sometimes it takes a catalyst or single event to galvanise people to say ‘no more’”.

“Unfortunately, this time, It took the untimely death of George Floyd to galvanise a global response,” she added.

“I also think people are having conversations all over the world on the issue of systemic racism and its closely associated issues. More importantly, it has been the impetus for much needed change, particularly in the USA.

“Those conversations are also ongoing here in Shetland and should continue. We are not immune. In particular, I love to see our youth take up the torch of civil rights. It may sound cliche, but the youth are indeed our future, and must continue to make the world a better place.”

Yvette Hopkins said returning to Shetland after three decades in the US military and living abroad, “having witnessed overt racism, and personally experiencing micro-aggressions…there is so much Shetland should be grateful for”.

However, she said she was “shocked and demoralised” to see blackface being used in some Up Helly Aa acts.

“I cannot express enough how jarring and offensive it is,” she said.

“So like so many Shetlanders, I was so pleased to read the guizer jarl’s elimination of black face from future activities. It is a step in the right direction – next should be the inclusion of women and girls.”

Posters used on Saturday’s walks.

Yvette Hopkins was also surprised to see Golliwog dolls being sold in Shetland when she first returned to settle in the isles.

“But I had a very positive experience by opening a private conversation with the business owner about his/her opportunity to make a change, not trade in Golliwogs, and more importantly take a stand with fellow business owners,” she added.

“I don’t know if they stopped, but I have not seen any openly displayed since that time. However, it was a great opportunity for two people to come together to discuss something uncomfortable.

“We should all need to be comfortable with being ‘uncomfortable’.”

Her dad, meanwhile, said the recent events in Shetland have given him a “lot of hope” for future generations.

He hopes that his grandchildren will be “accepted just as they are and who they are”.

“Once again, it was led by young people. Young people are making the changes,” the 83-year-old said.

“They may not know this, but the change they’re making it not for themselves. They’re making it for their children, and their children’s children. The change you’re doing now will affect your family.

“Your child will be able to walk down the street and never give it a conscious thought that there’s a person of different colour walking beside me. It won’t even be in their brain.

“It’s the youth of the today that will make the change of tomorrow. My days are finished. The youth of today will make the change.”