NEARLY a year ago, after the horrific murder of George Floyd, black face in Shetland’s famous fire festivals was speedily banned. Now though, Shetland has been troubled by the appearance of some hateful racist graffiti.
Around the same time of the black face ban I found myself in a WhatsApp chat with a young teacher pal from London. I’ll call her Ayisha.
Ayisha told of her “funniest experience of racism” when she and her mum had been pelted with onions by a white man outside a pub in West Ham, London. Luckily they were in a car and could drive off. She referred to far worse things happening to some of her friends.
She wrote: “Racism makes you angry but more sad for the people that don’t have the knowledge or kindness to care for other human beings.” It is a rather beautiful sentiment, I am sure you will agree.
Ayisha had surprised me though. I really had never thought through what being on the receiving end of racism might mean for women. I replied I was “a bit shocked at my own ignorance” as her memory had shown me I had only been processing racism in Britain as harassment and attacks on men and boys.
To be honest I haven’t spent much time thinking what it must feel like to feel threatened as a white woman either. I dare say others are in a similar position.
Around the same time, in fact the day after protestors in Bristol took down the statue of a slaver and dropped it in the harbour, The World This Weekend on BBC Radio 4 had two academics talking about whether there is a the need for more education on the history of slavery as part of Empire and colonialism.
Professor Jeremy Black said “beating the drum about slavery” wasn’t going to take us anywhere new. Meanwhile Dr. Priyamvada Gopal said she didn’t think we had talked enough about it.
One thing that stood out was hearing the plummy voiced white professor claim he was not privileged. He then patronisingly attempted to discredit Dr. Gopal’s academic credentials. She went on to claim discrediting people who were not white, including scholars with differing views as he had just done, was “part of the problem” of how history is taught.
Was it easier for him to put her down because she was a woman, or because she was from India? These can perhaps no more easily be teased apart than can the motives of the onion hurling thug in West Ham. Was he a racist? Yes. Islamophobic? Yes. Did his violent, if rather pathetic, attack on two black women make him sexist too? Yes.
Pelting two men with onions might not have gone so well for him, but, like the white professor, he was using some position of power in his attack too.
Ayisha and Dr. Gopal’s comments stuck in my mind. Racism plainly takes many forms, not all of which are apparent at first sight. It has a broad reach, and is tied into, and supports, other forms of discrimination and inequality, such as sexism in these two examples. And it is vitally important we pay attention to the voices of those who speak up against discrimination. Young or old, their truth matters.
There were other discussions at the same time, and protests too, about changing the names of streets and recognising the wealth that had built our city centres had come from the murderous era of generations of industrial scale slavery.
Empire and colonialism, and therefore slavery, also helped build our town hall in Lerwick. That impressive building today serves everyone in Shetland, but not equally.
As we know, some VIPs go to our town hall for a civic reception each January, hosted largely by men, when Shetland’s civic leaders honour the town’s all male jarl squad. It is traditional.
You can’t point to a single building block of Lerwick Town Hall and say it was fully paid for by slavery of course. And you can’t point at a single participant in Up Helly Aa and say they are racist very easily, not now that black face has gone.
But, by honouring a wholly fictional all white, all male Viking past, don’t Lerwick’s fire festivals help to keep racist and sexist notions of white male superiority in place?
And didn’t those same notions pollute the mind of the racist behind the graffiti? And didn’t similar notions result in the onions being hurled at Ayisha and her mum, and in so many more violent and very harmful, even murderous attacks too?
We know not only did Viking women actually participate in raiding parties, but that corpses in some Viking graves were followers of Islam. The dapper Edwardian Vikings Lerwick celebrates in uniform colours and shiny chrome are nothing like as inclusive as the real thing. So what is actually going on here?
It is troubling that every form of discrimination can help to hold the others in place. But ending black face does no more than window dress Up Helly Aa, whilst transphobia and sexism remain.
And even when the three cornerstones of racism, sexism and transphobia are removed from our glorious community celebration, some families will be excluded on the basis of class and wealth alone.
Surely it is now more than time for participants and community leaders to reconsider the signals they are sending, the divisions they are holding in place, the vile nonsense they are all but endorsing and the resultant visible and invisible, indirect and direct harms.
Given our elected representatives promise to serve all their constituents, perhaps they could signal a desire to welcome a mixed jarl squad to our town hall in years to come, and state a willingness to boycott the event if no moves onward in that direction follow. That is hardly asking too much, is it?