[This post is almost purely anecdotal and is intended to set the scene for a more statistically based article on the realities of immigration, employment and public spending, particularly benefits. Some will find this article provocative because you might feel I am pointing my finger at you and calling you racist, and maybe I am. You have your prejudices and I have mine. We all do and can’t really get away from them. What we can do, and most of us do do, is choose how we act on those prejudices, and this is what this article is really about. Of course, if you do hold racist views and act on them then you are not going to be a fan of this page for long, but I won’t miss you going.]
A few days ago The Herald ran an article saying that seven out of ten Scots supported the immigration policies of UKIP and on Thursday roughly 10% of those who could be bothered voting followed through on those views, which on the bare face of it, suggests that nine out of ten Scots oppose those same views. [You can see the problem with opinion polls right there; they do not necessarily reflect how people will vote in an actual election.] Actually, you could say that 97% of Scots rejecting UKIP and its policies, but it all depends on how you interpret the results. So what do the people of Scotland really think about immigration, immigrants and racism?
I was born in Scotland and lived here until 1982 (aged eight) when I went to live in New Zealand before returning to Scotland, aged 16, in late 1990 (I’ve been living here ever since, in case you were wondering). During the course of these migrations, I learned several things about racism that I doubt I would have learned had I remained in Scotland all my life. I was born in Glasgow but my family moved to the Isle of Skye and my earliest memories are from our time there. I don’t ever remember being told that racism was a ‘bad thing’ by my parents but I am sure that message was passed on at some point. What I can remember is that I only ever knew one non-white family living in Broadford and they were the local GP and his family who, if memory serves me right, were Sikh and, I assume, Indian in origin (I think the kids were born in Scotland though, which makes them Scots in my book). I played with their kids who were the same age as me and I don’t remember thinking anything of our different skin colours or anyone in the village ever mentioning it (nor has my mother ever remarked on villagers passing comments about this issue).
So when I moved to New Zealand and joined a society that was 25-30% non-white (20-25% were indigenous Maori, the rest were Pacific Islanders, ethnic Indians, Chinese and other people of east Asian origin – very few Africans at that time) it was a bit of an eye-opener. I don’t ever recall thinking that the brown people were strange but what I do remember from very early on was that the Pakeha (the Maori term for people of European origin – NOT a derogatory term in my experience) often had a sense of racial superiority over the Maori (and other Pacific Islanders who have a similar ethnic appearance) and were, in a word, racist.
New Zealand in the 1980s was a racist country (I can’t speak for it now but I don’t imagine it is much different). Not racist in the way South Africa was under apartheid (though the subject of whether or not the All Blacks should play the Springboks was never off the table), not racist in the way Australia is with its treatment of the Aborigines as second class citizens and not racist in the way of the USA is when it comes to its views (hell, its laws) and treatment of African-Americans and Hispanics. But racists is the term to use to describe a lot of the thoughts of white New Zealanders, many of whom had to bite their tongue to prevent them uttering the go-to phrase of the xenophobe, ‘go back to where you came from’ to which the Maori could so easily reply, ‘you first mate’. Race in NZ is very closely linked to class with the Maori & Pacific Islanders occupying the lower income demographics. So I do not know if the fact that the Pakeha did not generally hang around with the Maori was because of race or because of class but the non-fraternisation (that is too strong a word, but you get the idea) certainly reinforced the latent racist attitudes (and to be clear, the Maori could be every bit as racist towards the Pakeha in return). But before you think I am being too down on New Zealand, I would like to point out that even then NZ laws did not allow for racial discrimination (or discrimination in general – NZ is one of the world’s leading lights when it comes to striving for equality) but the fact remained that an awful lot of people held views about other people that were purely connected to the colours of their respective skins.
Interestingly, I, as a white-skinned Scot with strong ties to NZ (my mother was born there, as were her parents and, barring my mother and sister, all my remaining family are New Zealanders) was treated as a foreigner and made to feel unwelcome by the white New Zealanders (I generally found that the Maori people were quite accepting of me once they had worked out I wasn’t a typical Pakeha who looked down on them). I completely lost my Scottish accent within six months and adopted NZ modes of speaking in an effort to fit in (this process made me acutely aware of my Scottish identity, but I will leave that for another day) and, while I didn’t think of it like this at the time, I now realise that I was a ‘victim of racism’ myself (certainly the experiences some English people living in Scotland face are very similar to ones I suffered in NZ but it is only recently that the term ‘racism’ has been expanded to encompass nationality rather than simply ethnicity). One of the things I had realised fully by the age of ten was that I could pass for a white NZer while I saw that my Maori school-mates, and other non-white friends, never ever could.
I returned to Scotland aged 16 and finished my schooling near Inverness. The school I went to was roughly the same size (1000 pupils) as the one I had left in NZ but the racial demographics were very different. Where I was used to sharing space with 300 or so brown people I was now in a school with 3 brown people in it. Total. One such was in my year and he and I became friends and there didn’t appear to be any issues with race that I could see nor did he complain of any. But one day, another boy made some racists passing remark about my friend and when I challenged him on it he defended himself in such a way that made me realise there were undercurrents of racism all around me. I starting listening more to other kids and realised that they too had a view of ‘others’ (anyone who didn’t look or sound like them) that was not all that pleasant.
The thing was it mostly appeared to be totally unthinking and automatic rather than a considered response to anything they had actually encountered themselves. You know, ‘Asians are all…’, ‘Blacks all think…’ (bear in mind this was in the days before Islamic extremists and eastern European tradesmen being all the rage) when I doubt many of them had encountered a black person or talked with an Asian outside of a shop way up there in the north of Scotland. There was the casual use of the words ‘paki’ and ‘chinky’ to refer to the local shop or takeaway parlour (funny how we never speak about going to the ‘Eyeties’ for a pizza or the ‘Dagos’ for some tapas) which wasn’t necessarily meant with malice but simply casual prejudice. Somewhere along the line it struck me that had I grown up in the north of Scotland and rarely met a person who wasn’t white-skinned and English speaking I too might have had these automatic, unthinking prejudices despite the best efforts of my parents to condition me otherwise.
Moving to Glasgow in the mid-90s made me aware that this wasn’t a north of Scotland issue but one that was shared in the Central Belt as well. I was at university and I remember a Malaysian-Chinese friend coming back into halls and mentioning being subjected to racist abuse by someone walking by in the street. It was, she said, the first time in her life that someone had implied that she was somehow less of a person because of her ethnicity. (Not that I think Malaysia is likely to be without its racial problems and I didn’t witness a great deal of interaction between the Chinese and Malay contingents I shared halls with, though whether that was in relation to race or religion I don’t know. I certainly never even heard a suggestion of racism emanating from any of them, unlike some of the views expressed by my fellow UK and European students.) I remember her being quite baffled about the experience rather than feeling particularly frightened or upset at the time.
I later ended up living in Pollokshields, an ‘Asian’ area, and while I had nothing but a tolerant welcome from the local Asians, I did encounter plenty of white Glaswegians who would offer me commiserations for living surround by the ‘pakis’. That said, for all the potential for racial disharmony in Glasgow, it is nothing at all like the friction that I have been exposed to in part of England like Birmingham. Glaswegians pretty much get along with each other unless you bring the horrid sectarian divide into play; ‘I know you are a paki, but which team do you support?’…
Moving to Aberdeen in 2002 was an eye-opener as to how white the city was! After being used to seeing Glaswegian Asians every day I could now walk along Union Street and barely see a brown person. I am glad to say the city has changed much in the last decade and the place has a much more cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse appearance. But the people I worked with and have come to know in this city are almost universally white (I clearly don’t go to the right clubs and pubs – actually, I don’t go to any so meeting people who I don’t work with can be problematic) and they too have shown that a good number share the generally xenophobic views held by many others I have encountered. I never hear these views expressed at work or in the gym but put people in a pub and get a few drinks down their necks and the stuff that comes out of their mouths can be horrifying (to me at least). I have discarded a good few people over the years who I once thought were decent people but showed some pretty horrible beliefs on race, religion, sexuality and gender once I scratched their surface.
Is it any wonder then, that I believe that the majority of Scots hold a certain level of racist attitudes? People justify it on all sorts of ways and you get the typical statement, ‘I’m not racist, but…’ before making some outrageously stereotypical remark. But that said, I do not believe that the overwhelming majority of Scots are deeply racist or would ever actively act against someone of another skin colour. As a police officer I dealt with several racist incidents in Aberdeen and saw more outrage at the racist behaviours of a minority than I saw people supporting them (though there were plenty who were clearly minding their Ps and Qs while the cops were there). I also think that if they are asked a general question along the lines of ‘would you prefer to live in a country without immigrants’ most would say ‘yes’ but if you asked them about specific people they might know they would find all sorts of exceptions about why that particular immigrant was ok and they think if immigrants they don’t think of him or her ‘in that way’. This shouldn’t come to any surprise to anyone who has a modicum of understanding of psychology (or just an observer of people around them) who will realise that many people can hold many, apparently conflicting, ideas at one time. What is key is not what people think but how they act, and Sots, on the whole, do not act out their racist beliefs.
Of course, actions and thoughts are closely linked and why people hold the views they do has many reasons. But one of the key ones, especially in terms of whether or not someone would support a UKIP type policy, is poverty. We are now in a situation where there are real problems in Scottish society. In places like Aberdeen work, thanks to the offshore industry, is available so relatively few people are dropping off the bottom of the financial ladder (though there are far too many people reliant on food banks even here) but in other parts of Scotland, particularly in the major cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh and the large towns in between, people are suffering. Jobs are few and far between, pay is low and the benefits system supposed to stop anyone falling off the ladder completely is increasingly hostile. These issues are very, very real and people are of course looking for someone or something to blame.
Political parties are loathed to accept responsibility for these things so the blame game starts immediately. The Tories blame Labour who blame the Tories and both are correct but neither one is willing or interested in enacting policies which will alleviate the problems faced by people at the bottom of the British pile because that would mean alienating the voters they actually rely on to enable them to get elected; the relatively affluent voters of ‘middle England’. So when the xenophobes blame ‘the immigrants’, the big parties have no interest in countering the claim because it deflects the blame nicely from them. So they either join in blaming the immigrants or they stand by silent while a torrent of lies is spewed forth by the likes of UKIP and the BNP or the mainstream media of the likes of the Daily Mail (to single out the worst of the bunch).
Indigenous poor people think that somehow immigrants are given a better deal than they are because a small number of refugees from civil wars and genocides are provided with all the basics (and I do mean basics) to live on and extrapolate that to all brown people being given a leg up at the expense of the indigenous poor whites. Meanwhile the poor brown people living in grotty conditions assume that the poor whites they see must be living in better conditions than they are because surely nobody would treat their ‘own people’ as badly as they treat the foreign incomers so you get a rise in dissatisfaction among, say, the Asian youth and this provides a hot-bed for growing Islamic fundamentalism. This then provides ammunition to the poor whites who react by forming the English Defence League, Britain First, BNP and end up voting for UKIP… Both groups are wrong in assuming that the others are getting preferential treatment and both need to wake up to the fact that it is the wealthy political and business classes (often one and the same) who are keeping all the poor in poverty.
But what are people to believe? What do you and I believe about anything? What we read and hear and see, that’s what. And if all you get to read, hear and see in the media is that ‘immigrants are taking your jobs’ and ‘immigrants are only here for the benefits’ what is a person supposed to believe? It doesn’t matter than these ‘facts’ are nothing of the sort but if you feed someone a lie for long enough they will believe almost anything. Sad but true.
To be continued with a more statistical post tomorrow…