Seeing Whiteness in “Colorblind” Scotland
Every time my partner and I move to a new city we take the time to search the racial demographics of where we are headed. For Lauren, as a black woman, the diversity of a city often reflects the probability of finding safe space along with other everyday complications like locating appropriate hair and skin products. Inversely, my white maleness allows me to navigate most new outposts in comfort without thinking about Maslow’s hierarchy. But as a couple, it is our practice to take note and be prepared. We had a feeling what Scotland would look like, so much so that we delayed our usual search, mentally preparing for our new adventure. When I finally did look it up, I saw that Scotland has a population that is only 4% Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME*), less than 1% of which is Black. The other 96% make up the whitest place we have ever lived.
Statistics aside, we read blog posts and heard from friends about how friendly and down to earth folks are in Scotland. Upon arriving, we did indeed take note of the homogeneity. So many red-headed Whites! We even found ourselves starring when we did finally see a person of color walking down the street. That said, we also immediately took note of a kind-hearted, jolly embrace. We live in a university-friendly area of town that more than likely has been weighted in our favor, but even in our travels outside of Edinburgh, we have generally been met with a friendliness and desire to engage. Three months in, Lauren has said she is experiencing a different feeling than the one she so often has in all White spaces in the States. “Less tense, and a curiosity of me that is void of contempt,” she said. Much of my work, including my Fulbright project, is grounded in a belief that educators need to confront the everyday interactions in our school communities that maintain structural inequality. This work starts with the impact White people have on our surrounding communities. How would my work and pedagogical approach translate in Scotland where the initial feeling of community comes off as much more accepting? What was this new feeling we were having in this all White space?
Recently we took a bright red Fiat 500 across UK’s island mass to Liverpool, England. We spent time at this port city’s well-known Albert Dock, which on it’s website has the tagline “Great things have been arriving here for centuries.” Hmmm. Interestingly enough, Liverpool was known as the slave trade capital of Europe for much of the 18th and 19th centuries. The International Slavery Museum located on the grounds of Albert Dock catalogues the U.K.’s long history with slavery, all the way through to the present day fight for racial justice.
Maybe it was the fact that we hadn’t preplanned this visit. Maybe it was the guttural shrieks from the walk-in audiovisual display of the ‘Middle-Passage Experience’. Or maybe even more so, it was our desire to run away from Trump’s America, to fall in to the colorblind malaise we had been met with in Edinburgh. Either way, our experience at Albert Dock felt like we were side-swiped by a semi-truck. Even with our prior knowledge with the slave trade and U.K.’s active role in it, we had landed here, only to be reminded that we were now just standing on a different point of the Triangle Trade.
The dock’s tagline has the audacity to proclaim “great things have been arriving here for centuries”. How do communities in our new land contend with the historical reality of slavery while at the same time allow for such examples of a misrepresentation of the past? How does history influence the lives of current residents? In the States, the institution of slavery spawned Jim Crow laws, solidifying racist housing and employment policies and giving birth to the present day school-to-prison pipeline. The data on current wealth gaps between White people and people of color alone tells anyone willing to open their eyes that structural inequality is still in full effect back home. What does the ripple effect look like in Scotland?
There is often a distinction made between Scotland and England in regard to the slave trade. Minna Liinpää points out, in her chapter, Nationalism and Scotland’s Imperial Past, that while relatively few voyages originated in Scottish ports, the connection to the slave trade runs deep. This connection is highlighted by Scottish investments in the trade – providing the financial capital needed to make the voyage – and a robust Scottish participation as merchants, clerks and in management positions both in the U.K. as well as in the Caribbean (Hamilton, 2012: 429, 430). Much of Glasgow was built on this wealth. In fact, one of my first meetings during this Fulbright period was held in the palatially marble Glasgow City Chambers, built off the merchant city’s tremendous influx of money through their direct connection to slavery and tobacco plantations in the States.
These historic truths have built the foundation for an unequal present. In 2016, a report titled, Scotland and Race Equality: Directions in Policy and Identity, was released. In this report Professor Nasar Meer makes it clear that the feeling of a post-racial Scotland clearly doesn’t align with the facts of day-to-day life for folks of color. He writes, “The experience of discrimination, however, is one that cuts across BAME experiences and appears to be under-reported”, noting that in a 2015 survey of 502 BAME respondents, 31% agreed with the statement “I have experienced discrimination in Scotland in the last 5 years” (p.11). This survey data is corroborated by numerous studies highlighting racist roots in housing, job procurement and policing.
Back home, although still highly segregated throughout our public institutions and schools in particular, racial diversity has continued to grow, where White people will soon be the overall minority. With this growth, we continue to have daily reminders of the state-sanctioned violence and killing of Black and Brown folks as well as a continuous barrage of incidents that scream at us that prejudice and discrimination are alive and well. We do have White Supremacists screaming back. And the millions of liberals (see New York) effectively maintaining systems of inequality through neoliberal policies and actions. But, amidst all of this, there is a strong voice of opposition demanding systemic change, led by the Movement for Black Lives, along with hundreds of other grassroots organizing campaigns across the country.
Whereas in Scotland, a dominant colorblind narrative seems to partially succeed because there is no critical mass of people of color. The narrative is further served by a more progressive governance and an overall push for broad-based multiculturalism. Dr Rowena Arshad exposes how this stance has actually made it even more difficult to do the foundational work of coming to terms with an unequal society. She writes:
“The messages are about multiculturalism, diversity and celebration of difference. These are all excellent messages and a carrot approach is both enabling and uplifting; however, such an approach has also allowed different forms of racism and racial discrimination (overt, covert, personal, cultural and institutional) to continue to be masked. The fact that the ‘majority’ (even though they might acknowledge racism exists) largely do not have personal experiences of racial prejudice, racial discrimination or racism has meant that the syllogism appears to be that the absence of racial incidents means all is well.”
(Scotland and Race Equality: Directions in Policy and Identity, pg.5)
The overwhelmingly White populous continues to operate under the belief that the carrot approach is enough, rarely hearing counter-narratives that tell a different story.
Facing history with blank stares:
In a recent conversation about restorative practice with two Scottish white men I explained my belief that the approach needed to be grounded in self-reflective work; how as White people, we need to confront our role in a racist society. As I pushed farther to highlight historic systems of oppression in the U.K. (as well as the U.S.) as a way to undergird my argument, I noticed that one man’s continuous head nods with what I was saying prior, quickly were replaced by a glazed-over-look. It was the ‘ooh, I was feeling what you were saying until I became implicated’ look. While I continue to visit schools and meet educators in positions from classroom teachers to school leaders, I am often met with this same look.
During my meetings I am always initially impressed by a clear sense of connection to the work as it relates to supporting students and families who live in poverty. This commitment is highlighted first by a caring and understanding tone, but backed up with a commitment to initiatives like free breakfast programs or a myriad of family engagement events to promote family participation in schooling. In these conversations however, which have almost exclusively been with white educators, I often try to probe a little further about their beliefs in developing a critical consciousness around issues of equity and racial/ethnic difference. I ask questions like, “how are teachers trained to work with students and families coming from different backgrounds?” or “do you find that teachers have the ability to recognize how their identity impacts those around them?”
I ask these questions as I look out to the recess yard where it is clear the 96% White Scotland is ever-changing as students with varying racial backgrounds run around. On occasion, I get a response like, “yes, we are becoming increasingly diverse” or something a bit more critical like “we do need to figure out how to spend more time thinking about our own background as educators.” But, more often than not, the conversation is directed back to issues pertaining to poverty or back to that all too familiar blank stare. And, don’t get me wrong, poverty is a systemic issue in need of intense work (work that is arguably more successful in Scotland than in the States), but I believe structural change, that truly challenges and shifts historic inequality, must start with an interrogation of our own place and impact, particularly as white educators working in communities with racial or ethnic minority populations. Or, in the case of the States, in the many communities where the majority is actually non-white.
Whiteness at work:
In the aforementioned report, Carol Young, the Senior Policy Officer for the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights (CRER) headquartered in Glasgow, speaks further to what I believe I have been experiencing, positing that there is a “… misframing of racism in wider society – racism is seen as an aberration, something linked primarily to far right movements or celebrity scandals rather than a mechanism that pervades social and organisational structures” (p.19). She goes on to explain that a true reckoning with racism in Scotland must be met with an understanding of whiteness – whiteness as a social construct used to highlight normative behavior, leading to the maintenance and exertion of power and privilege over non-white individuals and communities.
When whiteness pervades 96% of a society, what is implicit in the messages being sent to the other 4%? How is unconscious bias actually reinforcing the structures that are being pigeon holed as isolated, far right actions? More specifically, how are everyday teacher interactions in schools maintaining systems of inequality? When a White teacher nonchalantly says, “we are working them like slaves” (heard on a school visit), what impact does this have on students of color that may have overheard? Everyday microaggressions like these need to be met with acts of anti-racism from teachers and staff. Furthermore, much like in the States, there is a critical need for institutional decision makers to think outside of the omnipresent White power structure.
‘Getting my cousins’
I often get a headache thinking about the scope of the work in the United States. Even from a position of privilege I have found myself in my career up to this point. I have had the privilege of always working with a staff that is at least 50% folks of color. My immediate supervisors have all been women of color. My students and families have almost exclusively been Black and Brown. I have learned so much in these multiracial spaces, being held accountable and developing my skills as an ally. The work has always been about social justice and equity. I have had to spend every day, in some capacity, thinking about my place as a White man in not only the community in which I work but also in my home as a partner in an interracial marriage. I still continuously make mistakes and bring whiteness in to spaces that may be better off without it.
However, in focusing on my own daily self-reflection and being embraced by work and family, I have often failed to reach out directly to my white colleagues who need to be pushed the most. At least not to the degree I could. There is no falling back in to the racial diversity of Scotland. This country has positioned me to think about whiteness from a different vantage point. In the U.S. I am surrounded by multiracial communities that have the everyday lived experience of racial inequity rather than the overwhelmingly White population here that most often eludes critical conversations around race and racism.
This new community has, however, a willingness to engage with each other that we often do not experience in NYC amidst what feels like a continued polarization of values. Scotland has effectively distinguished itself as more collectivist in it’s decision making than the country just south and much of the world for that matter. As I continue to contend with the learned behaviors of blank stares or elusive responses, I am reminded that there is still an infrastructure here ripe for continual improvement. The scale alone can be seen as promising. Scotland has less school age (primary and secondary) students in the entire country than the number of students in New York City alone.
As I work through my Fulbright inquiry project arguing that the work of building equity-driven schools starts with self, I will continue to engage with others about the impact our identities, whiteness in particular, has on the students and families in our school communities. Scotland has provided a spark, a reminder, of the work I can’t hide from. When white supremacy continues to rear it’s ugly head in the States, friends and family often say to me, “Reed, get your cousins”. I may not be Scottish, but this time here has made clear that I have work to do with my extended family.